The SA open water record holder is preparing for the 33km English Channel marathon swim
During the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games when Michael Phelps won a record eight gold medals, a young South African swimmer, Michelle Weber, set her expectations to qualify for the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
When she failed by 10 seconds short of the 800m mark to qualify, Weber was shattered.
She was ready to call it quits, but after a short spell, her coach told her to quit whining and get back into the pool.
Losing was somewhat foreign to Weber. At the age of 14 she swam in the South African Youth Championships, where she won gold and broke records in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle events.
For the past two decades, Weber wakes up at 4.30am, travels from Franschhoek to Stellenbosch and starts her training at 6am. After two hours in the pool, she heads to the gym for an hour, followed by a full working day. She then has an afternoon session and coaches a few swimmers, before she heads back home, around 6pm, to cook a healthy meal.
She took part in the senior national championships and broke the 1 500m SA age group record in a time of 16 minutes and 35 seconds in 2012, which allowed her to qualify for her first FINA World Championships. Five months later, she again lowered her own record to 16 minutes and 27 seconds, making her the third fastest 1 500m female swimmer in South African history.
She was 15, turning 16 at the time, so it was unlikely that her support group would allow her to quit. Rather, she shifted her focus to open water swimming.
The Umhlanga Rocks born swimmer competed at the Junior World Championships in Canada in 2012. She won her first world title and was fixated on the adventures that open water swimming gave. Searching for events across South Africa, Weber and her family took plenty of road trips to compete on any available weekend.
Of course, her sacrifices paid off. She has been a part of the South African Elite Squad for the past 10 years where she’s competed at numerous world championships; defended 16 national titles in the 5km and 10km open water events, claimed gold at the Junior World Championships and won four CANA African Games titles.
As if that was not enough, the 25-year-old South African champ has participated at two Olympic Games, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and in Tokyo in 2020.
“I guess you have to find your ‘why’ and the reason for doing this. I mean, I was a little girl when I started swimming. I think for a long time I didn’t really know, I just wanted to go to the Olympics. In 2016 I took a gap year and went to my first Olympic Games. Going for the second one you are like ‘why do it again?’ but I guess it is being in the water and doing something I love every day,” she said.
After swimming from Cape Town to Robben Island a couple of times, Weber started an online coaching platform as well as the Share-A-Lane swimming project where she aids young swimmers and swimmers with special needs around the city. One of her dedicated swimmers has autism. She is training and preparing to achieve her goal of swimming to Robben Island.
“Now that I am older I can do things like Robben Island and the English Channel. I get to meet a lot of amazing, fun, crazy, diverse and special people. So I am glad I chose open water swimming,” she said.
Although her main goal is set for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, Weber has shifted her mindset to her biggest challenge to date; the English Channel, where she will represent South Africa, later this year. The English Channel is dubbed the world’s most historically significant and iconic marathon swim, it is a 33km swim between England and France.
“I want to go to the Paris Olympic Games in 2024. It is not about going to the Olympics, it is more about the journey of getting there — the sacrifices and decisions you make to make sports alive for the people around you,” she said.
“Don’t ever give up on your dreams — whatever you set yourself doing. It is not something you are seeing, it is God showing you what you are capable of — you just need to go out, do the work and find a way there. It is hard but when God gives you a vision, you have to follow it,” said Weber.