by Ralph Staniforth

HEALTHY LIFESTYLE

From pool to podium

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When it comes to swimming, South Africa has never been short of talent. Over the years the pools around the globe have supplied the country with many medals at some of the biggest events on offer—and this continues today.

Following on from the previous generations of Penny Heyns, Ryk Neethling, Roland Schoeman and Natalie du Toit, South Africa continues to produce the talent—the latest sensation being Chad le Clos.

However, there are those young swimmers who have come through the ranks and are producing results nationally, and slowly closing the gap on the elite crowd.

Jessica Ashley-Cooper is one of these swimmers and she sat down with Leaders in Wellness to discuss her journey and how she stays in shape.

Born in Port Elizabeth, Ashley-Cooper moved to Durban at a young age. Back then her mother sent her for lessons for safety reasons; however, her love for the sport started to grow. While her first title was at the age of six, she started taking it seriously in high school when she dropped most of her other sports to concentrate on the pool.

Staying fit and healthy is a struggle for many people in today’s world. The stresses of life can take away the motivation to keep in good shape, but for Ashley-Cooper, there is no other alternative. Swimming is a demanding exercise that requires not only a healthy, fit and strong body, but a healthy mind, too.

She says that healthy eating remains an important part of her day. On top of the vitamins and supplements, she loves eating pasta and fruit.

In order to continue growth and competitiveness at an elite level you have to show complete commitment to the cause. Ashley-Cooper says she spends two hours swimming every afternoon while she gyms in the morning.

“On weekends I normally swim competitively and try to live a normal life. Because I’m a sprinter I need to spend a lot of time in the gym working on my strength and explosiveness, thus I don’t swim in the mornings, like the longer distance swimmers would.”

Earlier this year, Ashley-Cooper was part of the South Africa Commonwealth Games team, and managed to make the semi-final of her event, the 100m backstroke.

“They wanted me to go to the Games to focus on the relay and because that was on the last day they didn’t want me entering too many races, so I had to choose one.” The South African team finished fifth in the relay.

While medals have been forthcoming on home soil at national events, Ashley-Cooper has her eyes set on much higher prizes. Still young, her ambition is shining as brightly as ever. It is with a sudden spark of excitement that she speaks of the possibility of qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

“That is my goal now; I want to go to the Olympics.”

While the official qualifying times are yet to be released, Ashley-Cooper is concentrating on the qualifying times for the 2012 Olympics and according to her, she must cut “one more second off her current time” in order to achieve that goal.

All the hard work and pressure will come to a boil in April 2016 at the SA Nationals when the qualifying time must be swam in order to qualify for Rio—Ashley-Cooper says, “It is going to take a lot more hard work. I feel like I can give more in the coming months to cut off that second. If I put the hard work in, I’m confident.”

Another hurdle for Ashley-Cooper to overcome is that of funding. As with most of the lesser known sports in South Africa, swimmers struggle to get funding.

While swimming consistently proves to be one of the biggest feathers in the South African cap on the sporting front, many of its participants, including Ashley-Cooper, don’t receive funding for all their events; she has to self-fund many of them.

Ashley-Cooper spent six months in America after finishing school and she feels that many, if not all the young, upcoming swimmers should go over there for a while to experience it.

“Their facilities over there are very good and it would be a great experience for our swimmers to test themselves against young people from another country. If you’re good now, those facilities can make you amazing.”

A degree in marketing from Varsity College ensures that Ashley-Cooper has not put all her eggs in one basket.

At the young age of 22, Ashley-Cooper is a future star in the making, possibly the next sensation waiting to happen, and she could be another medal hopeful in future Olympics.

When asked, Ashley-Cooper refuses to write off a chance of a medal in Rio. While the wait to qualify continues, she says, “I will never say there is no chance, you never know what happens. I will remain positive about my chances; there is no point flooding my mind with negativity, there is always hope.”

Asked what advice she can offer people with similar ambitions, or just healthy tips, she says, “All I will say is that living a healthy lifestyle is key; exercise, stay active and eat healthy. Talent will come to the fore at the right time.”

In December this year Ashley-Cooper has the FINA World short course, a self-funded event, and we wish her well on her journey further. The podium awaits…

Ralph Staniforth

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