Saturday, February 09, 2008
Roxanne Meyer's Ascendancy (Interview and PHOTOGRAPHY)
Interview with Roxanne Meyer
Something is wrong. The swimmer in the lane next to me is kicking my butt badly. I am swimming freestyle and she – yes, a sweet doll of a girl - is keeping pace with me, and she’s just kicking. I check under water for fins. No fins. I catch my breath. A naughty smile betrays that a lot is happening inside the pretty head of Roxanne Meyer. Nick van der Leek finds out more about this startling young talent.
NVDL: Is swimming tough?
Rox: Yes it is. Very. Everything about it is tough. It’s a very lonely sport. And the hours you have to spend in the water. It becomes very monotonous. But the end results… You do get those times… Look I suppose people have asked me, ‘Why do I do it?’ And for a long time there is like no reward. And then there’s this glimmer of light, and I swear, that makes it all worth it. You’ll do a race, and you might not win, but all that time you sacrificed to get that split second off…you learn to appreciate the little things. And that’s what I’ve learned to do, you know. Everything used to come so easy to me, when I was 11; I used to break records by 4 or 5 seconds. And if I didn’t improve the next time by the same amount I’d be like: ‘What the hell’s going on?’ Now if it’s half a second or a second I am so happy and grateful.
NVDL: Because it does seem designed to break virtually everyone. At the highest level, the difference between first second and third is such a tiny fraction, and then the rest are, you know, just forgotten.
Rox: Exactly. You have to be mentally strong in all aspects. Like race tough, and train tough –
NVDL: And cold tough.
Rox: Yes. Gees. And those mornings…
NVDL: I was sort’ve surprised – maybe not the right word – but it got me thinking when I asked you how your workout was when we were leaving, and you were like: ‘I enjoyed it.’ I thought you might have said ‘good’ then, or something. So that’s quite interesting.
Rox: Yes. I LOVE swimming. I just really… I think the thing is in general I over-analyse things a lot, in every situation. Swimming just gives me an opportunity…it helps me relax, to stop overanalyzing. I’m just free and all I have to do is count my lengths, up and down. And by the end I’m so revitalized. It also gives me clarity.
NVDL: So normally in the average week do you not train on one day?
Rox: I make it a point to do something on those days; like a spinning class. Because if you do extra it’s one extra day that no one else is using. It’s puts you like…one step ahead. That’s what I believe and I’m always going to do that. So for the past few months I’ve been training like that; so I have been training on a Sunday. So I have been training seven days a week, you know.
NVDL: It’s interesting isn’t it? There’s the rule of thumb that one needs to rest. On the other hand, you’re definitely not getting any faster when you’re sitting on the couch for the whole day…I mean, you’ve got to be going slightly backwards…and a lot of great sportsmen talk about active rest. You train less, but you never take a day off completely. It’s hardcore, but that’s what you’ve got to do. But you do have fun right? When you were in Cape Town you did go out sometimes didn’t you?
Rox: Like other normal nineteen year olds.
On The Beach
NVDL: And you say you went to the beach once; for just one day.
NVDL: What did you do on the beach?
Rox: I just tanned. I don’t go into the sea at all, ever.
NVDL: Why not?
Rox: Because I’m scared of sharks.
NVDL: That just doesn’t make any sense. You’re a swimmer.
Rox: I never go into the sea. The last time I went into the sea was like…
NVDL: Most people…like…er…. Hang on, let’s just put things into perspective: of all the people in the world, your odds of a shark actually catching up to you and chowing you…I dunno, but it’s something nuts like a gazillion to one against.
Rox: But I could be that person that gets bitten by a shark. I’m not going to take that chance.
NVDL: So when you’re at the beach you’re like someone that can’t swim. You sort’ve…
Rox: I just stand around. Maybe dip my toe in.
NVDL: That’s actually crazy; I hope you realize that.
Rox: Well I am just very scared of sharks. I’ll stand with my toes in the water but that’s as far as it goes. I won’t go further. Cos people have been bitten by sharks in ankle deep water.
NVDL: I think you need to loosen up.
Rox: No; well I don’t. I’m happy like this. It’s true. Because I’m careful. I don’t like to take chances.
NVDL: But you must have fun in the water.
Rox: But I have fun in other ways. I have LOTS of fun in my life.
Rox: I don’t have to go into the sea to have fun,
NVDL: How do you have fun? I’d like to know.
Rox: I go out, I meet new people, friends.
NVDL: So it’s a sort’ve socializing thing.
Rox: I thrive on socializing.
NVDL: Whose your favorite actress.
Rox: Who played in Million Dollar Baby?
NVDL: Hillary Swank.
Rox: Yes, definitely, by far. Because she’s just so versatile. To be a good actress you’ve got to play so many different roles. And she’s just…amazing.
NVDL: Mmm…she is…That was a powerful movie.
Rox: It’s not just that; we’ve seen her in so many different roles and she can be such a different person. Then there’s an actor like Hugh Grant that can’t play any other role. I mean he’s very funny whatever, but he just plays the same role in every every movie. The same guy, every time.
NVDL: And male actors?
Rox: Johnny Depp. By far.
NVDL: Mmm. He’s very good.
NVDL: What sort of role do you see for yourself as an actress?
NVDL: No you have to be more specific.
Rox: No; I love any part. I love to push myself. I’d love to try anything.
NVDL: Okay well what would you prefer; if I gave you a deck of cards and you got to choose…let’s say on one it said ‘political activist’ on another one it’s an ‘adventurer’, another one is I dunno, some kind of ‘romantic person’ whatever, and another was ‘business woman’…
Rox: Well if I could choose it would be a romantic role. But it would depend on the script. I’d like to do something totally different; so that people wouldn’t be able to associate [the role] with me at all, you know. So you change yourself. I really like the idea of going into a mental asylum, you know, and really completely transforming yourself.
NVDL: So what you’re saying is you’re NOT mad. Although you swim 14 kilo-
Rox: No; I’m saying I just love that whole idea of doing such in depth research to change yourself. That’s what I’d love to do.
NVDL: Okay can I ask you a difficult question?
NVDL: An Oscar, or a medal at the Olympics?
Rox: [Makes a long funny noise]. Well, it’s like obvious… The first thing that comes to mind…and my first love; definitely an Oscar.
NVDL: Okay. Which swimmer is South Africa’s next Ryk?
Rox: I’d say…it’s between two people. Jean Basson and Wesley Gilchrist.
NVDL: What about your brother.
Rox: No well that’s too far away.
On Being On Top (And Staying There)
NVDL: So you’re 8 years old, you’ve made Griqualand West, then what?
Rox: I moved to Joburg when I was 10 or 11 and started swimming with Vivienne Kukard in Krugersdorp. At that stage we trained very hard. We did so much mileage. I think what also helped me is we did lots of sprint work. Everything was very hard, and sets were on specific times. I was very young and I got very thin very quickly. And so when I was 11 I broke the South African records in the 100m backstroke, 200m backstroke by a couple of seconds. I broke CGA records in other things like 200m IM and whatever…
Rox: But from the beginning it was backstroke, and I qualified for senior nationals in the backstroke at the age of 11. I’m still the youngest ever swimmer to have done that in South Africa.
Rox: And then four or five months after I broke the SA record I met up with Dean [her present coach] in Joburg. He told me I had talent, and I must start training with him; he said the coaching I was getting was wrong. I was getting very thin. People were worried that I was anorexic. Because I was very hard on myself. I didn’t eat junk. You see, at a young age that’s what I wanted; I wanted to be the best swimmer.
Dean said I was too young to go for senior nationals, so I went when I was 12 [She was still the youngest person in the team at that stage].
I think I even made a final, so I did well you know: it was crazy. And then when I was 13 or 14 I got out of the pool and Dean said: “Your body is starting to look like a pear-shape.’ And it kind’ve blew my mind. You know, I didn’t understand what was happening. And I wasn’t bad yet, but I was 13 now and I was still doing the same times when I was 11. I was still top in my age, everything was fine, I just wasn’t improving any more. But by mid to late 13 people started catching up; they were definitely catching me.
I used to win everything at Gauteng Champs, you know, 50 breast, 50 back – because we only swam 50’s – and then I couldn’t swim breaststroke any more. And then 13, 14, 15, 16 I just went through the worst phase.
[She reflects for a moment] So for the past five years I’ve had a dip, you know – I’ve only just started getting better again now – and I lost what I actually wanted to do. Because for the past while I’ve felt like I’ve achieved nothing. And at that stage [at age 11] I felt like I was on the top, and everyone was like: ‘Wow, this is the next up and coming swimmer’. So I felt like I just went through this very long plateau.
NVDL: So have you come out of it now?
Rox: At 18, last year, I started feeling like I’m coming back. But even with my hips I was getting second places now at June Nationals. So yes, this year I really feel good. But [for a long time I hadn’t had any opportunities to really show myself…except for the World Cup and SA Short Course where I started getting medals.
NVDL: It is quite unusual that you started swimming at 8. Some would say that’s quite late. I started at 4. But the fact is you did a helluva lot of work from the get-go and that kicked you up damn quickly, but that must have had some sort of a cost. And your body is changing. Isn’t the age that they recommend you start swimming 6 or something?
Rox: I’m not sure. Roeland started at 16.
NVDL: And Jean Marie started quite late.
Rox: It’s basically talent, and feel for the water. The main thing with swimming is strength-weight ratio. I believe that fully.
NVDL: And height?
Rox: No. Strength-weight. Look at my brother. My brother can swim faster than most huge guys, because he’s got a very good strength-weight ratio in the water. It’s what you can pull in the water; do you know what I mean?
NVDL: That’s interesting.
Rox: Like Jessica Pengelly at the moment has got a boy’s body. It’s true; I promise you. She has no signs of hips or anything. And that’s when you swim at your best. I was the same, and I think I would have developed earlier, if I hadn’t trained so hard with Vivienne, which just stopped everything in my body right then.
On Life Apart From Swimming
NVDL: And non-swimming?
NVDL: What have you achieved non-swimming. How long is the list of boyfriends?
Rox: [Laughs]. Well, I was very active. I made Gauteng biathlon, and I made the Protea team in hockey. I actually made the team, I went to SA trials and made the team; but then I couldn’t swim. I loved hockey. I thought I would go on to play hockey… And then I suppose my major achievements at school were my seven distinctions, and then my drama.
NVDL: I heard you were very good at maths and science especially…
Rox: Well I wasn’t but I worked very, very hard. But I did 20 pass papers for maths, and 25 for science, and each one is about 3 hours…
NVDL: That’s absurd.
Rox: [Laughs] It’s insane. I don’t know how I managed.
NVDL: Your mom was saying that your brother was saying: ‘Why can’t you just get 80. Why must you get 95, or whatever…’ So you are really driven hey?
Rox: I wanted to be the best; and it was just so hard at Crawford, because everyone… I remember the twins, Emm and Judd, they used to compete and get 99%,and that’s what drove me. I wanted to be like that. But in matric, what I’m really happy about, I trained every single day. Even during my matric finals, I’d go at 5 in the morning and then go and write my finals. It may have been to my detriment [academically] but I wanted to make sure that I trained every day. So I did.
NVDL: You say you did drama?
Rox: [Shy smile]
NVDL: Are you blushing?
Rox: I did drama for five years at school, but I started showing myself more…
NVDL: You took your clothes off?
Rox: [Laughs] No, like, showing my talents. I used to be so shy. But in grade 11 I was like, ‘I don’t care’. And then at Greenside High School there was an inter-schools play festival, and I won the award [best actress] for my role in a play I produced, directed and acted in. It was called ‘The Lesson’. And there Tara, another person involved, and she won best supporting actress, and then there was a girl called Carol, who played a maid, who didn’t really do anything. But we just appointed her as the maid and she was brilliant; she turned out to be really good too.
NVDL: Is that all? I mean, haven’t you achieved anything else?
Rox: [Chuckles] Ja so I got like 96% for drama.
NVDL: I’m just joking… And for this year, what are Roxanne’s goals for 2008?
Rox: [Pauses] I’ve streamlined it to this: Qualifying for the Olympics and going overseas to study. I first thought of going to Wits…
NVDL: So your goals are Qualifying for the Olympics and going to university in the States. On a scholarship.
Rox: Yes. A few universities are interested in me. I’ll be finding out in a few weeks whether I’ve won the scholarship, and where I’ll be going. I’ve got my heart set on Berkeley right now. I’ve looked up the coach there, and she coaches Natalie Coughlin. Amazing coach.
NVDL: You’ve mentioned Natalie Coughlin a lot.
Rox: She’s my role model. Definitely.
Rox: Because of the things she’s gone through. She’s gone through so much to get to where she is. To break those world records. And even when she broke those world records things didn’t go perfectly for her. People think her whole life is perfect and she’s so talented and everything; she is talented…
NVDL: So you admire her struggle.
Rox: Yes, definitely. Just the way she came through it, you know.
NVDL: And you’re reading her story right now; what’s it called?
Rox: Golden Girl.
NVDL: So what are we going to call your book?
Rox: [Laughs] I don’t know. Platinum Girl.
NVDL: What inspires you?
Rox: Anything? What do you mean?
NVDL: Just answer the question. Don’t think about it…For example, every day you’ve got to get up and swim. Right? So what do you see that makes you think, ‘Wow, that’s hardcore.’ What inspires you to do what you’re doing?
Rox: I don’t know. It’s like the hardest question I’ve ever had to answer.
NVDL: Well, you’ve already–
Rox: What inspires you?
NVDL: What inspires me? You inspire me. Your strength. Your consistency.
Rox: A person?
NVDL: I’m inspired by courage. Courage isn’t just standing up to a lion. Courage is also saying – saying something and then going and doing it. And to give you an example…of what really inspired me…recently, was Gabreselassie. This guy’s gotten world records in almost every distance. And before he ran the marathon…and you know he said, the marathon is the king; it’s the ultimate running race. And then he set out to get the world record in that. He said: “To show that I am a true champion in this sport, I’ll be able to get the world record in this race” – the marathon. Then he gave a lot of interviews before the Berlin marathon. He made it perfectly clear what he was intending to do. So he said this before he went. He did all the training and obviously he had all the confidence from his preparation to be able to say that.
NVDL: But before the fact, to say that…I mean, you know to run a marathon in 2:04 or whatever his time was, is a helluva difficult. You don’t just say I’m going to run a world record and then go and do it. But that’s exactly what he did.
NVDL: And he did it because of the way that he trained knowing exactly what he had to do and why he was doing it. And I’ve got tremendous respect for that.
NVDL: That inspires me. Where you can make a simple declaration…
Rox: And follow through.
NVDL: Confidence, courage and strength to back it up.
Rox: I think the thing that inspires me most is resilience in people. The way you can be completely down and then just pick yourself up. Because so many people have done that, and because that’s what’s happened in my life.
NVDL: You’ve mentioned Natalie Coughlin.
Rox: Ja, Natalie du Toit too. Gee. That is amazing. When she got in the water the first time she was swimming around in circles. And now she’s breaking world records and even swimming with able-bodied swimmers, and beating half of them. So yes, resilience.
NVDL: Do you ever get negative?
Rox: [Immediately] Ja. That’s like my first…like my defence mechanism.
NVDL: And how do you deal with it?
Rox: I just think of how hard I’ve worked. I think: “Surely one day it should pay off.” You know? My first thing is to just give up. I actually can’t do this any more, I’m going to give up. And then after thinking about it realistically I’ve actually [already] given up so much for like…this one thing. Or like, whatever. I’ve come to far…you know?
NVDL: Well it’s a psychology of previous investment.
NVDL: How much have you already put in.
Rox: And it should pay off eventually. Well, I believe.
NVDL: You say you’re going to the States; what are you going to study?
Rox: Well thank goodness in the States they have two years where it’s broad study. You can choose a whole bunch of options. I’m interested in doing Chartered Accountancy but I love drama, so I’m definitely going to do something in those two fields.
NVDL: Is Berkeley in Hollywood?
Rox: No, I think it’s in LA.
NVDL: But at least your university and Hollywood are in the same state.
NVDL: What are you reading right now?
Rox: Natalie Coughlin’s book. I haven’t finished it.
On Off and On Days
NVDL: What was your best day ever?
Rox: There’s no way I can answer that. I’ve had so many best days.
NVDL: Name one.
Rox: [Thinks for a long time]. Probably the day when I won that thing with The Lesson. There was a whole build-up to it. And the whole day we’d been practicing. And we’d had a pre-run with the teachers. I’d say that was probably one of the best days of my whole life. And just that feeling at the end…because you see, the thing is, we gave a two other performances and the judges said [for the first one] I got two angry too quickly and then the next night I was too loud and then for the third one we brought it all together perfectly. And we won. And I found I just grew into that role; into that character.
NVDL: Mmm. And over a short period of time. How has swimming helped you?
Rox: Well it’s really helped me to like [puts on a fake American drawl] stay away from drUHgs [chuckles]. It’s given me a focus in life and definitely helped my-
NVDL: So you’re not on steroids, stimulants, ephedrine…
Rox: No. It’s given me a goal in life, basically. It’s helped me keep fit and in shape, which is a big thing. And it’s opening doors.
It certainly has. Roxanne has recently performed in a short movie scene with lots more happening on the side. Her next big race is in Pretoria soon, watch this space for details.