International student athlete Peggy de Villiers overcomes challenges while breaking records

By Tom Moore
Contributing Writer

sports

UWF swimmers Theresa Michalak (left) and Peggy de Villiers (right) celebrate their individual and team wins in last week’s NSISC Swimming and Diving Championships.
Photo courtesy UWF Athletics.

University of West Florida swimmer Peggy De Villiers started swimming at age 12 and has always been a strong athlete. Her parents urged her to get into swimming because she had always had a natural talent for it.

In addition to swimming in her native South Africa, De Villiers also competed in water skiing, horse riding, motor biking and hockey; but in high school, she found she loved swimming so much that she to committed herself to it exclusively and went on to not only set school records, but break world records. Now UWF claims the senior as our own.

But De Villiers is different from other UWF swimmers – she has only about 30 percent of her hearing.

“I got bacterial meningitis when I was 6 months old,” De Villiers said. “After I finally recovered, I had lost 80 percent of my hearing.” She said she never really paid any attention to it, and never considered it a disability. “It was just part of who I am,” she said. “I never really thought of it more than that.”

De Villiers wears a hearing aid and has developed efficient communication skills with it on. She said she currently has about 30 percent of her hearing without the use of a hearing aid.

But regardless of this challenge, she was able to not only break many of her high school swimming records; she also competed in club swim teams. De Villiers lettered all four years at Somerset Collegiate High School while recording a time of 22.98 in the 50 freestyle. She also set five individual Provincial Junior Swimming Records during this time. At age 15 she tried out for the Summer Olympic Games, missing the qualification speed by a mere .36 seconds.

Once she graduated high school, she reviewed her options. She wanted to continue swimming, but South Africa didn’t offer any scholarships for student athletes. She packed up in search of better academic opportunities and left for the United States in 2013.

Arriving in the United States in the dead of winter, her first stop was Drury University in Springfield, Missouri.

“I absolutely hated it,” she said. “It was cold, flat, grey and snowy. Not my climate at all.  And nowhere to swim.”

She started a serious online quest for a university that offered a well-balanced curriculum, was reasonably priced, had a good athletic program, was warm and on the coast, with welcoming people who wanted her to be there. “I found it all here at UWF,” De Villiers said.

“I fell in love with UWF as soon as I saw it,” she said. “Ultimately it was my future coach, Andrew Hancock, that drew me to the school. He treated me like he cared a lot about each individual’s needs not just as a swimmer, but also as an athlete and a person. I really need that kind of personal care to reach my full potential.”

That personal care and De Villiers’ own drive, hard work and determination, as well as a dose of raw natural talent, has led her to dominating the sport of swimming, not only at UWF or the state of Florida, but nationally as well. Twice she has broken the world record for the women’s 50 fly: first with a 28.40 in prelims, and second with a 28.28 in the medal final. That takes nearly a full second off the record, which stood at 29.16 from Pernilla Kile in 2009.

Additionally, De Villiers has been a member of the South African Deaflympics team since 2007 and holds the deaf world swimming record in the 50 backstroke at 31.11.

“Peggy’s is an inspirational story,” said UWF swimming and diving Head Coach Andrew Hancock. “It’s been an incredible learning opportunity for our team to see her focus every day on the opportunities that she has rather than what she doesn’t have.”

Maintaining this level of extreme athleticism is intense, and when she’s not in class, she’s at the pool.

“I work out three to four hours a day, nine times a week. Three times a week I work out with a special weight training regimen adjusted to the swim specialty. Then I work out six times a week in the pool. The pool training varies. I do mostly sprint swim workouts, then sometimes my coach has me do longer, but slower, ‘recovery’ workouts.” All this is coupled with the requirement of maintaining at least a 2.6 GPA and not missing more than three practices a week.

“I feel really fortunate to be able to do this,” De Villiers said. “I get a full ride, including a housing allowance to go to school, and I get to do what I love while I do it.”

De Villiers said the most important thing for maintaining and increasing her skills is simple.

“Consistency is the key. Once you start, you don’t ever stop. You may be tired, you may feel sick, but you can’t ever stop or it’s that much harder to get back to your peak level. In the end, it’s better stay a little lower on the performance curve, and maintain consistency, than to do a whole lot one day and a lot less the next. Your body needs slow, steady, but constant progress. At least mine does.”

When asked what her ultimate dream competition is, she said, “I want just one more shot at the Olympics. If I win Nationals [March 8 and 9 in Indianapolis], I’m going to do one more tryout for the 2016 World Olympics. There would be no greater honor than compete in the Olympics. After that, I would hang up my swimsuit and focus on my career.”

Most recently, De Villiers traveled with the Argos swim and dive teams to Cleveland, Mississippi, Feb. 17-20 to compete in the New South Intercollegiate Swim Conference Championships. The team placed first in the entire meet, and De Villiers took first in both the 100 freestyle and the 4×100 freestyle relay.

After she graduates, she said she wants to pursue her Master’s Degree.

“I am going to transfer to University of San Diego, and study Public Relations with a minor in Abnormal Psychology. Upon graduation, I want to work in Public Relations as a Sports Agent.”

See more of De Villiers’ swimming stats and records on goargos.com. To see a video of de Villiers reflecting on life as a student-athlete with a hearing impairment, click here.