Making the Grade: Carla Swart
Superwoman of Collegiate Cycling won it all in 2008
The United States’ best-ever female collegiate cyclist is not an American.
But someday she might be.
South Africa’s Carla Swart, 21, just capped off a mind-boggling collegiate campaign, taking an unprecedented 11 national (both individual and team) titles in road, mountain bike, cyclocross and track. Grabbing that many jerseys in a single year is a feat that no collegiate racer ? man or woman ? has yet accomplished in the history of the National Collegiate Cycling Association.
In May, Swart — who attends Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina — sprinted to the Division I road race title, then took the overall women’s omnium en route to helping her school take the team crown. In August, Swart grabbed individual track titles in the 2km pursuit and the match sprint, which earned her the overall DI female title. Two months later she won both the cross-country and short track mountain bike titles, and the individual mountain bike omnium. And earlier this month, Swart took her final win at the USA Cycling national cyclocross championships in Kansas City.
That victory helped Lees-McRae squeak past perennial rivals Fort Lewis College in USA Cycling’s overall 2008 collegiate school title.
But Swart has had little time to relish her glory. She’s been preparing paperwork for special visa that might one day lead to permanent resident status, maybe even U.S. citizenship. The document, titled “Alien of Extraordinary Ability” (EB-1A) is based on an individual’s achievements.
“I’ve spent most of the last semester collecting newspaper clippings and medals and getting recommendations from people in the cycling world,” Swart told VeloNews. “It’s expensive and kind of annoying. I just sent like $1,500 of checks off to my lawyer. But once it’s done it will be worth it.”
Swart currently lives in the United States on a student visa. If she indeed becomes an Extraordinary Alien, she could get permanent U.S. residency in five years. A U.S. passport and citizenry could follow several years later.
But long-term goals aside, Swart hopes to get the document as soon as possible. That’s because next semester she’s planning to take some time off from school to pursue a life as a pro on the road.
Swart came to the United States in 2002 when her family moved from George, a small town on South Africa’s Western Cape, to Texas. A lifelong runner and amateur cyclist, she chose to attend Lees-McRae because of the school’s NCAA cross-country running team, and it’s varsity cycling program. Since 2006, Swart’s collegiate life has revolved around her sporting life.
She reported to Lees-McRae a week early for cross-country training camp. She spent the first months of school toeing the line at cross-country running, mountain bike and track cycling events. She’s raced in five national championship events and dozens of regional and conference races since May.
“Managing two sports along with school can get tough,” Swart said. “I hate getting anything less than an A, so sometimes I feel like I am compromising training just to get some extra school work done.”
If Swart is truly sacrificing her training time, it didn’t show this year. Swart helped the Bobcats win their conference in cross-country running, where she finished sixth. At collegiate road nationals, Swart was the only rider without a teammate to make the race’s final selection, then out sprinted her breakaway companions for the win.
At track nationals, Swart put her legs to the test, winning the pursuit and the match sprint. She also finished a close second in the points race. At mountain biking, Swart showed her bike handling skills, winning the short track and cross-country. She also raced the gravity events, and finished seventh in dual slalom and eighth in the downhill.
Swart came into the cyclocross championships knowing that a win could earn her school the overall national title for 2008. She also knew that as the omnium winner from the road, track and mountain bike championships, she was a marked woman.
“I was very tense on the starting line because I knew it was the last one I had to win in order to take four (national titles) in a year, and I didn’t think anyone had ever done that before,” Swart said. “I knew the likelihood of me getting a chance to do that again was pretty slim.”
Despite having taken a month off the bike in order to race the NCAA cross-country national championships, Swart dropped the rest of the women’s field on the second lap, then held on for the win.
The results on the bicycle confirmed a notion Swart had when she showed up at Lees-McRae: she has the talent to be a pro.
If Swart’s future holds possible U.S. citizenship, she’s not in a major hurry to get there. This spring Swart will compete in Europe on South Africa’s national road team, sponsored by the telecom company MTN. She’ll also do a select number of domestic U.S. events with the Lip Smackers women’s road squad.
“If everything goes well and my paperwork comes through, then I’ll do the UCI calendar, which is pretty exciting,” Swart said. “I’ve never tried that level of racing. I haven’t really ever been on the pro scene, just a handful of (NRC) races and the collegiate ones.”
If Swart’s rise maintains its current trajectory, she hopes to represent South Africa at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. And if she meets that goal, Swart believes the 2012 Olympics in London could be next.
“There’s a bunch of talent in (South Africa), but I still have a much better chance of representing (South Africa) in London,” Swart said. “I know that having these opportunities is a pretty big deal if you’re a woman in cycling. I’m just excited to see where I can go.”