After her first-ever race in a New Zealand pool, Ali Galyer will wear the silver fern at next month’s world swimming championships.

Yes, you read that right. The 20-year-old Galyer – who came all the way from Lexington, Kentucky, to swim in the NZ Open championships in Auckland yesterday – went under the world qualifying mark for the 200m backstroke in her morning heat.

Until that moment, she’d never competed in a race in New Zealand before.  

The Australian-born, US-raised college swim star has already represented New Zealand on the world stage, by virtue of having a Kiwi dad. 

But she knew she had to actually swim in this country, and swim under the 2m 11.53s qualifying mark, if she wanted to compete at the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea, in July.  

And with a home-made cheer squad of 12 – made up of her parents and Kiwi aunts, uncles and cousins (most of whom had never seen her swim competitively before) – Galyer swam better than the time required, twice. First in the morning’s heat in 2m 10.61s, and then going even faster in the evening’s final, 2m 09.78s – just 0.65s outside Melissa Ingram’s 10-year-old national record. 

Kiwi water seems to agree with her. 

Galyer has lived all but the first three of her 20 years in the United States. But her dad, Roy – who still has a decent Kiwi accent – grew up in the Bay of Plenty and made sure his two daughters were taught all he knew about New Zealand culture, and encouraged to watch the All Blacks, as they grew up.

As Galyer’s swimming talent blossomed at the University of Kentucky, where she’s about to start her senior year, she explored whether she could swim for her father’s home country.

“I knew this was the only place I wanted to swim for,” Galyer says. “It means a lot to me. I’ve never thought of myself as being American because I didn’t have any part in America; I just grew up there.”

Galyer actually has citizenship for four nations – New Zealand, the US, Australia and Canada, where her mother, Sandy, grew up. “I’ve been blessed being able to learn all about each culture,” she says.

But it’s New Zealand that she’s chosen to represent in sport.

Out of nowhere, she was a late – and a little controversial – addition to the New Zealand team for last year’s Pan Pacific championships in Tokyo.

At the time Galyer came onto Swimming NZ’s radar, she was the fifth-ranked 200m backstroker in the US. Swimming at last year’s US trials, she lifted her world ranking to 17th (based on two swimmers per nation). There were those taken aback by her fast-track into the team, never having competed for, or even in, New Zealand before. 

“I turned up to a training camp in Kobe, Japan, with five other Kiwi swimmers, and they were very welcoming, despite the fact this random girl was coming to swim in their team,” Galyer says.

She finished eighth in the final of the 200m backstroke, and swam a personal best in the 100m backstroke heats, finishing 12th overall.

So how did Galyer end up living in America but wanting to be a Kiwi? The trail begins with Roy Galyer, the youngest of seven children, who followed his three brothers to Brisbane, and started working in the mining industry. His work then took him to the States and in 2001, the family moved to Greenville, South Carolina; Ali was three and her sister, Danielle, five.  

The Galyer girls remained close to their Kiwi grandmother, who “lives in Australia but is a very parochial Kiwi,” Roy says. “She wanted to come over and watch Ali swim in Auckland, but she just turned 90 and wasn’t feeling spry enough.”

Before now, Galyer had only been to New Zealand twice – once as a toddler and then three years ago, when she graduated from high school. It was a family tradition: she could choose anywhere in the world to take a friend for a month. “She was adamant it would be New Zealand,” her father says.

The funny thing is, Galyer’s trip “home” coincided with the Rio Olympics, so she spent most of her time glued to the TV. Now she’s back and fixed on the idea of swimming at next year’s Olympics.

She’s wanted to swim in New Zealand before now, but college swimming commitments made it difficult, she says. Right now, she’s on summer break before her final year at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Studying marketing and international business, Galyer is considering moving to New Zealand when her education is done. “I wanted to do international business because I have four citizenships, and so much experience travelling. Coming back here to train and work is definitely on the cards,” she says.

But first, she wants to leave a real impression on US collegiate swimming – as her sister did five years before her.

Like her younger sister, Danielle Galyer was a backstroke specialist. She made history as the University of Kentucky’s first swimming national champion, winning the 200-yard backstroke at the 2016 NCAA championships. She was also chosen as a member of the US national swim team, and reached the second trial for the Rio Olympics.

“She’s been the best role model for me,” Ali says. “We have a very special relationship.” Rarely a day goes by when Ali doesn’t check in with Danielle, who’s in the final stages of a law degree, but no longer swimming competitively.

“She understands what I’m going through as a swimmer, and it’s nice to have someone to talk to on the good days and the bad.”

Danielle’s senior year at Kentucky was Ali’s freshman year, so they got to swim together in the South Eastern Conference (SEC) 200 back final. “We swam in the lanes next to each other in her last-ever race,” the younger Galyer sister says. “She came over and hugged me before we swam, in front of the camera.”

It was their mother who introduced them to swimming, first in baby classes in Brisbane, then to neighbourhood summer league meets on Thursday evenings in Greenville.

Galyer laughs recalling her older sister trying out for a swimming club and her three-year-old self screaming to join too. “I jumped in the pool and started swimming… the rest was history.”

At the University of Kentucky, Galyer – three-time First-Team All-American (for college swimmers who made the national finals) – is part of a strong team of 35 female swimmers. “The dedication you see in young women athletes is very inspiring; knowing the person next to you is giving 110 percent spurs you on to give 110 percent,” she says.

Her room-mate Asia Seidt is also her closest rival. They finished 1-2 at the last SEC championships, and it’s Galyer’s goal to finish in the top five at the next NCAA champs. With so many swimmers from around the world on US scholarships, it’s like competing in an international meet, she says.

But, first, she has a training camp on the Gold Coast with Olympic freestyler Emma Robinson, before joining the rest of the New Zealand team in Kobe before the world champs. Her ultimate goal is, of course, next year’s Olympics in Tokyo.

“The Olympics are everyone’s dream when they’re little. For me it was an out-there dream. But now it’s more realistic,” she says.

And if she makes it to the Tokyo Games, she will do so, she says, as a proud Kiwi. “When I got my first kit of New Zealand gear, it was just super cool to wear the silver fern.”

* Paralympian Sophie Pascoe broke two world records – in the 50m free and the 100m backstroke – on the opening night of the Aon NZ Open swimming championships, proving her dramatically different training regime is working. 

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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