She may have missed the cut to swim at her second Olympics in Tokyo, but now Helena Gasson is the only Kiwi breaking records on the international stage, Dave Crampton reports.
Helena Gasson has no idea when she will be back in New Zealand. She’s one of many Kiwi athletes competing overseas who are unable to secure an MIQ spot to return home to.
At the end of last month, Gasson and her partner and coach, Michael Weston, escaped Auckland’s lockdown for Italy to compete for the LA Current team at the International Swimming League (ISL). The league started in Naples on August 26.
The couple are a bit anxious. Weston’s five-year-old son is staying with his mother in Auckland.
“It’s very stressful, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now. There’s no other way we can do it,” Gasson told LockerRoom.
“It’s a scary time to be travelling, not knowing when we are going to come back. It’s not a decision we’ve made lightly. I don’t know how it will affect my performance, but I’ve done it before.”
Gasson wanted to continue where she left off after setting 13 New Zealand records in backstroke, individual medley and butterfly at the 2020 ISL in Hungary last November.
“I hope I can keep it up,” she said. “My times are not what I want them to be – I want to be competitive with the rest of the world.”
She’s certainly heading in the right direction.
Swimming jetlagged, Gasson set three further New Zealand Open records in Italy – two in 50m butterfly, one in 100m butterfly – and just missed a backstroke record.
“Forty-six hours of travel hurt; then we had two days until she raced. Very tough,” Weston said soon afterwards. “But I’m proud of her.”
Established in 2019, the ISL is now an 11-team professional swimming league with 350 of the world’s top swimmers, in a team-based competition format with fast-paced race sessions. Swimmers have Covid tests every few days and must wear face masks at the pool when they’re not swimming.
The ISL offered hope and kept Gasson in the sport, both mentally and physically.
In late 2018, Gasson – the only New Zealander to have held national swimming records in four swimming disciplines – was close to hanging up her 20 swimsuits for good after being well off any finals at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
Then it was announced a four-team international swimming league would be set up with prizemoney. That turned into an eight-team series in 2019. When Covid postponed the Olympics the following year, it hit Gasson hard.
“I think I would have quit after Commonwealth Games – my career wasn’t working, and I don’t think I would have continued,” she said. “And [lockdowns] would have affected me if I wasn’t going to the ISL.
“The ISL has saved my career.”
It’s assisted Weston’s career too. Weston, who has an MBA and a Bachelor of Sports Science from Massey University, was asked to be LA Current’s paid assistant coach this season, even though he’s only been a swimming coach for three years.
LA Current is coached by former US Olympic head coach David Marsh, who has coached 49 Olympians from 19 different countries.
“David just rang me one day and asked me if I wanted to do it. They still wanted me to go even if Lena didn’t,” Weston said. “It’s going to be a surreal experience; it’s something you are not going to get as a coach in New Zealand, seeing how the rest of the world are doing things.
“I wouldn’t be going if I wasn’t a coach.”
It’s clear the ISL has not only given Gasson and Weston a focus, but it’s kept both in the sport at a high level. Gasson has a goal of getting faster and attending each ISL.
As well as her 13 ISL records last year, she set seven NZ open records at the 2019 nationals – twice as many Open records than all other New Zealand swimmers combined.
She clearly wants more.
This year already she has set a further eight records, collecting $750 from Swimming New Zealand for each record. One, a 100m individual medley, was set in the first session of last month’s New Zealand short course championships. She clocked 58.78s, knocking more than half a second off her record set the previous month, in a time equal to sixth place at the last world championships.
She was unable to attempt to lower that time, though, as the championships were cancelled an hour before her evening final due to the nationwide Covid lockdown.
The cancellation was an abrupt end to a challenging period in New Zealand waters.
In April and May, Gasson trialled for the Tokyo Olympics, but missed all qualifying times due to a shoulder injury. (She didn’t swim at the 2019 world championships, a qualifying competition). With the 2020 trials being cancelled and the Olympics postponed, she had to trial this year while injured. She came just 0.12s short of the Olympic qualifying standard in her favoured 200m individual medley.
“The shoulder’s still not 100 percent, and I don’t know if it ever will be,” she says. “If I don’t overdo it, it will be fine.”
As a member of the fourth-placed LA Current team in last year’s ISL, Gasson earned US$15,000 (NZ$21,500) in prizemoney and qualified in eight swims – 200m/400m individual medley, 50m/100m/200m butterfly, 50m/100m/200m backstroke – for the world short course championships to be held in December in Abu Dhabi.
New Zealand may not be sending a team; Australia has already decided not to send an official team due to Covid restrictions.
But Gasson was also one of the 15 ‘protected’ LA Current swimmers, meaning she confirmed a commitment to remain on the 2021 team. At 26, she is four years older than the oldest New Zealand swimming Olympian at Tokyo, but she was surprised how many ISL swimmers were older than her. One, Brazilian Nicholas Santos, a 2008 Olympian, is 41.
“I was, like ‘Oh my God, they’re so old’. It was nice not to be the focus with my age,” she said.
Many in Gasson’s team are not only older, but Olympic medallists. LA Current includes Tokyo Olympic medallists Bronte Campbell and Maddie Wilson from Australia, and Americans Abbey Weitzeil, Ryan Murphy and Tom Shields.
As one of the top 100 swimmers in last year’s ISL, Gasson gets funded this year, including the six-week gap between the regular season in Italy, and the playoffs in the Dutch city of Eindhoven in November (even if LA Current does not make the playoffs).
If LA Current makes the final, Gasson and Weston won’t be back in New Zealand until January. If the team doesn’t progress, Gasson could be in Abu Dhabi at the world championships if New Zealand sends a team.
If they can’t get a MIQ booking after the ISL, they may go to the United States, Weston says.
It’s been a hectic 16 months for the pair.
“I don’t do anything slowly, mate,” says Weston. “You get what you put in – I definitely work for my luck. You may as well jump all in – it’s the only way you can get better at something like this.”