When freestyler Eve Thomas swam a lifetime best to earn her ticket to the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, she surprised her coach – but not her mum, who won gold in the same event at the Games 36 years ago.
If Eve Thomas gets to stand on the Commonwealth Games podium in August, she’ll join just three New Zealand swimmers who’ve done so in the past 22 years.
And that’s within the Olympian’s sights, after she was selected yesterday for the Birmingham Games in the 800m freestyle; the 21-year-old ranking in the top three in the Commonwealth this year.
Born in Great Britain and guided by a South African-born coach, Thomas now lives in Australia and swims for New Zealand. Out of the pool, she’s in her third year studying a double degree in psychology and business through Massey University.
Thomas had one last chance at the Auckland trials earlier this month to make a qualifying time for her first Commonwealth Games. She’d already dropped five seconds off her lifetime best in the 800m freestyle at last year’s Olympics, but needed to lower her time by a further three seconds in only her second 800m swim since Tokyo.
“I wasn’t sure whether a three second personal best was something I was actually capable of – but that was definitely the goal,” she says.
“It’s a lot to ask, but in the back of my mind I’m saying, ‘Come on, you can do this – this is within reach’.
“I knew I’d done the work, so I deserved the rewards.”
When Thomas saw the clock reading 8m 28.65s after she touched the wall, she threw back her head in delight, knowing the job was done. She clocked just 0.25s inside the tough Games qualifying standard.
Of New Zealanders, only three-time Olympian Lauren Boyle has gone quicker.
Thomas’ coach, Dean Boxall (who’s also the highly regarded Australian Olympic head coach), was watching the Auckland trials race live online. She says he was surprised at a further three second drop after her best at Tokyo.
But her proud mother, Sarah, who was poolside, wasn’t surprised.
“It’s something I expected,” she says. “She had to trust herself and trust the work that she’d done, get up there and say, ‘I want this’.
“I’m extremely proud of her – just because I do understand the amount of hard work that’s gone into this, and she’s only in the early days of what she’s hoping to achieve.
“I think she is capable of medalling at the Commonwealth Games.”
She should know.
At 15, Sarah (nee Hardcastle) became the youngest female Brit to win an Olympic medal, when she secured silver and bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Her first time on the swimming blocks at an international event was alongside 800m world record holder Tracey Wickham at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games. Aged just 13, she was placed fifth.
At the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, aged 17, she set a Commonwealth Games record of 8m 24.77s in the 800m freestyle, and held that record for 21 years. Her time – which would have won silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games more than 30 years later – was almost a world record.
“I missed it by 0.12 seconds,” she says.
Olympian and Commonwealth Games swimmers Eve Thomas (left) and mum, Sarah.
Thomas says while it’s been helpful having her mother’s insights, the family swimming legacy is often mentioned by others.
“Being able to talk to her about how I’m feeling when I’m in a bit of a slump is helpful,” she says. “She can help pull me out better than most people can. She completely understands.
“But the commentators always talk about Mum when I’m swimming; it would be nice if they talked about me for once.”
They certainly will if Thomas achieves her longer-term goal, to get into an Olympic final, and possibly win a medal, at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
She’s one of 10 New Zealand athletes to receive a $21,500 grant from the International Olympic Committee’s solidarity fund to help her get there.
At last year’s Olympics, Thomas got lifetime bests in both her events, but swimming in a pandemic with Covid tests and mask wearing had additional challenges on top of the glare of the worldwide media – and her selected 1500m event was also first up. Her 800m was a second swim.
“It was very, very daunting,” Thomas says. “You’re trying to work out how to put your cap and goggles on around your mask, there are four different cameras pointing at you. It was very, very stressful for that first event.
“I took my mask off for a second and I got shouted at, and that took its toll on my performance – but I was grateful that I managed to turn it around going into the 800m.”
Thomas has gone under the 1500m freestyle Olympic standard several times, but that’s not a Commonwealth Games event, which is why she’s changed her focus to the 800m. (She may also swim in the 200m and 400m freestyle events at the Sandwell Aquatics Centre).
In the lead-up to Birmingham, Thomas will also compete at her second FINA world championships, starting June 17 in Budapest, selected also in the 1500m and 400m freestyle, and the 4x200m freestyle relay.
“His energy poolside is unmatched and the coaching he can provide is just insane” – Eve Thomas on coach Dean Boxall.
Of Kiwis, only Lewis Clareburt, Boyle and Sophie Pascoe have won a medal in an individual event at the Commonwealth Games since 2010, but Thomas is currently ranked third in the Commonwealth behind two Australians.
One of those Aussies, double Olympic champion Ariarne Titmus, is her training partner at the St Peter’s Western club in Brisbane and could well be standing alongside Thomas on the podium.
“I’d like to final and potentially even medal at the Commonwealth Games – that’s within my sights and something I’d like to focus on,” Thomas says.
After moving to New Zealand aged three and starting swimming at six, Thomas set junior records at the Coast Swimming Club on the Hibiscus Coast before following her coach John Gatfield to St Peter’s Western four years ago. Gatfield had been coaching Thomas since she was 13 and is now back at Coast.
Thomas says she would not have been heading to the Commonwealth Games had she stayed in New Zealand. Training alongside an Olympic champion under Boxall – a “very intense” coach – is a level unmatched here.
“It’s a great environment, getting to see Arnie [Titmus] and the standard she holds me to. I would not be where I am without Dean and the coaching at St Peter’s; it’s not available in New Zealand, in my opinion,” Thomas says.
“His energy poolside is unmatched and the coaching he can provide is just insane.”
Thomas is determined to swim faster than her mum ever did – and needs to lower her 800m time by just over four seconds to do so. Sarah Thomas says she intends to buy a big bottle of bubbly to celebrate when that time comes.
“I’m a champagne fan – Eve can watch me drink it.”
* A 12-strong New Zealand team has been named for the Commonwealth Games, including seven women: Erika Fairweather, Helena Gasson, Tupou Neiufi, Hazel Ouwehand, Dame Sophie Pascoe, Mya Rasmussen and Thomas. The squad will head overseas next month ahead of the world championships.