Up-and-coming Kiwi freestyler Caitlin Deans has found her ideal role model in Olympian Dave Gerrard as she looks forward to two careers – as an international swimmer and a doctor.
Caitlin Deans is just beginning to make her mark on the swimming world, but she’s already planning how she can give back to her sport.
The Otago distance swimmer is off to the world short course championships in Melbourne in December, to compete in the 1500m freestyle as the country’s top ranked distance swimmer at last month’s national trials.
Not only is the 22-year-old Deans getting FINA A times as a top swimmer, she’s also getting A grade results as a top University of Otago student and wants to become a doctor.
And she has the ideal role model in an Olympic swimmer and former professor of sports medicine.
Now in her final year studying a bachelor of science degree, majoring in physiology, Deans is doing two papers a semester, as well as teaching two papers.
“I put a lot of effort into my studies, I prioritise it quite highly; the study is what’s going to help me post-swimming,” Deans says.
She’d like to contribute back to her sport through her studies, inspired by Otago alumni and Emeritus Professor, Dr Dave Gerrard.
A two-time Commonwealth Games swimming medallist, Gerrard swam at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and was chef de mission of the New Zealand team at the 1996 Atlanta Games. He was the University of Otago Professor of Sports Medicine until he retired six years ago, and until last year, president of Swimming New Zealand.
“I`d love to be a doctor. I’ve always liked the idea of what Dave Gerrard has done -how we can work with athletes and how we can still be part of the swimming world,” Deans says.
“As athletes we have a different perspective. You can see things in a different way when you’ve done sport yourself, so having that understanding could be quite beneficial in working with athletes.”
Deans was a full-time student when she competed at her first pinnacle competition, the 2018 world short course championships in China, where she finished 13th in the 800m freestyle. She’s now dropped to part-time study to balance her increasing swimming abilities with her study workload.
She continues to prove she can do both. In July, she debuted as an Aquablack at the world long course championships in Hungary, where she was 13th in the 1500m freestyle. She also sat and passed two university exams while preparing for the championships at a training camp in Slovakia.
Deans says she flourishes through the busyness of juggling her academic life with 20 hours hard training each week.
“It’s difficult, but I thrive off being busy; it keeps a balance in my life. I get bored easily,” says Deans, one of only four swimmers to meet the world champs qualifying times at the national trials.
“University helps me switch off from swimming. If training doesn’t go quite right in the morning, I’ve got to switch off the training mindset, as I have a full day of university before my next training.”
Deans is pleased the December championships were relocated from Kazan, Russia, to Melbourne after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “It means that more of family and friends can come over and watch, as it’s so close,” she says.
Deans will also compete in the 200m freestyle and 4x200m freestyle relay in Melbourne. She has already had the experience of reaching a world championships relay final, placing seventh in Hungary, and swimming a personal best in her relay leg.
“Getting to race that final was an indescribable experience,” Deans says.
The NZ 4x200m relay team who were 7th at the 2022 world champs (from left) Erika Fairweather, Eve Thomas, Caitlin Deans and Laura Littlejohn
It has been a long journey for Deans to become an Aquablack. She’s been on the cusp of both junior and senior international team selections since her mid-teens. She missed qualifying for last year’s Tokyo Olympics despite dropping 23 seconds off her 1500m just months before the trials.
“The Tokyo qualification was tough; when I dropped that 23 seconds, it became a possibility,” she says.
But she found it hard to believe she could get those qualifying standards to represent New Zealand at pinnacle competitions after frequently falling just short.
“It’s something I’ve always struggled with – backing my training and knowing I’m capable of the times, and that I do deserve the spot on these teams knowing I’ve trained hard,” she says.
Otago coach Kurt Crosland will be poolside in Melbourne. Lars Humer, who’s coached Deans since 2018 and was Swimming New Zealand head coach at Tokyo, is unavailable.
Crosland and Humer are well aware they’re coaching an academically gifted swimmer in Deans, who has now started to hit her straps.
Deans was named Otago swimmer of the year this month for her international performances and two Otago Open records, with Crosland named coach of the year.
“She is very smart. I think her maturity and her mindset enables her focus on the right things,” Crosland says.
Otago has one of the top swimming programmes in the country after Humer returned home to Dunedin in 2018, and has five swimmers selected for Melbourne, including Olympic finalist Erika Fairweather.
“The influence of Lars – having that influence and experience of a coach that performs at the top level – you can’t put a price on that,” Crosland said.
Deans says the Otago coaching programme of Humer and Crosland and the help of her athlete life adviser Nat Fraser have assisted in her getting top academic grades and swimming results.
“I have an incredible athlete life and mental skills coach. We work together on backing myself a lot more,” she says.
Deans missed the tough qualifying standards for last year’s Commonwealth Games. She would have finished in the top five at the Games on her 800m freestyle lifetime best, behind fourth-placed Kiwi Eve Thomas.
“I didn’t even know I was in the top six – and I didn’t expect to be on the Commonwealth Games team after the [qualifying] times that they posted,” Deans says. “I wasn’t disheartened. It kind of sucks a little bit, but at the end of the day that was their decision.”
She also missed qualifying for the 800m for the world short course champs. “I didn’t feel very good in the 800m at trials, and I got sick the day after,” Deans says. “I gave it my all, but the race didn’t reflect what I was capable of.”
Otago swimmers Ruby Heath, Caitlin Deans and Erika Fairweather all swam at the 2022 FINA world champs in Budapest
In recent years, New Zealand has not been short of creditable female distance swimmers: Lauren Boyle set a 1500m world record in Wellington in 2014, Emma Robinson was placed in the top 16 at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and Hayley McIntosh and Thomas both qualified for Tokyo.
Thomas and Fairweather are swimming the 800m freestyle in Melbourne, so it’s Deans’ opportunity to shine in the 1500m.
Before July’s championships, Deans gained further international experience competing at Mare Nostrum, a series of three European meets with many of the world’s top swimmers. She reached the medal podium in the 400m freestyle in a lifetime best, but also ended up in hospital with a concussion and a black eye after colliding with a swimmer during training.
She now seeks a better build-up to Melbourne to secure her first personal best distance time in a pinnacle competition and lower her 16m 05.52m trials time.
“I think with more international racing experience, those personal bests will come,” she says. “I’m hoping I can give that 16-minute mark a crack.”
Then she’ll have to swim faster in a long course pool to meet her goal of qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Deans will have to drop 18 seconds to qualify for Paris in the 1500m and 12 seconds in the 800m – faster than all but the medallists at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. While she’s now under the 1500m Tokyo standard, the tough Paris standard is 23 seconds quicker, so she’ll have to almost repeat last year’s big drop on her time.
“I’m on a good trajectory and training is going well,” Deans says. “If I can just keep moving that on, and back myself and my racing, I think I’ll be all right.”