A swimming club in one of the country’s smaller regions is punching above its weight, with more than a quarter of the New Zealand swim team for next week’s world short course championships in Melbourne hailing from Otago’s Neptune Swim Club.
Four of the five selected Neptune swimmers in the 19-strong national team are women. Just one – Erika Fairweather – competed at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games. (Medley specialist Luan Grobbelaar is Neptune’s sole male swimmer in the team).
Aquablack Caitlin Deans is the country’s only swimmer with short course world championships experience to have met the FINA A qualifying marks for both long course and short course world championships at this year’s trials. She says the Neptune environment has changed dramatically since Lars Humer, New Zealand’s head coach at the Tokyo Olympics, arrived in 2018 to coach with Kurt Crosland.
Deans, also a top student at the University of Otago, believes she would not have got her top qualifying times without being pushed by the coaching pair, and other squad members in the programme.
“They’ve created this incredible elite culture, and they balance each other out so well. The way they run the programme is that they are both head coaches and both have lead roles,” Deans says.
“There’s a massive group of us who work really hard together. We all push each other, and we all get along. We can’t thank Lars and Kurt enough for what they’ve done.”
But neither coach will be with the team at the world champs, which start on December 14. Humer was unavailable to coach in Melbourne, and Crosland, recently named as Otago coach of the year, recently withdrew from the team due to injury.
The Neptune squad train each day at the Moana Pool – where multiple Olympic medallist Danyon Loader once trained. And Deans says she enjoys being part of a group who are all balancing work, study, and swimming – and about to head over the ditch to wear the silver fern together.
“It’s really cool now to have a big group on this world short course team. We are so happy for each other – everyone thrives off each other’s successes. It’s a lot of fun and that’s where fast racing comes from,” she says.
Deans says the squad have also been lifted by Fairweather, after she became only the second New Zealander to win an event at a world junior championship, aged just 15. That was back in 2019.
“It took everyone a step up to see what hard training can do,” says Deans. “That was one big moment for me personally. In a little place like Dunedin, we can be competitive on that world stage.”
It’s that world stage each of these swimmers are either working towards or attempting to improve on each time they train together.
Having never stepped on a swimming podium at any level until this year, 200m butterfly swimmer Esme Paterson knew she had to stand on the middle step of a national podium and swim under a qualifying standard to wear the silver fern and join her four Neptune clubmates.
And she did, at the national trials.
“When I looked at the clock, I could not believe it – I still can’t wrap my head around it,” she says. “The fact I got the time was surprising, but also winning something at an open competition – I’ve never done that.”
Paterson, a third year Batchelor of Applied Science student at the University of Otago, had already broken three Otago records this year, but lowered her lifetime best by nearly five seconds, crediting her performance to the motivational Otago training environment.
“I look forward to going to training because it is such a good environment. It’s a place where you want to be; it’s a really good culture,” she says.
Clubmates Ruby Heath, Caitlin Deans and Erika Fairweather will swim in NZ’s 4x200m relay team in Melbourne.
In 2017, no resident South Island swimmer had qualified for the world championships. Now, the Neptune club has three swimmers in the 4x200m freestyle women’s relay team for Melbourne – with Ruby Heath joining Deans and Fairweather, who’s also in the 4x100m freestyle relay.
No other swimming club has more than one female on the team to Melbourne.
The Otago senior programme has retained swimmers such as Paterson and attracted swimmers from other areas Heath, originally from Wellington, and medley swimmer Luan Grobbelaar, who now swims for New Zealand after representing South Africa at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. All are selected to join Deans and Fairweather in Melbourne.
Heath, who works at Moana Pool, is primarily an open water swimmer – a multiple open water 10km and 5km national titleholder.
She’s competing in the 4x200m freestyle relay after becoming the first New Zealand swimmer to qualify for both pool and open water world championships in the same year.
All three relay swimmers also competed at the long course world championships in Hungary earlier this year, with Heath swimming in open water events.
Heath wasn’t even trying to qualify at trials and was surprised to do so in a 200m event. She was placed top eight in the 10km event at the Queensland Open Water championships in Brisbane in October, and should repeat that performance at the New South Wales championships on December 18, just as the world pool championships finish.
Back in the pool, Heath got a lifetime best in all her events at the world championship trials, which were just a month after her three events – including a gruelling 25km event – at the world open water champs in Hungary.
“I went to have fun after a big campaign in Hungary,” says Heath. “I got a FINA B time – enough to get me onto the relay team. I guess I just pulled something out of the bag.”
Paterson is excited her sister, parents and grandparents will be supporting her at the championships now that they’ve moved from Kazan to Melbourne after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“It’s super cool that it’s so easy for them to come over – it’s not too far away,” she says.
Another in the Neptune’s senior group motivated when training with swimmers in national teams is breaststroker Lucy McKinnon. She moved from Auckland this year to study a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Otago.
She was almost good enough to qualify herself, nearly making the world championship team when she won her first national title at trials – but was just 0.30 seconds shy of the qualifying standard.
“It has really pushed me – seeing what they can do motivates me differently,” she says of her teammates. “I was just happy I was close to the qualifying time after moving down here.”
Fairweather, still only 18, was young enough to win the Junior Maori Sportswoman of the Year again, at last month’s Maori Sports Awards. She was the only female other than Deans who met world championships FINA A times at both long course and short course trials this year.
She clocked 8m18s in the 800m freestyle, a time faster than seventh at the previous world championships in 2018. As she has a FINA A time in the 400m freestyle within the required selection period, she’s also swimming that event at worlds. Deans will swim the 200m and 1500m freestyle events.
Melbourne, however, will be Fairweather’s first short course world championships. Her earlier lifetime best in the 800m would have made the top six at the Commonwealth Games had she competed, as would Deans had she been in Birmingham.
It is understood Swimming New Zealand declined Fairweather’s request to swim the 800m event at the Commonwealth Games.
Eve Thomas was fourth in that 800m, the second-equal highest placed freestyler at the Commonwealth Games outside the Australians (with Fairweather in the 400m freestyle event). Thomas recently withdrew from the Melbourne championships.
There are more talented female swimmers in the Otago squad, including former national open record-holder and 2018 world championship swimmer Ciara Smith. She last competed at the New Zealand swimming championships in 2021, winning two breaststroke medals, but did not compete at trials this year.
At the junior end, the Neptune club has 11-year-old Claire Kenny, who this season broke 11 Otago age group records, many in times faster than her male counterparts.