Otago freestyler Ruby Heath has become just the third Kiwi to swim in world championships in both the pool and the ocean. Now she’s aiming to be New Zealand’s first female open water swimmer at an Olympics.
Ruby Heath had always wanted to represent New Zealand as a distance swimmer. But she struggled to meet selection criteria despite being the country’s top open water swimmer.
So she made the decision to move cities, and now Heath, 23, is an Aquablack – in both the pool and open water.
“I didn’t think I’d be in the position to say that I’m both a pool and open water representative,” Dunedin-based Heath says. “I always thought it would be one or the other, but to take both is pretty amazing – it’s pretty surreal.”
Heath had successfully defended both her 5km and 10km open water titles last year but had never won a national medal in the pool as a senior swimmer until last year’s trials for the world short course championships, which were held in Melbourne last month.
She had never competed in a 10km open water event outside the North Island, either.
But in July, she competed in three events at the world open water championships in Hungary and five months later she swam in Melbourne in a world relay final, collecting a national open record.
In 2021, Heath moved from Wellington to Otago to focus on open water events under Lars Humer, a former open water swimmer and New Zealand swimming’s head coach at the Tokyo Olympics. She had an eye on swimming the 10km event at a world championship.
“I decided during the first lockdown I wanted to pursue open water swimming,” Heath says. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without Lars’ help and guidance. Having that extra background knowledge of open water training and racing, including the endurance to last 10km, is where I feel he’s really knowledgeable.”
Heath, who has been swimming competitively since the age of seven, now aims to be New Zealand’s first female open water swimmer at an Olympic Games and is eying the World Aquatics (formerly FINA) open water world series later this year in Italy, France and Hong Kong.
Humer, who was a dual representative in both surf lifesaving and open water swimming, trained under Duncan Laing at the Moana Pool where he now coaches Heath. (Incidentally, Laing was the last coach to take a New Zealand swimmer to an Olympic medal in 1996).
Heath does all her open water training at Moana Pool. She spends a lot of her time at the pool – she also works there 20 hours a week. She spends an estimated 60 hours a week working, swimming, attending the gym, physio and getting massages. She fits her paid work around her training on days she does not do gym work or on weekends.
“The pool is very accommodating around my training and swimming schedule,” she says.
Heath also trains with the top crop of New Zealand’s female swimmers at Moana Pool, two of whom – Olympian Erika Fairweather and Caitlin Deans – were in the record-breaking 4x200m relay team at Melbourne.
“We train together, and we push each other in training every day,” Heath says.
Two other women have represented New Zealand in open water and pool world championships.
In 2006, Cara Baker represented New Zealand in the pool aged 15 and was top 10 in the 5km events at the open water world championships in 2010, 2011 and in 2013 when she was the same age Heath is now.
Olympian Emma Robinson, who swam for Heath’s former Wellington club Capital, competed in both the pool and in the open water world championships in 2013. She then swam for New Zealand in the pool again at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Heath’s approach to competition is simple: “If you have a lane, you have a chance.”
She is certainly one for taking her chances. Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, the 2022 requirement to qualify for the open water world championships was to place top two at nationals and swim a 1500m pool event at trials. In other years it was to place top two locally, and also top five at the tough Australian open water championships, which Heath is attempting to do this week.
Consequently, qualifying in 2022 was a relatively simple – and less expensive – task for Heath, who has comfortably placed top two in the 10km event for the past three years, successfully defending her title last year.
It was also easier than qualifying as a junior in the 1500m freestyle. Juniors (under 19) had a tough standard to meet in the 1500m to qualify for the world junior open water championships, whereas seniors did not.
“I’m not sure why,” Heath says. “It’s not an issue for me. The juniors have got to speak up about it and deal with it.”
Just weeks after swimming more than 25km in Hungary (where she placed outside the top 35 in her events), Heath had to dive back into the pool and be one of the fastest four and clock her first ever 200m freestyle FINA B standard at trials to qualify for the pool world championships in the 4x200m freestyle relay.
She unexpectedly did so, placing second – her best result at a national open championship – but says the trials were essentially a fun post-worlds pool competition.
“The 200m is always a good fun event to have, to help with speed,” she says.
Heath surprised herself with three other FINA B times at those trials in August.
“If you’ve got a lane, you’ve got a chance,” Heath emphasises. “I had a lane at nationals and had an opportunity to swim fast, and I did exactly that. The reward was getting on a team that I didn’t really expect to get on to.”
As well as training 20 hours a week in the pool, Heath competes in three open water 10km events each year. This month she must do two in just over two weeks to try and qualify for her third world championships.
One was her second place in the 10km national event at Taupo on January 14, also swimming the 5km event where she was fourth, just 16 seconds behind winner Ashleigh Allred.
But it is Heath’s personal bests in the pool that are creating attention. She also got a further personal best on the way to eighth place in the world championships relay final with her two Neptune clubmates, Fairweather and Deans.
With Summer Osborne on debut, they took nearly five seconds off a 16-year-old New Zealand relay record.
“Last year exceeded my expectations,” Heath says. “Racing at the world championships and making a final is an achievement I’ll remember for a long time. It just goes to show that no matter what discipline you focus on in the sport, anything is possible, and that my training, commitment, and sacrifices are paying off.”