It’s not often a swimmer from the provinces gets to compete at a long course pinnacle competition.

Most top swimmers live in our bigger cities. But Emma Godwin, the country’s top backstroker, lives in Napier and has no intention of leaving.

Last year, Godwin was one of just six current New Zealand female swimmers to have met a World Aquatics A time, which she did in a 25m pool – clocking 2m 07.11s in her favoured event, the 200m backstroke.

She also met that time while working 30 hours a week.

Yet Godwin is the only one of those swimmer who so far hasn’t recorded a qualifying time in a 50m pool for a senior pinnacle competition – to become an Aquablack.

Come April 4, Godwin will try to change that. She’s competing in the 200m backstroke in Auckland at a trial for the world long course championships starting in Fukuoka, Japan, in July – seeking to clock 2m 11.0s in a 50m pool.

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All current Aquablacks train in metropolitan regions, most with swimmers close to their age group.

Godwin, 25, who trains with considerably younger swimmers, plans to stay in the Hawkes Bay and be a provincial Aquablack.  

She likes being close to family, but she realises how tough it is to even qualify for a pinnacle championship – whether as a provincial swimmer, or being pushed faster in training with swimmers her own age in metropolitan regions.

“Once you hit those times, you’re going over there not seeded too badly,” Godwin says.

Should she hit the times at trials, she’d be the first New Zealand-based backstroker at a top senor long course competition since Hawke’s Bay teenager Bobbi Gichard in 2017.

Gichard, then 15, also got a 100m backstroke bronze medal at the 2013 world junior championships in a time that still stands as the fastest recorded by a Kiwi teenager.

Godwin’s aim was to swim at the Tokyo Olympics, but now it’s to compete in the 2024 Games in Paris.

As New Zealand’s top backstroker, she doesn’t necessarily have to get a World Aquatics A standard for Paris. She needs to be New Zealand’s fastest at either at the 2024 world championships at Doha next February or the New Zealand Olympic trials three months later, and meet the B standard – a time 3.5 percent slower than the A standard.

But in Godwin’s case, that 200m backstroke B time is only 0.04 seconds quicker than what she aims to swim at next week’s trials.

Emma Godwin (right) with NZ 4x50m free relay team-mates Helena Gasson and Rebecca Moynihan at the 2022 worlds. Photo: Getty Images. 

“Worlds will be a great stepping-stone for the Paris Olympics,” Godwin says. “Ideally, I’d go to Paris on an A time, and I know I can do it.  I’ve just got a few things to work on in the race, mentally and pre-race.” 

Godwin trains for 20 hours a week on top of working practically full time, in administration for the Log Transport Safety Council. She works from home, helping with certifications for logging trucks – between morning and afternoon swim trainings and gym work.

“You’ve got to work to keep swimming,” she says. “I work pretty much from when I get home, until when I go back to training.”

She finds time to relax by painting and giving her artwork away to family and friends.

Godwin lives with her coach and partner, 2008 Beijing Olympian Willy Benson, and their two dogs. They’ve been together for almost eight years.

She loves having her parents nearby, and visits them each week for tea, which she says is “bloody nice”.

““The hardest part has been coming from a region – communication is scarce and until we make a team, we are kept a bit in the dark.”

Godwin is a member of one of New Zealand’s oldest swimming clubs, the Heretaunga Sundevils. But she trains with teenagers at New Zealand’s newest pool, the Hawke’s Bay Regional Aquatic Centre at Hastings Sports Park – the pool where trials for next year’s Paris Olympics will be held.  

“I’m the oldest by quite a long shot, but there’s always ways to push yourself against the younger ones,” Godwin says. “It’s all about the opportunities you take, and the motivation you have in yourself to do what you want to.”

A competitive swimmer since the age of 10, Godwin won medals at age-grade level in New Zealand and Australia in both swimming and surf lifesaving.

She moved to Auckland in 2015 to study sport and recreation at North Harbour’s Massey University, training at the North Shore club. That’s when she started to take the sport seriously, setting an aim of qualifying for an Olympic Games.

“I got medals at national age group championships and thought: ‘Oh, why not give this a shot?’ I think it’s kind of got me to where I am now at the age I am – and still loving it,” she says.

Three years later, back home in the Hawkes Bay, Godwin qualified for the 2018 world short course championships in China, placing top 16 in the 200m backstroke. She got there after raising nearly $4000 via a Give-a-little page. Swimmers for these championships are required to pay out of their own pockets to represent their country. 

Godwin then qualified for last year’s short course champs in Melbourne, setting her first World Aquatics A time. Benson was on the New Zealand coaching team.

Five months before these championships, Godwin got a 200m backstroke silver medal at the Mare Nostrum annual swimming circuit by the Mediterranean Sea – against many of the world’s top swimmers, with competitions in France, Barcelona and Monaco. 

Emma Godwin on the Mare Nostrum swim tour in the Mediterranean 

“I think it was a pretty surreal opportunity to race elsewhere and go travelling for the first time in a while,” Godwin says. “I didn’t expect to medal or get into any finals, so to go over there and race my personal best pretty much in every swim was pretty good.”

Dipping under the A standard at the age of 25 has given Godwin more motivation to keep going, and to push harder through training sessions to lower her times further and be more competitive. So, what kept her going at an age where most have retired?

“I think it’s a combination of me not getting really serious until after high school, and the environment we were put into. North Shore had a really good group to train with,” she says.

“But it’s not about maintaining the times, it’s a matter of bettering them. Once you’re there, you know how you’ve got there and what needs to happen. How you do that is probably the hardest thing.”

While backstroke is Godwin’s preferred discipline, she is also a handy freestyler, and set New Zealand open records in Melbourne as part of both freestyle and medley relay teams. She’s been a regular podium finisher at nationals in freestyle for several years.

Godwin concedes being a top swimmer isn’t easy. With long training hours, tough qualifying times and having to work and fundraise to progress her sport, she welcomes all and any support.

“The Hawke’s Bay region has been supportive, both of me as a swimmer and as a person,” she says. “But I think at a federation level, we could do better at being interested in swimmers by understanding them as people as well as performers in the pool.

“The hardest part has been coming from a region – communication is scarce and until we make a team, we are kept a bit in the dark.

“I’ve kind of learnt to put that aside. I’m not doing this sport for anyone else, but myself.”

The most recent provincial swimmer to swim at a long course world championship was Tokyo Olympian Zac Reid in 2019. Formerly from Taranaki, Reid is now based in Otago, training with fellow Aquablack Erika Fairweather, one of the world’s top 400m freestylers.

Dave Crampton is a Wellington writer and was a sports journalist for Fairfax. He covers swimming for SwimNZ on Facebook and Swimming World magazine.

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