Just weeks after moving cities for a new training environment, Aquablack Chelsey Edwards is off to her third World Aquatics swimming championships, in Japan, after being selected for the 4x100m mixed freestyle relay.
But if it wasn’t for her high-performance sports psychologist, she would have quit the sport after her first world championships.
It was in June 2020, just days after her 19th birthday, when Edwards first noticed something wasn’t quite right.
She had helped qualify New Zealand for the Tokyo Olympics in the 4x200m freestyle relay at the world championships in Korea the previous July. It was a big step closer to her lifelong dream of swimming at an Olympics.
But Edwards was struggling with how she felt she was treated at the pool back in Wellington.
She wanted to improve and break national records, but her dissatisfaction with her training environment was affecting her mental health – to the point she decided she wanted to quit the sport she had both loved and succeeded in at all levels since the age of nine.
It wasn’t long before she didn’t want to see a swimming pool or join a national team again. Her biggest priority was trying to keep herself together by avoiding everyone associated with swimming, including her Wellington coach, Gary Hollywood.
“I found it too overwhelming being around others. I just didn’t want anything to do with swimming any more – it was affecting my mental health,” Edwards says.
Instead of looking at a black line at the bottom of the training pool each day, she was seeing a high-performance sports psychologist. I
It was Swimming NZ’s Olympic programme manager Gary Francis and Hollywood who intervened to get her that support.
Edwards told her psychologist she wanted to quit.
Her psychologist had different ideas. He suggested she kept swimming, but train on her own, away from others, for a while. She was prescribed antidepressants.
“I would have quit without my psychologist,” Edwards says. “He knew that I was in a fragile state and understood why I felt like I did.
“A psychologist is one of the most important people on your support team, as the mind is one of the most important things in swimming.”
Edwards has been a top swimmer since she started competing. Few swimmers have won national titles every year, at junior, age grade and senior levels since the age of 10. Edwards is one who has – and, since the age of 15, has gone on to compete internationally, including at last year’s world championships in Budapest.
“She has always been a great swimmer – she has a natural feel for the water,” says Michael Weston, a New Zealand team coach at that event.
In 2020, aged 18, Edwards had already been to the 2018 Junior Pan Pacific Championships, was in a winning relay team at the 2017 Commonwealth Youth Games, helped secured the relay qualification for Tokyo – and held two national age group records. She was also New Zealand’s fastest 50m freestyle sprinter – she still is – and on track to go to the Tokyo Olympics.
A year later, when Edward’s health deteriorated due to unresolved issues within her training environment, Francis travelled from Auckland to Wellington to discuss the issues and to encourage her to return to training.
Tokyo Olympic trials were to determine whether Edwards would be one of the relay swimmers to go to Tokyo. Edwards really needed to be at trials – and to be on form with a good period of training under her belt.
She was expected to qualify, and Hollywood, who also coaches multiple Commonwealth Games champion Lewis Clareburt, was expected to be named as an Olympic coach.
Trials did not go well. Most top swimmers’ performances in Edwards’ 200m freestyle event were adversely affected, as they had to wait nearly an hour in their swimsuits before their main race, due to unsatisfactory event delays by Swimming NZ. Some had already qualified for Tokyo at an earlier trial, held when Edwards was unwell. So, this trial was Edwards’ final attempt to secure Tokyo selection.
But just three swimmers met the relay qualifying standard; Edwards didn’t. Selectors chose a backstroker to swim the relay with them.
It was then, bitterly disappointed at being unable to qualify after being in the initial team that had got the relay through, that Edwards’ turned to her psychologist.
“I was completely and brutally honest about how I was feeling, which I could not be with anyone else, without them feeling like I was not putting in the work,” she says.
“After trials, he made me feel that what I was feeling and what I was thinking was valid and it matters.”
Six months later, Edwards knew she had to move from her training environment in Wellington to enjoy the sport again. She moved to Australia in December 2021 for several months to be coached by sprint specialist Leanne Speechley.
Formerly a coach in New Zealand, Speechley is the head coach at Sydney’s Knox Pymble, the club of multiple Olympic freestyle champions Bronte and Cate Campbell. Shortly after her arrival, Edwards clocked 25.30 seconds in the 50m freestyle.
“After training with Leanne, my 50m freestyle got down to the best it had ever been,” she says.
It was her first lifetime best in two years; only three other New Zealand swimmers have ever gone quicker. The time would have placed seventh at last year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, but it could not be considered as a potential top six placing for selection as it was clocked just outside the qualifying period.
Edwards’ times at Tokyo trials, however, were enough to lock in her selection for the 4x200m freestyle relay at her second world championships in Budapest last year. She was also required by Swimming NZ to demonstrate her fitness levels and current and future performance ability matched her qualifying performance back at trials.
Edwards never swam the relay; she had been unwell, but she competed in the 4x100m mixed freestyle relay later that week. She replaced Erika Fairweather, who withdrew after testing positive for Covid-19. The team set a New Zealand record for ninth.
“I really enjoyed that – we were really close to getting in the final, it was quite exciting,” Edwards says.
But the world championships were not an overly positive experience for Edwards; her performance and wellbeing were affected by conflict within the team, as well as sickness. Upon her return to New Zealand, she again stopped training and didn’t want to be near a pool or represent her country again.
She was forced to take another break.
“At worlds, I got sick and felt isolated which was very hard because I’d been working really hard in Australia, but nobody had been able to see it. It took me many months to fully start committing again,” she says.
“After worlds, I was in a really negative state. It was the closest I’ve been to quitting. I never wanted to go on another team. I took a lot of time off when I was in that low and talked a lot with my high-performance sports psychologist.
In March, Edwards, now 21, moved from Wellington to Auckland to swim at the Coast Swimming Club on the Hibiscus Coast, whose head coach is Weston. She then took another national open title in the 50m freestyle, at her first national competition since she winning the event four years earlier.
Weston says Edwards is a great addition to his Coast team.
“She’s settled in brilliantly, to be honest,” he says. “The stability in the group has helped her. We have a good group at Coast, they all lean on each other to succeed.”
Edwards has good reason to be happier now, with a new club, a new coach, a good flat, and she has also made some good friends. She also has another New Zealand relay record after she joined three of her Coast teammates, including Aquablacks Cameron Gray and Helena Gasson, to break the 4x100m mixed medley New Zealand relay record at trials.
But best of all, she’s off to Japan with Weston again selected as coach.
“I think that will make the trip event better,” Edwards says. “Michael is an amazing coach. He has a purpose for everything we do; he explains why we are doing it, and he explains how it’s going to make us better. He’s very engaged.”
Edwards won’t be swimming the 4x200m freestyle relay in Japan. She missed selection by the narrowest of margins at trials – just 0.01 seconds. Instead, she will attempt to break the New Zealand record again with her fellow Aquablacks, including Fairweather, in the 4x100m mixed freestyle relay.
In the 4x200m relay, 18-year-old Summer Osborne will debut as an Aquablack.
“I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get to go on that 200m relay, but it’s cool that Summer gets on a team and hopefully that can progress her career,” Edwards says.
“I was just really happy I got in the team on the 4x100m freestyle relay in the end.”
Edwards is certain her psychologist is the main reason she’s back training at all, and back as an Aquablack.
“You can show up and do the training but if your mind is not there, the psychology is most important. I’ve still got things to work on,” Edwards says.
Deep down, though, Edwards never really wanted to quit the sport – following the black line in the water is her safe and happy place, and success provides her a real sense of satisfaction.
“I knew I didn’t really want to give up swimming,” she says. “When I enjoy it, it brings me so much happiness. I just love the water, I just love the way I feel in the water, the social aspect, being with friends, and I just want to be the best at what I do.”
Edwards won’t swim the 50m freestyle in Japan as it’s on the same day as her relay. She may swim the 100m freestyle if top qualifier Erika Fairweather does not. With Weston’s guidance, Edwards anticipates improving in each of her freestyle events before trials for next year’s Paris Olympics.
She just knows she must break the New Zealand Open record to even qualify for the tough World Aquatics B standards in either the 50m or the 100m freestyle. Does Weston think she can reach the tougher A standard?
“Yeah, I do,” he says.