Otago middle distance swimmer Erika Fairweather this week became the second Kiwi female to medal at a World Aquatics long course swimming championship, placing in two finals at the championships in Japan.
Fairweather, 19, said she is a ‘bit of a big dog’ in world swimming before leaving for the World Aquatics championships a week ago after clocking a lifetime best in her favoured 400m freestyle event at trials. Her time, 4:00.62 seconds, was the sixth fastest in history.
Big dogs get medals, especially if they are ranked so high in world swimming history.
Fairweather was seeded top four in her favoured 400m freestyle, behind three top dogs, all who have held the world record in the past 15 months. Some called it ‘the race of the century’ as it was the most stacked event on a World Aquatics championship swimming programme.
To stand on the podium, she had to place ahead of world record holder Summer McIntosh, Olympic champion Ariarne Titmus, or world champion Katie Ledecky. Her goal was to be the world’s fifth swimmer to break four minutes.
She did both.
Fairweather won a bronze medal in a lifetime best of 3:59.59 seconds, just ahead of world record holder McIntosh.
Titmus, from Australia, smashed the world record, clocking 3:55.38 seconds; Ledecky was dethroned. McIntosh was off the podium despite breaking the four-minute mark, Fairweather was on it. World short course record holder Li Bingjie placed fourth.
“To be racing with them was special and to get up on the podium with them was so cool,” Fairweather says. “Fifth woman to join the sub-four club – stoked is a bit of an understatement. I really wanted to break that four-minute mark, and also managed to end up with a bronze medal around my neck.”
McIntosh was heading for a silver medal with just 100m to go, and a full second ahead of Fairweather at the final turn. However, Fairweather’s closing 29.09 seconds 50m split was the second-fastest in the field, behind Titmus, and she pipped McIntosh for the bronze medal.
In doing so, she also became the only female in NZ swimming history to get a silver and a bronze medal in the 400m freestyle at this level, after winning a silver medal at her first world short course championships in Melbourne in December. In fact, she got two in Melbourne, the second in the 800m event.
Fairweather and Lauren Boyle are NZ’s only swimmers to have multiple medals at one world short course (25m pool) championship, and a medal at a long course championship. Fairweather has done so within 10 months.
But medals don’t come easy at a long course world swimming championship. Getting into a final is tough enough when you don’t come from a swimming nation; this year just three Kiwis did so, with Fairweather the only one to do it twice. Only five NZ swimmers have previously won a long course world championship medal, the most recent being medley swimmer Lewis Clareburt in 2019.
Fairweather was also third seed into last night’s 800m freestyle final. Yet she had never competed this event at a long course pinnacle competition, even at World Juniors when she won the 200m freestyle as a 15-year-old and came fourth in the 400m.
Buoyed by her medal earlier in the week, she was looking for a good result. She describes this event as ‘a window of opportunity’, only recently adding it to her programme.
For another opportunity to get on the podium again, Fairweather had to be ahead of either world record holder Ledecky, Commonwealth record holder Titmus, or one of the last two world champions in the short course pool – Li Bingjie from China and Australian Lani Pallister. She scratched from the 4x100m mixed freestyle relay earlier that day to focus on her 800m. Helena Gasson swam the relay instead.
Of Kiwis, only Boyle, in 2013, has previously been seeded top three in the 800m at a world long course championship. Ledecky won that also and has been unbeaten in this event at the world championships since. Only Boyle and two other Kiwis have medalled in the event at a pinnacle competition: Rebecca Perrott at the 1978 Commonwealth Games, and Swimming New Zealand’s current president Jaynie Hudgell (nee Parkhouse) at the Christchurch games four year’s prior.
But it wasn’t Fairweather’s night. She started well and was in third place right up to the 350m mark with most of the first quarter quicker than her heat swim.
Then her form dropped significantly; she was undone by a bout of cramp, which took hold of her left hamstring shortly after swimming 250m.
She dropped off the pace and 50m later, at the half-way point, she was in seventh place , unable to recover.
She ended up in eighth, clocking 8:28.21, more than 10 seconds shy of her best.
It was Ledecky’s sixth consecutive title, the longest streak in a single event in world championship history. Bingjie and Titmus were the medallists, all clocking under 8:14.00 seconds. Third placed Titmus tied her Commonwealth record of 8:13.59 seconds set at last year’s Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
Despite the setback, Fairweather’s time overnight would still have got her top seed into the final at Birmingham, and fourth in the final, had she entered it. In that final, the seventh fastest swimmer clocked 8:53.50 seconds. Fairweather was seven seconds quicker when she was 15.
Fairweather also competed in the 200m freestyle for 11th place this week and was automatically selected in all three freestyle events for the 2024 World Championships to held in February in Doha, Qatar. The Doha championship is a qualifier for the Paris Olympics. If Fairweather can achieve a swimming medal at Paris, she`ll be the first from NZ to do so since 1996, and the first woman to do so since 1952.
Other female qualifiers for Doha included middle distance freestyle swimmers Caitlin Deans and Eve Thomas.