Top of The World

Dunedin swimmer Erika Fairweather carves history, and her own legacy, ahead of her tilt at the Paris Olympics. MARC HINTON reports

Every day Erika Fairweather rocks up for training at Moana Pool in Dunedin she is reminded of the greatness she is pursuing and legacy she is upholding. Every day she looks up and sees the
name Danyon Loader emblazoning the stretch of water where she puts in her work, inspiration goes hand in hand with the perspiration.

It’s why it was fitting in so many ways that the 20-year-old Dunedin swimmer should achieve her special slice of history over the 400 metres freestyle at the world championships in Doha in February. In the wake of greatness, as it were, she wrote a new chapter in the annals of her sport in the
same event that Loader, all those years ago carved his own achievement for the ages.

Fairweather became the first New Zealander to win a gold medal at a world championship (long course) in the Qatari capital, shattering her PB and national record with a time of 3min 59.44sec (the fifth fastest over the eight laps ever) and immediately sprung into contention for a podium spot at the Paris Olympics (July 26-August 11). She would go on to add silver in the 200 free and bronze in the 800 to complete, not only the full set, but the most successful haul by a Kiwi at the global event.

Adding to the special nature of the meet for New Zealand swimming was a second gold won by Wellington’s Lewis Clareburt over the 400m individual medley – a result also providing valuable momentum ahead of Paris. Both will have their work cut out matching their feats on the Olympic stage when the fields will be much stronger than in Doha, though they’re undoubtedly in the mix.

But back to Fairweather. And the Loader connection.

Loader, of course, swum his way into New Zealand sporting folklore when he won Olympic gold over the 200 and 400 metres freestyle at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, following a silver medal achieved in the 200 fly at the ‘92 Olympics four years previous in Barcelona.

It was New Zealand’s first ever Olympic triumph in swimming, with the Duncan Laing-coached marvel, like Fairweather trained at Moana Pool, providing one of the country’s greatest feats on the Games stage with his freestyle double.

“It’s actually a really cool story because Danyon trained in the same pool as me in Dunedin and I think that’s such a special connection,” Fairweather mused ahead of the world champs. “To be in a position where I could possibly follow in his legacy is pretty cool. We have a big sign saying the Daniel Loader pool, and it’s a pretty big motivator for me.”

Fairweather, coached by Laing protege Lars Humer, is also following in the wake of another accomplished Kiwi female freestyler in Lauren Boyle who helped pave the way for the Dunedin achiever. Boyle won two silvers and three bronzes at the world championships in 2013 and ‘15, and was also a short-course world champion in 2012 (over 800m) and a Commonwealth Games gold medallist in 2014 (400m).

After her 400m triumph in Doha, Fairweather could not hide her joy.

“How crazy is that? I’m so happy, and really excited with what’s to come. I just wanted to get to that wall first, and we just went with that. World champs is all about how you show up, and I’m really proud of how I showed up,” she added in a clear reference to the absence of her big rivals in the event – Ariarne Titmus (Australia), Katie Ledecky (United States), and 17-year-old Summer McIntosh (Canada). “Did you hear the New Zealand national anthem? That was pretty epic. It was great to experience the New Zealand national anthem for once.”

Fairweather’s ascension to the top comes as no surprise to those who have been tracking her rise. She was a world junior champion in 2019, in 2021 she made the Olympic final for the 400m in Tokyo and at last year’s world champs in Fukuoka, Japan, she claimed a surprise bronze medal in the 400 behind Ledecky and Titmus, and ahead of McIntosh, to achieve her goal of breaking the 4-minute barrier for the first time.

“That was one of the most hyped-up races of the meet,” she reflected. “We had the world champion, Olympic champion and world record-holder. To be racing with them was special and to get up on the podium with them was so cool.”

And she feels like her Tokyo experience sets her up ideally for Paris. “I wasn’t really expecting to make the team, let alone a final at Tokyo, and I was a little underprepared, with so little international exposure. We’re way better prepared this time and I’m not going to put any limits on myself.”

No limits. That might just be the Fairweather motto right now.

Marc Hinton
Sports Writer