Erika Fairweather following in the slipstream of Kiwi legends with historic 400m freestyle win

Erika Fairweather following in the slipstream of Kiwi legends with historic 400m freestyle win

Andy Ross, World Aquatics Correspondent

The 20-year-old swimmer based out of Dunedin won New Zealand’s first-ever World title in swimming on Sunday evening in Doha in the 400m freestyle.

New Zealand’s Erika Fairweather made history on the first night of the swimming program at the World Aquatics Championships - Doha 2024, as she took gold in the 400m freestyle at 3:59.44 for a new best time and national record.

“I’m so proud of myself,” Fairweather said Sunday evening to reporters. “I couldn’t have wanted anything better from tonight! This is what you expect when you come to a World Championships, right?

“I saw a big opportunity to win tonight and I am really excited that I could take a hold of it and win the gold.”

It was New Zealand’s first ever gold medal in swimming at the World Aquatics Championships as she is fifth all-time. Four of the five to break the 4:00 mark in the event are still active in 2024.

World Aquatics talked with Fairweather over Zoom before the World Championships began about her preparation for Doha and her impact on swimming in New Zealand.

Making History

The women’s 400m freestyle was perhaps the most hyped up race at the 2023 World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka last summer between the last two Olympic champions Ariarne Titmus of Australia and Katie Ledecky of the United States in their first match-up since the Olympics. What made it even more interesting was the emergence of Canadian teenager Summer McIntosh, who broke Titmus’s world record in April of that year.

All the attention going into the race was around those three where it was expected to take a world record to win and it was entirely possible that a sub-4:00 swim would not win a medal.

Titmus won the heavily anticipated race in a new world record - an other-worldly 3:55.38, while Ledecky won the silver some three seconds behind at 3:58.73. But it wasn’t McIntosh on the bronze medal dais - instead it was New Zealand’s Erika Fairweather at 3:59.59.

“I am so stoked dropping below the 4:00 mark,” Fairweather said after the race in Fukuoka - a barrier she also dipped under in Doha. “That was the goal for a while. I dropped to 4:00 a couple of months ago, so to have this performance was pretty cool.

“I didn't expect to be in that position with Summer in my sights. But I have a pretty strong last 50. I think those three are phenomenal swimmers and I knew that there was always going to be a massive battle there. To fly under the radar and to stay with them was good and kind of took the pressure off a little bit.”

It was a huge moment for Fairweather and swimming in New Zealand. Rugby is the dominant sport in the small island nation east of Australia - the national team won the silver medal at the World Cup last year. Swimming has raised a larger profile however thanks in part to the likes of Fairweather and Commonwealth champion Lewis Clareburt, and they are inspiring the next generation.

“At our program down here, we have little kids on the poolside and they train at the same time as us,” Fairweather said. “We range from beginner swimmers who are just trying to compete to high performance. Them being able to see us and see us training has helped inspire them.”

New Zealand swimming has had a fair amount of success in the 400m freestyle in its history. The country’s first-ever Olympic gold medalist in swimming was Danyon Loader, who won the 200m and 400m freestyle at the 1996 Atlanta Games. It’s first ever medal at the World Championships on the women’s side came from Lauren Boyle in Barcelona 2013 when she won her first of three bronzes at the meet in the 400m.

It’s fitting that Fairweather is the next great 400m freestyle swimmer out of New Zealand.

Taking the Path of Least Resistance

She was born in Dunedin at the bottom of the south island, the hometown of the Olympic champion Loader, where Fairweather has trained with Lars Humer for six years. Her coach was mentored by Duncan Laing, who coached Loader to three Olympic medals in the 1990s.

“I swim in the Danyon Loader pool every day so having his legacy around us is pretty cool,” Fairweather told World Aquatics before the Doha World Championships.

Fairweather’s first national record came at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics in the 400m freestyle, which belonged to Lauren Boyle, the “icon” of Swimming New Zealand as Fairweather put it.

“It was in the heat in Tokyo,” Fairweather said of her first national record. “I did this big PB in the heat and I qualified for the final and I was like, ‘holy s***! This is pretty cool!’” She was eighth in the final, but she had been slowly growing a profile back home.

As a 15-year-old in 2019, she broke a national age group record in the 400m set back in 1976 by Rebecca Perrott, who was fourth in that event at the Montreal Olympics. Later that summer, she won the World Junior title in the 200m freestyle and has since won medals at the World Championships in both short course and long course.

And on Sunday evening, she became world champion.

“Swimming is starting to get a bigger name and people are getting excited about it, but where I am from there’s not a lot of people here,” Fairweather said. “We don’t have a very big population so everyone knows everyone and they get excited to watch so it’s really exciting.”

Hitting the Speed

Looking forward to the rest of the week in Doha, Fairweather is racing the 200m freestyle on Tuesday, the 4x200m relay on Thursday, and the 800m on Friday. Last year in Fukuoka, she didn’t advance past the semis in the 200m, and she cramped up in the final of the 800m and finished eighth.

This is her third World Aquatics Championships, and she’s prepared to take on the full week-long program, something that doesn’t come around often.

“We hit fast stuff quite often (in training) so I think that really helps when transferring it into a race week,” Fairweather said. “We probably hit 45 and 50K per week. We are a middle-distance group.”

“I’ve actually started to build 200m speed work in the last couple of months. We have always done a little bit of it, but we have tried to emphasize it over the last two months just to get some speed going and hope to hold onto it.”

Her best time in the 200m freestyle is 1:55.44 as she is seeded third for that event which will begin on Tuesday morning. If all goes to plan, she will be a medal favourite alongside the likes of Hong Kong, China’s Siobhan Haughey and Australia’s Shayna Jack, who were ranked in the top ten in the world last year.

Olympic qualification is on the line for New Zealand this week as well in the 4x200m, where the top 13 times from both Fukuoka 2023 and Doha 2024 will advance to Paris.

“We’ve been building the relay team for a while now so we’ve got three girls under 2:00 - it’s big for New Zealand,” Fairweather said. She will be joined by Eve Thomas, who was seventh in the 400m this week at 4:05.87, and by Laticia-Leigh Transom and Caitlin Deans in the 4x200m with the hopes of qualifying for the second straight Olympics.

This week is all about the opportunity to race for Fairweather, who doesn’t get to see the rest of the world too often.

“Being from New Zealand, we are a bit isolated from the racing so it’s a good opportunity to get international racing under my belt,” Fairweather said. “Racing the girls is always fun and I don’t have a lot of expectations so I have all to gain and nothing to lose which is exciting.

“I haven’t thought much of my mindset. Like everyone says, I’m trying to do the best and trying to do the best performance. It is a World Champs after all. You can’t be too shabby there! We are just going to try to clean everything up, and really practice what we want to do in Paris.”