Masters Games: Swim queen Rebecca Perrott continues life-long passion for pool

By Grant Chapman

Swimmer Rebecca Perrott wins the 100m freestyle at the 1979 national winter championships. Photo/NZ Herald
Swimmer Rebecca Perrott wins the 100m freestyle at the 1979 national winter championships. Photo/NZ Herald

While this month's World Masters Games have lured an array of sporting legends out of retirement for the occasion, Rebecca Perrott is not one of them.

New Zealand's swim queen of the 1970s seems to have never left the pool over a career that has now spanned most of the last 45 years.

"There were probably six or seven years when I didn't do any swimming," admits Wellington-based Perrott, 56. "We were living in the UK and it wasn't so easy to swim, because the pools weren't very well set up.

"When we moved back to New Zealand, I was really overweight and wanted to start getting back into shape. I went back into Masters and have swum ever since.

"I like swimming ... I like staying fit and this is the easiest way to do that."

Of all the Masters sports, swimming has the lowest age limit, starting at 25 years. Perrott joined the veteran ranks while still in her 20s, but had already made a habit of being the youngster of the field over the years.

She first rose to prominence as a 12-year-old, representing Fiji as the youngest competitor at the 1974 Commonwealth Games. Two years later, at 15, she became New Zealand's youngest Olympian, narrowly missing a medal in the 400m freestyle final at Montreal.

"It seems young now, because swimmers are older, but at the time, most were in their teens and it wasn't that unusual," reflects Perrott. "Most of the Olympic swimmers now would be in their early 20s, I guess."

She enjoyed her career highlight at the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games, capturing four medals, including gold over 200m freestyle.

But, when New Zealand boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games, Perrott lost her best shot at climbing the Olympic podium. She was barely out of her teens, when her international career ended the following year.

"I was really lucky to go to the 1976 Olympics and most of the other swimmers that missed out on Moscow got to go an Olympics," she reflects. "But I was good friends with Melanie Jones, a backstroker from Christchurch, who never got that chance.

"It would have been harder for those people, who never got that opportunity.

"[The boycott] was just one of those things and there's no point in dwelling on what might have been.

"Even when I finished fourth in '76, when an East German won, there's talk they were probably taking drugs back then. If they hadn't been there or hadn't been taking drugs, I might have had a medal, but a bronze medal wouldn't have made much difference to me."

Those days seem a long time ago now. Since then, Perrott has had a family - son Sam and daughter Hannah - and recently celebrated the arrival of her third grandchild.

Swimming is still very much her passion.

"To be honest, I enjoy the training more than the competing, even more so now.

"When I go to swim meets, it's more about the social side of it ... catching up with people.

"I'm still quite competitive when I get in the pool, I guess, but my main goal isn't competing so much."

World Masters Games 2017 will provide even more scope for renewing old acquaintances, with many of NZ swimming's greatest all-time performers in action, headlined by fellow Commonwealth Games champions Anthony Mosse and Moss Burmeister.

"That's true, there are a whole lot of NZ swimmers competing, not so many from other countries that were swimming when I was.

"But even in other sports, like surf lifesaving ... I'm not competing there, but will try and get down to the beach one day to see some of those people, and I know some in the waterpolo too.

"It's cool to do that and definitely part of the attraction."

Perrott is entered in five individual events and is top seed for the W 55-59 200m freestyle.

"I'd like to swim times and good races I can be happy with, and win some medals hopefully," she says. "If I swam good races, but missed out on medals, I could accept that."

World Masters Games 2017 pool swimming is scheduled for April 21-27 at the Sir Owen G Glenn National Aquatic Centre, AUT Millennium, Mairangi Bay.

- NZ Herald

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