Kirk Torrance: On leaving competitive swimming
You were a top swimmer in the 1980s - what was that like?
This was before Danyon Loader, when the thinking around swimming in New Zealand was you had to get to the United States to be any good. If you wanted to win international titles, you had to train overseas. Even though our coaches would tell us, "You can be a world champ," at the back of your mind you're thinking, "Nah, not really." We trained at the Mt Eden swimming pool. It's the s***tiest pool in the world. It's short, it's shallow. There were always sticking plasters in there. But from there we had some of the best swimmers in New Zealand. And then Danyon came along, who just smashed the world from Dunedin.
Why did you give up swimming?
I can't remember not swimming or learning to swim, I just remember it being a big part of our life. My sister was a swimmer as well - we were the first brother and sister to be in a team together at the Commonwealth Games, in Edinburgh in 1986. My sister got a scholarship to the University of Hawaii. I got offers to go to universities I didn't really want to go to and then I got offered this scholarship in Japan. I'd been to Japan with a team but only saw the hotel and the pool. So, I got to Japan and it was like, "Holy hell, what is this?" It was overwhelming, just a huge culture shock. If I could have jumped straight back on the plane that first day I would have. Then I went to Australia, swam with Australian teams, came back to New Zealand, swam at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland and thought, "I'm done." There's only so much chlorine you can take. I was 25 when I stopped swimming and I had been swimming competitively for about 15 years.
What were your career aspirations when you left the pool?
I had no idea what I was going to do next. I had no qualifications other than knowing how to tie up a pair of Speedos. I was dyslexic and back in that era once you gave up on school, school gave up on you. I didn't realise I was dyslexic until I got to drama school and I couldn't read out a script. I couldn't for the life of me figure out why. I think it was a director at the time who suggested I do a test. But during school, because I had swimming, I got to travel a lot. I could make teams and I could travel, so I didn't need school.
Was it wonderful not to have to swim every day?
I was itching to get back in the team, not because I wanted to get back to swimming but just because I didn't know what to do. I missed the purpose and the focus of it. You live in this bubble and you don't have to deal with s***. It is really discombobulating going from having such a regimented life to not knowing what you are doing.
How did you finally figure out what you wanted to do?
Someone encouraged me to apply for the broadcasting school in Christchurch. I didn't get in but I got a job with Aotearoa Radio in Papatoetoe with Syd Jackson, Hone Kaa, Temuera Morrison, Jay Laga'aia - and just as I joined, we were made redundant. We were all having a drink and Tem asked me what I was going to do and I didn't know. Again. He said, "You should try acting." He had just started being Dr Ropata on Shortland Street and he said, "Why don't you give it a go?" Tem's a generous fellow, I love him and I saw Shortland Street on TV and I thought, "I'm sure I could do that." He put me in touch with someone at drama school, who said, "There are two types of actors - those who are being themselves and those who are actors." My ego just went, "Well, I'm going to be an actor!" I got into drama school just because I was close to 30. It wasn't because I was particularly talented or anything, I was a couple of points of maturity ahead of the others. When I got out, I was 30 and lots of people told me it was too late.
You were washed up at 30?
Yeah, I was washed up at 30. One of my best skills is hanging in there, and I just hung in there thinking, "What else am I going to do? I will stick this out until I absolutely fall on my face and can't get up." So far, I can get up most times.
Kirk Torrance stars in The Dead Lands on TVNZ OnDemand.