Leading New Zealand swimmer Lewis Clareburt is quitting his Wellington training base this week, leaving behind his long-standing coach nine months out from the Paris Olympics.
It follows several years of enduring challenges faced by the double Commonwealth Games medley champion and coach Gary Hollywood as a result of their reliance on lane availability at Wellington City Council-operated public pools.
Since Clareburt burst onto the world stage with a bronze medal at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, the benefits of being around a close-knit support network of friends and family in Wellington outweighed the challenges of dealing with lane space restrictions and the range of aquatic events at the Wellington Regional Aquatic Centre (WRAC) in Kilbirnie.
But nine months out from his second Olympic campaign, the 24-year-old told the Herald he needs to give himself the best chance of a medal.
“I decided in the last couple of weeks that, if I would like to keep that dream alive, I need to be in an environment that is really supportive of high-performance athletes and they understand the process of what it takes to get there.
“I’ve decided to head up to Auckland to finish that journey to Paris”.
Although still finalising his new club and training arrangements, Clareburt points out the AUT Millenium 50-metre pool on Auckland’s North Shore, boasting 10 lanes, would give his training programme profound freedom compared with what he’s had in the capital.
“You can have the lane space you want, you can work around your own schedule, and right next door is High-Performance Sport NZ [HPSNZ] where you can work around some of the best physios and all that right on your doorstep.”
Despite Clareburt’s rising profile and increased international success – notably at last year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham – he continued to have long-course lane bookings cancelled or altered at short notice by staff at WRAC, the Wellington region’s only 50-metre pool.
Regular disruptions hampered Clareburt’s already limited access to long-course 50-metre lanes, meaning that, in a typical week, he was able to swim in them for only three of his nine weekly training sessions.
Clareburt had already been close to ditching Wellington at the start of the year when tensions boiled over with WRAC staff over lane access, forcing HPSNZ, Swimming New Zealand and Wellington City Council to meet urgently to draw up a new booking agreement by which Swimming NZ would hire dedicated high-performance lanes for Clareburt, Hollywood and their training group, rather than it being managed through Clareburt’s former club, the Capital Swim Club.
However, the Herald has learned of several cases where WRAC staff breached the city council’s signed contract with Swimming NZ by not giving Clareburt and Hollywood a month’s notice for cancellations or alterations of lane bookings.
In one recent case, a pool booking co-ordinator gave just four days’ notice of Clareburt losing 50-metre training time due to an arranged event.
The council had also agreed to accommodate Clareburt at the city’s Freyberg Pool if lanes at WRAC were unavailable, but in at least one recent instance the pair were told at short notice there was no space for them at any of the city’s pools for a Monday morning session.
In a statement, Wellington City Council chief operating officer James Roberts described the incidents as unfortunate.
“Most of these incidents have resulted from communication breakdowns, which we’re keen to address and eliminate,” he said.
“WRAC and Freyberg are both heavily used community pools and there is an inherent need for compromise in terms of pool usage and priorities.”
The Herald understands the regular lane space issues caused a strained relationship with WRAC staff, which reached boiling point earlier this month when Clareburt received an unexpected email from the WRAC pool manager, imposing restrictions on his camera use for his social media followers and a request to remove gear bags.
It’s understood that, in a last-ditch bid to keep Clareburt in Wellington and ensure smooth sailing until the Paris Games, a senior Wellington City Council manager offered to be the pair’s point of contact for all pool-related issues, instead of the WRAC manager and other staff.
But even the promise of fortnightly meetings to iron out lingering issues looks to have come too late.
Clareburt said he appreciated the tough situation faced by the council in running facilities that must be available to the community.
“They’re trying to run a high-performance unit in a community facility with community constraints, and that’s really tough. I’ve got so much empathy for them trying to achieve that but, at the end of the day, it was just too tough to be able to do that all in the one facility.”
He said the council’s rules around camera use restricted him as a professional athlete.
“There were rules that I didn’t agree with – they made it extremely difficult for me to do any social media at the pool, which I thought is a huge part of being an athlete these days.
“Essentially, you’re trying to sell the sport to the younger generation and, if you can’t share that journey and experience, then what’s the point of even doing it?
“I sat down with some of the management at the council and they were super supportive and understood that maybe some of their rules were outdated, and they were willing to support me as much as possible.”
Clareburt acknowledged the hardest part of his decision to head north was leaving behind his large support network in the capital, particularly Hollywood, who has coached him since he was 16, overseeing seven Commonwealth Youth Games medals, two gold medals and two bronzes at the Commonwealth Games and a World Championships bronze.
“Gaz has made my dreams come true, we’ve been together since 2016, and yeah, it’s been an awesome journey.
“He’s not able to come to Auckland, essentially, so that’s why we’ve decided, not necessarily to split ways, but for someone else to run the programme.
“We’ve been through everything together so we’re obviously going to stay in touch and he’s excited for me to move on to whatever’s next all the way to Paris.”
He also acknowledged his wider base for their support in the rare feat of operating out of a non-centralised high-performance base.
“We’ve been trying to build this awesome environment out of Wellington, and to leave them is tough. It’s going to be a different experience for me, a few unknowns, but I know that the next nine months are probably the most important months of my career … that’s going to require a lot of focus”.
Swimming New Zealand chief executive Steve Johns backed Clareburt’s move north.
“There are more opportunities for him in Auckland, in terms of access to 50-metre pool space and access to high-performance facilities, so when you weigh all of that up in relation to him staying at his home base, we all agree that the right decision for Lewis at this time is to move north.”
Johns acknowledged the risks of such a significant move so close to an Olympics.
“There’s always a risk in everything we do, there’s also a risk in him staying in Wellington as well, given the additional opportunities that are up here in Auckland, and that’s why it wasn’t a decision that was made overnight”.
Clareburt recorded a time of 4:11.29 to finish sixth in his preferred 400-metre individual medley at this year’s World Championships in Japan, nearly three seconds slower than his personal best of 4:08.70 posted just a year earlier that saw him clinch one of two gold medals at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
And his international opponents have showcased relentless speed, with France’s Leon Marchand winning the world title in Fukuoka in a world record time of 4:02.50.
Clareburt is hopeful his shift from Wellington will ensure he can dedicate his full energy to improving his speed, without unwanted distractions.
Once settled in Auckland, his focus will turn to preparing for February’s world championships in Doha, where Olympic qualifying can be secured.
“The next nine months are probably going to be the most important months of my career.
“Obviously I want to keep going after Paris, but it’s just going to require a lot of focus and an environment that will help me get there, and I thought that [Auckland] is the best place for me.
“It has been a rollercoaster for sure, but for me I’m at the point where I’m so excited about swimming and just really want to be competitive, even watching the All Blacks for the last month or so it really excited us athletes to do well on the world stage.”