Lewis Clareburt after coming first in his race at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

The uphill swim for gold

We’re all incredibly proud of swimming sensation Lewis Clareburt and his achievements at the 2022 Commonwealth Games at Birmingham, where he accounted for two of the five gold medals New Zealand won in the swimming events. However, while we join all our swimmers in enjoying the warm glow of gold and personal bests, it has come at a cost only equalled by their significant levels of personal commitment.

23-year-old Lewis competed in three events at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, winning gold medals for New Zealand in the Men’s 400m Individual Medley with a best personal time and record-breaking Games time of 4:08.70, and in the Men’s 200m Butterfly, where he conquered swimming legend Chad le Clos. He rounded off his medal tally with a bronze for the Men’s 200m Individual Medley.

These wins make Lewis the first Kiwi man to win a Commonwealth Games gold for swimming since Moss Burmester (Melbourne - 2006) and the second only New Zealander since Sophie Pascoe (Gold Coast - 2018) to win multiple golds at the same Games.

Rising star 20-year-old Erika Fairweather competed in two very strong Women’s swimming events at the 2022 Games. While she didn’t walk away with medals, Erika was placed fifth in a field of thirty in the 200m Freestyle with a personal best of 1:57.08, and fourth in a world-class field of twenty-five swimmers in the 400m Freestyle, with her second best ever time of 4:03.84, making her someone to watch out for in future events.

Is it sink or swim time?

While Lewis, Erika and our other swimmers have delighted us with their achievements, what now? Or more to the point, what are we willing to do to support them in the lead-up to the 2023 Paris Olympics?

The last time a swimmer won Olympic gold (or, in fact, any colour) for New Zealand were  the medals claimed in 1996 by Danyon Loader at the Atlanta Games. But the shortfall in funding needed by high-flying Team Clareburt and others for a successful training build-up to next year’s Olympics means gold may prove to be out of reach this time around.

Lewis’ coach, Gary Hollywood, says they have little certainty of where the money they need will come from, which is unsettling, to say the least, when we are talking about a swimmer who is breaking records. While it’s reported Australia invests around thirty million annually in their swim programme, New Zealand commits barely one million.

Without the support of private backers, says Gary, he and Lewis wouldn’t even be able to make ends meet. The New Zealand Herald recently quoted Gary as saying, "I've never had a budget, personally speaking, for the last six years, so I don't have anything to work with. We've been lucky in terms of Rebecca Tohill, Founding Member and former CEO of Fusion5, who has heavily subsidised the programme and helped me; she pays for my phone bill, she pays for my laptop, and she's helped Lewis and his family with camps. Without some of the private sponsorship we've had I just don't know where we'd be right now."

Even the struggle to find pool lane space for elite swimmers is real, with often only one 25-metre lane available for six athletes.

Is just being there good enough?

Gary says that there is currently more noise around participation than performance. While he understands the desire for the whole community to have the opportunity to join in, he says we need to remember that performance excellence is what inspires the next generation. And that means medals.

“Without the financial support needed to turn a promising swimmer into one who is fully equipped and trained to do their very best, our medals will be few and far between,” says Rebecca, a former member of the New Zealand swim team.

Rebecca is still a keen competitive swimmer and most recently broke the New Zealand Masters Games record in her age group for the Women’s 100 and 200m Breaststroke. She’s no stranger to the difference that financial support can give to an aspiring athlete and has, through Fusion5, backed Lewis for over five years and, more recently, Erika for the past two.

Fusion5’s sponsorship includes monthly financial support to Lewis and Erika, plus access to technology and phones as needed for both of them, as well as Gary, through to providing accommodation at events to Lewis’ biggest supporters of all – his enormously proud parents.

“We’re really proud to be in a position to offer support to Erika and Lewis” says Rebecca. “Being part of their journey in any way really energises our people here at Fusion5, and we love sharing their success stories with customers. It’s exciting to follow their growth, and we’re looking forward to seeing what each of them does next.”

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