Clareburt in the fast lane
Feeling flat, and lacking motivation after seven weeks out of the pool during lockdown, Lewis Clareburt wondered ‘what next’, as the oneyear countdown to the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics began.
A trip to Budapest, Hungary, last October wouldn’t have made every New Zealander’s must-do list, but for the 21-year-oldwellington swimmer that competitive stint meant the resurrection of his Olympic campaign.
Now, as the 100-day countdown is under way for Tokyo, Clareburt will fine-tune with coach Gary Hollywood in the public lanes of Wellington’s Freyberg Pool after clocking the world’s second-fastest 400m individualmedley time this year at the national championships in Auckland.
The time of 4min 09.87sec lopped more than 2sec off his own national record, set when securing world championships bronze in South Korea in 2019.
Covid-19 permitting, Clareburt will jet off in July as a realistic chance of becomingnew Zealand’s first Olympic medallist in the pool since Danyon Loader in Atlanta nearly 25 years ago, when he swims the 400 individual medley heats scheduled for opening night on July 24.
This time last year it was a struggle formany, including Clareburtwho had his longest stint out of the pool as the country closed down. Hollywood estimates it set his progress back nearly eight months, when he was on target to swim 4:07 if Tokyo had gone ahead as scheduled.
Instead, he masked up and jetted across the world to the International Swim League.
‘‘It was tough because not everyone stopped swimming during Covid. It was frustrating knowing some people were training, and coming back it took two months to get anywhere near where I was before Covid,’’ he said.
‘‘To go to Budapest, I was injured and had possibly one of the worst competitions of my life. Some of the time they didn’t swim me because I wasn’t fast enough. Once all that happened, and I realised, ‘I know it’s there but I still don’t have it’, coming back in December in the next few months I probably had the best training cycle ofmy life.
‘‘I just had moremotivation and after Covid I lost the love for training hard because I wasn’t racing and seeingwhere I was at.’’
He had a little help from his friends, too. Brazil’s Brandonn Almeida, a 400IM rival, became a mate and they spurred each other on in competition. German Marco Koch, the former short course 200m breaststroke world record-holder, completely revamped Clareburt’s technique.
‘‘I flicked him a message in January after I raced the 200m breaststroke and I took 10sec off my PB. I was like ‘damn, whatever you did, bro, you’ve completely revolutionised it’.’’
Then, earlier this month at the National Aquatic Centre for the Olympic trials, Clareburt’s familiar disbelieving smile returned – the one he wore when securing Commonwealth Games bronze in 2018 and when standing atop the word championships podium.
‘‘We were only really aiming for a 4:11 so when it came together and I went 4:09 I was quite surprised.
‘‘I knew I was capable of at least a sub-4:10 but I was planning on doing that at the Olympics. When we get it a little bit early it’s quite nice. All the work that we’ve been doing the past two years, different skills and drills, has paid off.’’
Only Daiya Seto, world champion in 2019, has swum faster this yearwith a 4:09.02 at Japan’s trials. Having been suspended by the Japan Swimming Federation for the latter part of 2020 for having an extra-marital affair, Seto returned with a new coach and reportedly said hewould target Michael Phelps’ world record of 4:03.84 set at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
The Australian and British trials are underway, and the United States’ are upcoming as Clareburt keeps a close eye on the 400IM times.
Clareburt won’t eyeball Seto or any of his other rivals until Tokyo, after also breaking Brad Ashby’s 200IM national record by 1.35sec in Auckland to ensure his spot in that event, too.
In terms of competitive racing that’s it until the Games in this Covid-clouded world, with Hollywood insisting Clareburt stay safe in the capital to train until his two-week taper in Auckland in July before departure.
He’ll be among the first Kiwis in the Games village, five days before competition.
It means his fellow Capital Swim Clubmembers who jostle for space with recreational swimmers under Hollywood’s guidance will help lift Clareburt, who opted out of the national programme to remain in Wellington in familiar surrounds with family and sponsors’ support.
His ‘races’ will be against women 400m freestylers, or a 4x100m medley relay team.
How much faster Clareburt can go in a tick over threemonths is the million-dollar question.
‘‘It’s such smallmargins that can make such a big difference in the outcome. Who knows? Sub 4:10 definitely puts you thereabouts. I know there’s four or five guys who can go sub 4:10 so it’s just depending on the day.’’
When Hollywood first started coaching Clareburt at 16, he set two lofty future targets: Olympic gold and a 400IM world record. The latter may be out of reach this year but the Irishman hasn’t changed his opinion of Clareburt’s ability.
Hollywood plays down expectations, but was also pleasantly surprised by his Auckland times.
‘‘I’d hate to say he’s on target for a medal. I’d prefer to say he’s still got an outside chance of a bronze. The Americans haven’t swum their trials yet and I’m not sure what shape Seto is in.’’
‘‘All these guys I train with are amateur, nonpaid athletes. They’re doing it for themselves really because they want to get better and make the Commonwealth or Olympic Games in the future.’’