Lewis Clareburt [2008 – 2017]

Lewis in 2017

Lewis Clareburt measures his life in seconds. The 21-year old spends practically every moment in Wellington’s Freyburg Pool. His goal: cut a few more seconds off of his Personal Best and win Aotearoa a medal at the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics.

He seems well positioned to do so. “I’ve been swimming my whole life,” he laughs. “Apparently my mum threw me in the pool at three years old for lessons, and from there I built my way up through the ranks.” That career has culminated, so far, in two bronze medals on the world stage for the 400 metre medley (a combination of backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle), once at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games and then again in the 2019 South Korea World Championships. His current PB – 4 minutes and 9 seconds – is just three seconds shy of Kosuke Hagino’s gold-winning performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

But Clareburt isn’t feeling complacent. When I ask where he thinks he ranks internationally, his answer is quick and confident: “Sixth.” When I ask what he would have to do this year in order to achieve what he wants, his answer is similarly swift: “Cut nine seconds.” It’s a staggeringly ambitious goal: it has taken Clareburt the last five years to cut his PB by a similar amount. If he accomplished it this year, he would take Michael Phelps’ place as the world record holder.

If anyone can do it, Clareburt can. To eliminate those seconds, and jump the five swimmers ahead of him, he and his coach Gary Hollywood are treating his body like a finely-tuned machine. “You’re working with the smallest of margins, focusing on making every little thing better.”

He’s currently focused on his turns. “My backstroke to breaststroke turn needs to be under one second, from the time I touch the wall to the time I push off the wall. That’s the same with breaststroke to freestyle, and breaststroke to freestyle.” At the same time as speeding up his turns, he also needs to make them more powerful. Previously he’s gone one to two metres off the wall after a turn; now, he’s aiming to go up to ten to fifteen metres at a time. “It’s possibly one of my most difficult challenges of the past few years.” He seems excited about it.

That competitive spirit is unmissable when one talks to Clareburt. And it’s one which he partially credits to his time at Scots College – a school without a pool or even a particularly good swimming team. But he remembers how the then-principal Peter Cassie would insist on hauling in front of the school assembly any student who had performed particularly well at something.

“It would motivate you to be better. To have those little successes along the way so you could be celebrated for it a bit.” He chuckles. “The New Zealand culture is to not be a tall poppy. But at Scots, that was different. They celebrated your successes and wanted you to be the best you could be.” And as Clareburt counts down the days and seconds until he gets in the pool in Tokyo, ‘the best he can be’ seems limitless.

Words by Pete McKenzie [2021-2016]

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