Bronze Backs Credentials of Under-the-Radar Erika Fairweather

Erika Fairweather of New Zealand shows the bronze medal after competing in the 400m Freestyle Women Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 23rd, 2023.
Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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Bronze Backs Credentials of Under-the-Radar Erika Fairweather

In her understated manner, Erika Fairweather at the Tokyo Olympics quietly warned not to count her out among a loaded distance field.

Then 17, she wasn’t as young as Summer McIntosh, wasn’t as accomplished as her fellow Oceania star Ariarne Titmus, wasn’t the setter of junior records like Li Binjie. But she had threatened four minutes, hallowed ground for female distance swimmers, and posted a time that earned fourth in prelims to make an Olympic final, where she finished eighth. Brighter days were unquestionably ahead; the only question was how luminous.

Two years later, Fairweather has answered that question, not just with a piece of significant international hardware but by bursting through a barrier that few women have breached.

Fairweather produced the best swim of her life Sunday night in Fukuoka, taking bronze in the women’s 400 freestyle at the World Aquatics Championships. In the process, she bested McIntosh and became just the fifth woman in history to break 4 minutes in a time of 3:59.59.

“I’m really stoked,” Fairweather said. “This has been the goal for a while. I dropped to that 4-minute mark a couple of months ago, so to dip under the four minutes is unreal.”

Fairweather has long been an adjunct in the conversation of global distance stars: Ledecky the presiding power, Titmus the young usurper who has now taken the throne, McIntosh the standard bearer for the next wave. Fairweather has proven that she belongs in that conversation as more than an accessory. While McIntosh was setting a world record and Ledecky was looking as strong as ever, Fairweather this spring moved up to No. 6 all-time with no attendant fanfare, which was fine by her.

Historically, four minutes is a hallowed mark. For four swimmers Sunday night to get under it is testament to the massive speed on display. (It also speaks volumes that McIntosh, on an off night where she was stung by Titmus taking her world record, still managed to get under that mark.)

With the Fukuoka foursome, only 44 swims have ever ventured under four minutes. Ledecky has 27 of them, Titmus 10, McIntosh five. The only others belong to Federica Pellegrini, in her super-suited world record from 2009, and now Fairweather.

Fairweather did it with a little racing flourish, hunting down and sprinting past McIntosh, the distance star brandishing a sprinter’s finisher.

“It was pretty cool really,” Fairweather said. “I didn’t expect to be in that position, but I have a really strong last 50 so to be able to use that was pretty cool.”

Fairweather is thriving in the underdog niche in the distance power structure. She’s from a country that isn’t a swimming power, with the potential to become one of its finest ever performers. (Her medals are the first for a Kiwi woman since Lauren Boyle eared silver in the 800 and 1,500 in 2015.)

All the hype about the tripartite battle between McIntosh, Ledecky and Titmus allowed her to pull a surprise, which suited her just fine.

“I think those three are phenomenal swimmers and we always knew it was going to be a massive battle there,” she said. “But to kind of fly under the radar and just be there with them, it was kind of good actually. It took the pressure off a little bit. I swim my best when I’m having fun, and that’s what I did today.”

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