Worlds Medalist Lewis Clareburt Enjoying Lockdown Free Training in New Zealand

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Lewis Clareburt celebrates his bronze medal in the 400 IM at the 2019 World Championships. Photo Courtesy Jo Kleindl

New Zealand’s Lewis Clareburt chatted with Swimming World about being able to train without coronavirus restrictions.

While most of the swimmers around the globe have found difficulty locating and sustaining safe pool environments to train in, swimmers in New Zealand have been able to return to the pool without any COVID-19 restrictions in place. There’s no temperature check at the door, nor a limitation on how many swimmers per lane. Coaches don’t have to wear masks on the pool deck, and the swimmers are able to swim during their normal training hours.

“I feel pretty lucky that us as a country have come out of lockdown and stopping all cases at the border,” said New Zealand swimmer Lewis Clareburt, who won the country’s first World Championships medal in four years with a bronze last summer in the 400 IM.

“It’s hard because I’m so unfit. I was the fittest I had ever been in my life up until lockdown and then now to lose everything and to come back and try to build everything up again, it’s definitely pretty hard but it is great to be back in the water.”

New Zealand had been on COVID-19 lockdown for nearly seven weeks starting in March, Clareburt estimated. Last summer, he became the first New Zealand man to stand on the podium at a World Championships since before he was even born. In 2020, Clareburt was in the best shape of his life, and ready to attack the Olympic Trials.

But in the weeks leading up to the March championships, questions surrounded the safety of holding a meet with so many people in close proximity. With coronavirus cases rising around the world, competitions were being threatened with cancellation. Swimming New Zealand had originally prohibited spectators from the championships, before deciding that only 90% of the competitors would be allowed. Then ultimately on March 24, the meet was cancelled. New Zealand citizens, like much of the rest of the world, were not allowed to leave their homes.

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Lewis Clareburt at the 2019 Nationals – Photo Courtesy: Simon Watts/BW Media

“It was very strict at the start,” Lewis Clareburt said of New Zealand’s quarantine. “During our lockdown, if you wanted to go outside the only reason would be if you were getting food from a supermarket or you were getting medical supplies. No one was given high priority over someone else. Everyone was on the same sort of level which was pretty sweet.

“We weren’t allowed to train at all but I guess it was cool when the cases started to drop and everyone started to get a little excited and I think it must have been 10 or more days with no new cases. Now, we are around 99% back to normal. The only thing is we can’t travel and there’s a few signs around saying ‘use hand sanitizer’ and all that sort of stuff. For us we are back to the normal schedule and no international stuff at the moment.”

Thanks to a strict handling of the virus, New Zealand’s lockdown lasted only six weeks, and the swimmers were allowed to return to the pool – if they had access to one.

“A lot of pools up north there were water restrictions so they emptied the pool and couldn’t fill it back up. For us there was little pool space availability because they made the lanes double the size to cope with social distancing so it was hard to find lane space.

Even with a shorter time out of the water compared to swimmers from other countries, Clareburt still found it difficult to get back into the shape he was in before the lockdown.

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Lewis Clareburt poses with his bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships. Photo Courtesy: Jo Kleindl

“I didn’t have much motivation at all (during lockdown), I used it as a time to reset and reflect over the whole season and years that I’ve been swimming and to sort of prepare myself to get back into the pool and to start training again. It was hard over lockdown but I’m sort of a goal oriented person so as soon as we were back in the swing of things I was pretty motivated to get back training and work towards the next year ahead.

“We are definitely still trying to build up to where we were. It’s taken so long – we’ve been in the pool nearly two months but it’s taken a while. We are in the middle of winter right now so I’ve had some minor sickness and that sort of stuff so we have had our ups and downs, but still building up.”

At the moment, Clareburt and the rest of the elite swimmers in New Zealand don’t have a set date for a return to international competition. New Zealand citizens are still unable to leave the country, but a potential trip to Australia could be in the works. In a normal year, the land down under would be a popular international destination for Kiwi athletes striving to race some of the world’s best.

“We don’t have much in terms of meets. A lot of our stuff is actually international where our competition is. We have the New Zealand Short Course Championships at the start of October which is probably the next big thing. I’m not the biggest fan of short course swimming but I guess that is the only thing we’ve got at the moment.

“I think they are thinking about creating a bubble between New Zealand and Australia. I guess because a lot of Australia is doing well with the handling of the coronavirus. At the moment we are not allowed to leave, and they aren’t allowed to come here but we are hoping towards the end of the year, fingers crossed that stuff will start opening up and we can go to say like the Queensland State Championships. That’s probably the biggest one I’m sort of looking forward to that I hope we can go to.”

The Olympic Games were set to take place in nearly 10 days before COVID-19 pushed the global competition back an entire year. The Kiwis haven’t won a medal at the Olympics in swimming since Danyon Loader claimed the 200/400 freestyle double in Atlanta in 1996, three years before Clareburt was born. New Zealand doesn’t have a national training center, and he is training at the same club in Wellington that he has been at since he was a young age group swimmer, where he has been able to suit up for a couple of time trials, but “nothing too crazy yet.”

Now Lewis Clareburt is focusing on building up his endurance so he can get back to his hard 400 IM training to push towards a spot on the podium in Tokyo. At last year’s World Championships, Clareburt finished behind Japan’s Daiya Seto and American Jay Litherland in the 400 medley.

“I’m goal orientated so with my 2019 goals, I just went straight into my 2020 goals to keep me motivated throughout the whole year, I guess it is pretty easy. I enjoy the grind, but I guess if you are a swimmer you have to enjoy the grind a little bit more than most other sports so it is pretty easy for me at the moment.”

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