Lewis Clareburt’s coach made the bold claim this week – as his charge racked up the Commonwealth Games medals – that the Wellington swimmer could be the best in the world.
The 23-year-old won gold in his specialist 400m Individual Medley event, scored a surprise second triumph in the 200m butterfly and then capped his Birmingham campaign with bronze in the 200 IM.
“He can be the best in the world if he wants to be,” coach Gary Hollywood said as he and Clareburt plan towards the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“He’s got the talent for it … there’s no limits, it’s whatever he wants.”
But does Clareburt believe that as much as his coach does?
“I believe he’s starting to believe more and more,” Hollywood said.
The youngest of three siblings, after sisters Ali and Amelia, Clareburt started swimming early.
“My mom [Robyn] said she threw me in the water at three, and I started competing when I was eight,” Clareburt said previously.
Making a splash
It wasn’t all a smooth progression competitively. At 13 he was ready to quit, but joining the Lyall Bay Surf Club helped him rediscover his enjoyment in the water.
“I had a rough patch in swimming,” he said.
“I hadn’t grown, and I wasn’t doing that well, so I decided to join surfing because it was fun. I did it for the enjoyment of getting away from the pool and catching some waves.”
Hollywood, who coached in the UK and Australia before landing in New Zealand, said Clareburt was pondering his future in the pool when they first met.
“When he was 16, I walked through his door – at his pool in Wellington.
”And he asked me: ‘I’m not sure – what should I be looking to do? Where should I be looking to go? I’ve only got a couple of years left to go to school and I need to be thinking about options.’
“I said to him ‘really the [United] States is not the place for you. You could get a scholarship and a great education, but Americans don’t care about the Commonwealth Games, it’s about the NCAAs [national university champs].
“The High Performance center in Auckland wasn’t really working as I could see – we had a nice guy, an American, but [former national coach and general manager of performance] Jan Cameron used to tell me Americans never stayed in New Zealand, and she was right.
”My best honest advice – and I had to pause, because throughout my career I’ve never backed myself … I’ve always believed there was someone better that can take my athletes to the next stage … was: ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think the best place for you right now is to stay here with me’.”
Climbing the ladder
Clareburt won eight gold medals at the NZ Age Group championships in 2017 but missed out on the initial selection announcement for the 2018 Commonwealth Games three days before Christmas.
He was included two months later due to his ranking of seventh in the Commonwealth in the 400m individual medley and other sports not being able to fill their athlete quota, and showed why he deserved his spot with a bronze in the 400IM.
Bronze at the 2019 world champs in South Korea in the same event – which consists of two laps each of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle – confirmed his top-flight ability, becoming just the fifth New Zealander to win a medal at the world championships and first male to do so since the great Danyon Loader in 1994.
It appeared an Olympic medal was well within reach in Tokyo last year when he was the second-fastest qualifier but couldn’t back that up, finishing seventh in the final after admitting he struggled with the unusual schedule of heats in the evening and finals in the morning.
Affected by Covid, having his wisdom teeth removed and a stomach bug, Clareburt delivered a brave performance to finish fourth at the world champs in June and then improved his time by two seconds to win in Birmingham.
Clareburt is in impressive physical shape but is not an imposing figure like some swimmers and that’s how Hollywood likes it.
“I learned lessons from the Australians when Eamon Sullivan took to the AIS [Australian Institute of Sport]he was a 100/50m freestyler,” Hollywood said.
“He just did too much work in the gym, and there was too much resistance in the water.
”For a 400IMer, you look at a 4-minute miler [in athletics]. I talked to Adam Allen, his strength and conditioning coach and said ‘make him stronger, but don’t make him bigger’.
Hollywood said Clareburt’s lung function is 15% above average, which coupled with his great speed make him world-class.
Big fish in a small pool
However, Clareburt and his coach have one major problem – the lack of a specialist training facility in the capital.
“We struggle to get 50m lane space,” Hollywood said.
“We’ve got two hours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, but if there’s an underwater hockey tournament, or a water polo tournament, training can get cancelled, and we’ve got no other long course available to us over the rest of the week.
“When we were in Majorca [at a training camp prior to Birmingham], we had four weeks of 50m training and we could do things properly. We rehearse what it is we want to do in a competitive pool.
”Back in Wellington in the 25m lanes with little space, you’re always compromising something.
“We want to go to Paris and stand on the podium there with a gold medal and we want to have the best possible conditions to make that happen, and not always beg, borrow and steal pool time.
“We need a lot of our positive energy to train, and not continuously getting our energy sapped by trying to get things that really should be there for him.”
Clareburt doesn’t have any plans to move, however, as he also studies at the university in the capital.
“He’s a homeboy,” Hollywood said.
“Victoria University has been absolutely fantastic. We’re making sure after he’s finished swimming he’ll have an education and a future.
“He just bought a house close to the pool. He likes convenience and being close to the surroundings.”
Hollywood described Clareburt as “a huge talent, and I think the country needs to look after him.
“He’s got very high morals. He’s got a very strong sense of what’s right and wrong and he’s very conscious about walking down the right road.
“Adam Allen thinks he’s an absolute dream to work with in the gym. He’s not someone who tries to burn a candle at both ends, he has a purpose and goals he wants to achieve. I’ve very rarely had an athlete who was so conscientious with his preparation.
”He’d be sitting at the dining room table having a conversation and nine o’clock rolls around and it doesn’t matter who’s there; he’ll just get up and excuse himself and go to bed.”