Olympics

Swift freestyler following Olympian mum

With an Olympic swimming medallist as her mum, Eve Thomas has no shortage of inspiration driving her to swim for NZ at the Tokyo Olympics.

Most athletes denied a trip to the Tokyo Olympics this year were seriously disappointed. All those early starts, long days, striving to better themselves - only to have it taken away by a force way beyond their control. Most athletes, but not all.

Take gifted teenage swimmer Eve Thomas. At 19, Thomas was set to make her debut Olympic splash for the first time this year.

But she’s planning to be around a while. Even if things turn sour on the rescheduled Games next year, she figures she’s still got at least two Olympic Games in her. She’s not planning on disappearing any time soon.

Thomas talks of an upside for her in the Games postponement; more time to hone her development and to put it simply, get faster.

“Being a young athlete there were slight advantages of an extra year to train. In a year I could drop 10 to 15 seconds over 1500m, and that could squeak me into the final,” Thomas says.

 
 

There’s a glass half full optimism about Thomas, who didn’t win her first national title until she was 17. But you could say there is something in the genetics which has made her a rapid riser in the sport.

Her mother Sarah, née Hardcastle, was Britain’s youngest Olympic medallist, when at 15 she won silver and bronze freestyle medals at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

Throw in Commonwealth Games and world short course championship golds as well, and there’s plenty for daughter Eve to aspire to.

She reckons she was about six when she and her three brothers became aware that Mum (pictured above with Thomas) was a celebrated athlete, at least in the UK.

Born in Southend, on the Thames Estuary, Thomas moved aged three to Auckland where the family - including brothers Iwan, Aled and Huw and father Lee - settled in Orewa.

While none of her brothers took to the pool, young Eve was at the Coast swim club in Silverdale at six, and before long, was up at 5am four mornings a week.

“I loved swimming so it wasn’t a problem,” she says.

“My parents never pushed me to do swimming; I chose to become a competitive swimmer. I wasn’t actually very talented, but I just really enjoyed it.”

It was not until three years ago Thomas decided to have a crack at making it as a serious swimmer. Progress was swift to the point she went to the world championships in South Korea last year, and helped produce a 4 x 200m Olympic qualifying time along with Carina Doyle, Erika Fairweather and Chelsey Edwards.

She also pushed out a personal best 800m freestyle time of 8m 37.75s, about three seconds shy of the Olympic qualifying time, at last December’s Queensland state championships.

That was the meet where Thomas also clocked 16m 27s in the 1500m free - four seconds inside the Olympics qualifying standard.

She was looking forward to racing the national trials in March because she felt she had a good chance of going under again the qualifying time again.

Last year, Thomas joined the St Peters Western swim club in Brisbane, following her Auckland coach John Gatfield across there after weighing up her options.

Gatfield had been her coach since she was 13. He subsequently returned to New Zealand but Thomas stayed on, and has been under the guidance of the highly-regarded Dean Boxall.

Thomas graduated from the age group team to the top squad at the Brisbane club, where her training partner is now Australian star Ariarne Titmus.

Eve Thomas warming up for the 400m freestyle at the 2018 Aon national open swim champs. Photo: Simon Watts/BW Media

In March, life as we knew it in New Zealand changed. The country went into lockdown. And across the Tasman, Thomas was suddenly drawn into it too.

“I was a waitress at a local restaurant in Brisbane and went on a break in the middle of my shift. I found I had 32 missed calls,” Thomas says.

“I went out to the bar area and saw my parents walk in. They sat me down and said: ‘We have to fly back to New Zealand right now’.”

With the clock ticking down towards quarantine in New Zealand kicked in. Thomas managed to fly home the next day.

Plans for the national open championships were ditched, but there was a plan to have a time trial for swimmers on the national long list for Tokyo. Then the Games were postponed and the trial followed suit.

After nine days in New Zealand, Thomas decided to fly back to Australia before the country closed its borders.

“I was trying to keep myself hyped up to race when things kept being knocked down,” she says.

“It was challenging not to let it get the better of you. You had to be mentally ready to race but everything was tumbling down around you.”

After a fortnight quarantine in Queensland, Thomas has been back in the pool, training to be ready for when competition starts again. She hasn’t swum a meet since the Queensland champs nine months ago.

Her next opportunity will be the same event this December, all things going well. Then it will be the Olympic trials around March, before Tokyo, fingers crossed, in July. Hardly a standard preparation.

Still, she’s making the best of it and a few days ago began a hard core eight-week training block.

Her training partner, Titmus, shot to international fame at last year’s world champs, by toppling the seemingly unbeatable Katie Ledecky to win the 400m freestyle final – the first time the great American had been beaten over 400m, 800m or 1500m since 2012.

You could scarcely hope for a better training partner than the 19-year-old who hails from Tasmania.

“Training alongside ‘Arnie’ is a constant reminder of where I want to be, and where I want to take this. Each day, how much closer can I be?,” Thomas says.

“For example, in one session I was hanging onto her and, thinking back and year and a half ago, I’d never have been able to do that.”

As a motivational tool, if things are quiet in the pool, Thomas will watch old races. Titmus’ win over Ledecky is one of her favourites. “It’s the goosebumps feeling, where you get your inspiration and motivation back on track.”

There’s another New Zealander, freestyle sprinter Michael Pickett, in the St Peters Western squad alongside Thomas.

So how hard is that hard core training block? Try nine swims a week, averaging 6-8km per swim and around three hours in the water each time; three gym sessions, two with a personal trainer, and three cardio workouts, usually on a bike or run.

The NZ relay team who qualified NZ for Tokyo - from left Erika Fairweather, Eve Thomas, Carina Doyle and Chelsea Edwards. Photo: supplied.

Thomas has put her plans for university on hold this year but, Olympics or not, aims to start her degree in psychology out of Auckland or Massey next year. She knows getting the blend of training, competition and study right will be challenging.

Thomas has a life coach working with her, former Olympic swimmer Hannah McLean.

For now, the main focus is improving her times. She cites the tumble turns as an example.

In a 1500m race, she’ll do 29 of them. If she can shave 0.5s off each one, that’s a fair chunk of time saved.

But if things do go pear-shaped next year, Thomas’ philosophy is she’ll still have Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028.

“I’ll only be 27 [in 2028]. It’s not like the end of the world if the Olympics are cancelled next year,” she says. “There are other competitions. It’s all out of everybody’s control so it’s pretty much a waiting game.”

Her focus for now is improving her times.

“That’s the main goal. I’m keen to see what I can do.”

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