Tokyo Olympics: Swimmer Erika Fairweather confounds rankings to reach freestyle final

Two weeks ago, Dunedin teenager Erika Fairweather was serenaded by All Blacks prop Angus Ta'avao, as her Kavanagh College schoolmates wished her luck for the Tokyo Olympics.

She was the youngest member of the biggest NZ team named for an Olympics, but probably not expected to make much of an impact at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

"So you're a freestyler," teased the international rugby prop. "I'm a bit of a freestyler myself.

"Erika, Erika, training to get betterer, not a real word, stay in school to get cleverer."

But Fairweather, 17, has taken just over four minutes to show the world she's not here just to duck class.

If Lewis Clareburt represented New Zealand's best hope of breaking a swimming medal drought that has lasted quarter of a century, the young freestyler has snuck under the radar, clocking the fourth fastest time in heats to qualify for Monday's 400m freestyle final.

Ranked 15th among the Games entries, her time of 4m 02.28s hacked four seconds off her previous best and broke a national record held by former Commonwealth Games champion Lauren Boyle, who finished eighth over 400 metres and fourth over 800 metres at the 2012 London Olympics.

With American world recordholder and reigning Olympic champion Katie Ledecky cruising to 4m00.45s in the previous race, most eyes were an Australian Ariarne Titmus in the centre of the pool and she duly obliged, leading all the way for a 4m 01.66s victory in final heat.

But way out in lane eight, Fairweather was quietly producing the race of her life, trailling the Aussie through 250m, briefly conceding second to Chinese Muhan Tang, but closing on Titmus over the final 100m.

Afterwards, she could be seen staring up at the scoreboard in disbelief, telling herself: "That's really fast."

If anything, Fairweather was probably expected to be more of a force over 200 metres, where she won the 2019 world junior title. Now she seems a genuine medal prospect over the longer distance, but must also back up for the shorter heats on Monday night. 

Meanwhile, the OlyWhites have suffered a double blow to their hopes of progressing out of football pool play, falling 3-2 to Honduras and likely losing captain Winston Reid to injury for the rest of the tournament.

Reid succumbed to a knee injury just moments after the start, but his team lead for most of the contest, only to lose with a soft goal as fulltime approached. New Zealand's two goals were crackers from Liberato Cacace in the 10th minute and Chris Wood early in the second half.

With South Korea defeating Romania 4-0, all four teams in Group B now have a win and a loss, with the OlyWhites needing victory over the Europeans on Wednesday to seal their quarter-final spot. 

Honduras celebrate victory over the OlyWhites
Honduras celebrate victory over the OlyWhites. Photo credit: Getty

After the Black Sticks women began their campaign with an upset win over Argentina on Sunday afternoon, the men have turned theirs around with a breathtaking 4-3 win over Spain early Monday morning (NZ time).

New Zealand seemed well in control of the contest, leading early and ahead 2-1 at halftime, but conceded two goals in the third quarter to fall behind and needed a late winner from Jake Smith to pull victory out of the fire.

After losing their opener against India, they now sit third in Group A, with the top four teams qualifying for quarter-finals, and face winless hosts Japan on Tuesday.

Coming Monday...


Women's Pool B - Black Sticks v Japan 11:45pm NZ


Men's cross country - Anton Cooper 6pm NZ


Men's Laser Races 2 & 3 - Sam Meech 3:05pm NZ


Men's pool round - All Blacks Sevens v Korea 1pm NZ

Men's pool round - All Blacks Sevens v Argentina 8:30pm NZ


Women's skeet qualifying 2 & finals - Chloe Tipple noon & 5:50pm NZ


Women's Round 3 - Ella Williams v Brisa Hennessy (Costa Rica) 11:12am NZ

Men's Round 3 - Billy Stairmand v Italo Ferreira (Brazil) 5:12pm NZ


Women's 400m freestyle final - Erika Fairweather 2:20pm NZ

Women's 200m freestyle heats - Erika Fairweather 10:05pm NZ

Women's 1500m freestyle heats - Hayley McIntosh & Eve Thomas 11:08pm NZ


Men's doubles second round - Marcus Daniell & Michael Venus v Koolhoff/Rojer (Netherlands) 5pm NZ


Men's individual - Tayler Reid & Hayden Wilde 9:30am NZ