Story: Swimming

Most New Zealanders live within easy reach of water. A 2008 survey found that recreational swimming was the most popular physical activity among New Zealanders aged 16–24 years, and the third-most popular overall – after walking and gardening.

Story by John McBeth
Main image: Anna Simcic starts the 100-metre backstroke final at the 1990 Commonwealth Games

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The first swimming pools

Public swimming pools were built in New Zealand from the 1860s. Men and women swimmers were segregated until around the First World War.

New Zealand Amateur Swimming Association

In 1890 the New Zealand Amateur Swimming Association (NZASA) was formed. It organised competitions between member clubs and promoted swimming as beneficial.

In 1892 it successfully lobbied the minister of education to recognise swimming as a school subject. In 1903 its clubs began teaching children to swim, and issuing achievement certificates.


In the early years of club and national competition only freestyle events were held. Breaststroke was officially recognised in the 1900s, followed by backstroke in the 1920s and butterfly in the 1940s.

At first swimming as a competitive sport was for men only. Men’s national championships were first contested in 1890. Championships for schoolboys were held in 1907, and in the following year schoolgirls’ competitions were introduced. Women’s national championships began to be held in 1912.

Most competitive swimming events are held in swimming pools. Competitive long-distance swims are held in harbours, lakes or the open sea.

Commonwealth and Olympic games

New Zealand has entered swimmers into every Commonwealth Games, producing a number of medallists. Swimmers have also represented New Zealand at most Olympic Games since 1912.

While several swimmers have reached Olympic finals, only five have won medals: Malcolm Champion (gold, 1912), Jean Stewart (bronze, 1952), Paul Kingsman (bronze, 1988), Anthony Mosse (bronze, 1988) and Danyon Loader (silver in 1992 and two golds in 1996).

In 2012 Loader was New Zealand’s most successful swimmer, and the only New Zealander to be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Related sports

A number of sports involving swimming are popular, including diving, synchronised swimming, water polo and underwater hockey. New Zealand’s underwater hockey teams are among the best in the world.

How to cite this page:

John McBeth, 'Swimming', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

Story by John McBeth, published 5 September 2013, updated 27 January 2015