In the early years of club and national competition, only freestyle events were scheduled. Breaststroke was the next stroke to be officially recognised – in the 1900s. It was followed by backstroke in the 1920s and butterfly in the 1940s.
Initially competitive swimming was for men only. The first recorded club competition was held in Christchurch in March 1881. National championships were first contested in 1890. Two events (the 100-yard and the half-mile championships) were held in Hamilton. One (the 440-yard jubilee championship) was held in Auckland.
It was not until 1905 that an integrated national championship meeting was held in Whanganui, where J. M. Hamilton of Greymouth won the three main freestyle events.
The following year, at the national championships in Nelson, the 100-, 400- and 800- yard and the one-mile freestyle titles were won by Bernard Freyberg, who many years later became commander of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF) in the Second World War, and then governor-general.
While swimming was considered a wholesome pastime, Victorians were concerned that swimming costumes revealed too much flesh. Many local authorities made bylaws about the style of costumes that could be worn on beaches, and similar regulations were enforced once mixed bathing became accepted at swimming pools. For many years the NZASA stipulated the exact styles of bathing suits that could be worn, and insisted that women wore a cloak outside the pool as late as the 1940s. For a period in the 2000s hydrodynamic full-body swimsuits known as shark skins were worn by competitive swimmers – an unexpected echo of the neck-to-knee costumes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There were no women’s national championships until 1912. A. O’Leary of Wellington won the only title that year – the 100-yard freestyle. More freestyle events, along with breaststroke and backstroke races, were introduced for women in the 1920s. Women who dominated local competition in these years and were also placed in international events included Gwitha Shand, Violet Walrond, Piri Page, Kathleen Miller and Ena Stockley.
Championships for schoolboys were held for the first time in 1907, and in the following year competitions for schoolgirls were introduced. The first junior national championships were held in 1917 at Wellington. Junior, age group and secondary school championships were annual events in 2012.
Relay and medley races
Team relay competitions began for men in 1946 and women in 1961. Men’s and women’s medley races, featuring all four strokes, started in 1947.
The Stalag Shields
Swimming New Zealand presents a number of trophies each year. They include the Stalag Shields, awarded to the champion men’s and women’s relay teams. They are hand-carved shields that the Returned Services’ Association (RSA) presented to the NZASA in 1945. The shields had first been won by New Zealand swimmers in the prisoner-of-war camp Stalag 383, and have great sentimental value.
New Zealand had its first taste of overseas competition when a swimming team from New South Wales participated in a contest against locals at the Calliope Dock, Auckland, in 1894. New Zealand teams started to cross the Tasman to participate in Australian meetings, including the Australasian Championships, from the early 1900s. New Zealand clubs also sponsored teams and individuals from Australia, England, Canada, the US and Japan to visit and demonstrate their skills.