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by John McBeth

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.

Swimming for recreation and sport

Swimming for leisure

Most New Zealanders live within easy reach of lakes, rivers, swimming pools or the sea, so it is not surprising that swimming and associated aquatic activities are popular recreations.

A 2008 survey conducted by Sport New Zealand found that with 1.13 million participants, swimming is the country’s third-most popular physical activity, behind walking and gardening. Swimming was rated the top activity among people aged 16–24 years, second among Māori and third among Pacific Islanders.

Competitive swimming

Swimming is a competitive as well as a recreational sport. In 2011 there were 15,000 competitive swimmers, affiliated to 181 clubs nationwide. Other sports involving swimming include diving, water polo, underwater hockey and synchronised swimming.

Most competitive swimming events are held in swimming pools. Competitive long-distance swims (as distinct from solo attempts on open-water swimming records) are held in harbours, lakes or the open sea.

Modesty first

At one time, for modesty’s sake, enthusiasts had to swim at a secluded beach, river or lake. However, as the activity became more popular from the late 19th century swimming pools were built in towns and cities. Some of the earliest were sited on beaches, and took advantage of the tides. These included the salt-water pools in Oriental Bay, Wellington, which opened in 1864. At such pools swimming was segregated until around the First World War, and flags were used to indicate men’s and women’s hours.

Development of swimming

During the 19th century swimming gradually became recognised as a healthy pastime in England and its colonies. From the 1860s in New Zealand, public swimming pools were constructed and swimming races were held.

New Zealand’s first official swimming body was the Christchurch Amateur Swimming Club. Formed in October 1880 the club started a trend and at least 15 similar bodies were established throughout the country by 1895. They included Hamilton (1881), Auckland (1888), Ashburton and Gisborne (1891), Whangārei (1893), Dunedin, Napier, Wellington and Palmerston North (all 1894).

Swimming administration

In 1890, with the creation of the New Zealand Amateur Swimming Association (NZASA), New Zealand became one of just a handful of countries to form a national organisation. Former Premier Sir William Fox was elected the first president, with Roland St Clair as secretary.

There was considerable dissatisfaction over the decision to site the national headquarters in Auckland, the home of NZASA instigator Roland St Clair. In 1896 the Christchurch clubs were successful in having the headquarters shifted south. Auckland’s administrators, led by St Clair, were so incensed that they withdrew from the NZASA. In 1898 they established a rival organisation in Auckland – the New Zealand Amateur Swimming Association Registered.

In 1904 the two organisations finally settled their differences and the NZASA became the sole controlling body. Clubs in the regions were grouped into centres, and by 1929 there were 11 centres embracing 89 clubs.

The national headquarters moved from Christchurch to Wellington in 1983. In 1988 the association was renamed the New Zealand Swimming Federation. In 1999 it became Swimming New Zealand.

A swimming carnival

The Hamilton Anniversary Swimming Races, held at the Hamilton Lake (Lake Rotoroa) in 1889, had a varied programme of competitions and novelty events, including boys’ and girls’ races, a ‘maiden’ race, a handicap race for members of the Hamilton Light Infantry Corps, an ‘All Comers Clothes Race’, an ‘Exhibition of Fancy Swimming by Professor Pannell’ and ‘Sensational Feats in the water’ by Pannell and his pupils.1

Teaching swimming

Aside from organising competitions between member clubs, the NZASA promoted swimming as a beneficial form of exercise. In 1892 the association asked the minister of education to recognise swimming as a school subject, and in 1900 the government approved money to encourage swimming in public schools. In 1903–4 NZASA clubs began teaching children to swim, issuing certificates to those who became proficient.

In the early 1970s training of swimming instructors for schools began. However, in 2012 a review of swimming administration recommended that less emphasis be placed on educational work so that Swimming New Zealand could focus on developing swimming as a high-performance sport.

    • ‘Hamilton Anniversary Swimming Races’, Waikato Times, 10 January 1889, p. 2. Back

Local competition

Different strokes

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.

Men’s competitions

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.

Women’s competitions

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.

Australasian competition

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.

International success

Olympic representation

In 1910, in order to be eligible for representation at the Olympic Games, the New Zealand Amateur Swimming Association (NZASA) joined the world governing body, Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA).

Swimmers have represented New Zealand at every Olympic Games since 1912, except those of 1932, 1936 and 1960, and the boycotted games of 1980.

First female Olympian

Although she did not win a medal, Violet Walrond has a special place in New Zealand Olympic swimming history. At the age of 15 the Auckland schoolgirl competed in the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, becoming New Zealand’s first female Olympian. She placed fifth in the 100-metre freestyle. Later she achieved wins over top Australians including an Olympic silver medallist, but she retired before the 1924 Olympics on orders from her father and coach, Cecil.

Olympic medal winners

Several New Zealand swimmers have reached Olympic finals, but only five have won medals. In 1912, in Stockholm, Malcolm Champion won gold as a member of the Australasian 4 x 200-metre relay team. In 1952, at Helsinki, Jean Stewart won bronze in the 100-metre backstroke. At Seoul in 1988 Paul Kingsman and Anthony Mosse secured bronze medals – Kingsman in the 200-metre backstroke and Mosse in the 200-metre butterfly. Danyon Loader won silver in the 200-metre butterfly at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, then went on to win two golds – in the 200-metre and 400-metre freestyle – at Atlanta in 1996.

Near misses

Those who have narrowly missed Olympic medals include Rebecca Perrott in the 400-metre freestyle in 1976, Gary Hurring in the 100-metre backstroke in 1984, Philippa Langrell in the 800-metre freestyle in 1992, Moss Burmester in the 200-metre butterfly in 2008 and Lauren Boyle in the 800-metre freestyle in 2012. All these swimmers finished fourth in their finals.

Empire and Commonwealth Games

New Zealand has selected a swimming team for every Empire and Commonwealth Games.


The country’s first medallist was Gordon Bridson, who won silver in the 440- and 1,500-yard freestyle events at the Empire Games in Ontario, Canada, in 1930.

Gold was first won at the 1950 games in Auckland by the men’s 4 x 220-yard relay team of Lyall Barry, Buddy (Frederick Ross) Lucas, Noel Chambers and Michael Amos. Lucas also won two bronze medals in individual events in 1950, and relay silver at the 1954 games in Vancouver.

Also at Vancouver, Jack Doms became the first New Zealand recipient of an individual gold medal when he won the 220-yard breaststroke.

More gold

Butterfly exponent David Gerrard won gold in the 220-yard event at Kingston, Jamaica, in 1966.

Further Commonwealth gold medals have been won by these swimmers:

  • 1974: Jaynie Parkhouse (800-metre freestyle)
  • 1974: Mark Treffers (400-metre individual medley)
  • 1978: Gary Hurring (200-metre backstroke)
  • 1978: Rebecca Perrott (200-metre freestyle)
  • 1986: Sylvia Hume (100-metre backstroke)
  • 1986 and 1990: Anthony Mosse (200-metre butterfly)
  • 1990: Anna Simcic (200-metre backstroke)
  • 1994: Danyon Loader (200-metre butterfly)
  • 2006: Moss Burmester (200-metre butterfly)
  • 2014: Sophie Pascoe (para-sport 100-metre breaststroke and para-sport 200-metre individual medley); Lauren Boyle (400-metre freestyle)
  • 2018: Sophie Pascoe (para-sport 100-metre breaststroke and para-sport 200-metre individual medley).

Sponsored swimmer

Jack Doms was fortunate to be in the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games team. The Olympic and British Empire Games Association did not think he was a likely medallist and decided he would only be selected if the NZASA contributed £500. The money was donated by the people of Waikato, and Doms repaid them with a gold medal-winning performance.

World Short Course Championships

At the 1995 FINA World Swimming Championships in Rio de Janeiro, the New Zealand 4 x 100-metre medley relay team of Jon Winter, Paul Kent, Trent Bray and Guy Callaghan won New Zealand’s first world championships gold medal. Both Bray and Kent also won silver medals in their individual events, making this New Zealand’s most successful world championships result.

In Manchester in 2008 Moss Burmester was the first New Zealander to win a gold medal in an individual event by touching first in the 200-metre butterfly. Two years earlier he had finished second in the same event in Shanghai. In 2012 in Istanbul Lauren Boyle won the 800-metre freestyle.

Great swimmers

Eight competitive pool swimmers have been inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame. They are:

  • Malcolm Champion (1883–1939)
  • Jean Stewart (1930–)
  • Philippa Gould (1940–)
  • David Gerrard (1945–)
  • Gary Hurring (1961–)
  • Rebecca Perrott (1961–)
  • Anthony Mosse (1964–)
  • Danyon Loader (1975–).

All are Olympic or Commonwealth gold medallists, or both, with the exception of Jean Stewart, who won an Olympic bronze, and Philippa Gould.

Short course and long course

A short course swim takes place in a 25-metre pool, and a long course in a 50-metre pool. Short course swims involve more turns, so a swimmer who excels at long course may not do so well at short course.

A world record

Philippa Gould’s achievement was of a different order. In 2012 she remained the only New Zealand swimmer to set a world long course record.

Gould, who represented New Zealand at the 1956 Olympics as a 15 year old, broke the world record for 200-metre and 220-yard backstroke at the Newmarket Pool, Auckland, on 16 January 1957, with a time for the 200-metre swim of 2 minutes, 39.9 seconds. The following summer, she bettered the existing world marks for the 100-metre and 110-yard backstroke.

Most successful swimmer

In 2012 Danyon Loader was New Zealand’s most successful swimmer. As well as three Olympic medals, his achievements included two world short course records, three world championship medals (one silver and two bronze) and six Commonwealth Games medals. He is the only New Zealand swimmer to be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame (2003).

From swimming to storytelling

New Zealand swimmer Tessa Staveley made headlines when she won a silver medal at the 1958 Empire and Commonwealth Games. Later, as Tessa Duder, she became one of New Zealand’s leading authors for children and young adults. She is perhaps best known for her four ‘Alex’ books, following the fortunes of a teenage competitive swimmer.

A swimming dynasty

Jean Stewart won silver and bronze medals in the 110-yard backstroke at the 1950 and 1954 Empire Games. She also won bronze in the 100-metre backstroke at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

She married the only other swimmer on the 1952 Olympic team, Lincoln Hurring. Their son, Gary, was a backstroke Commonwealth gold medal winner in 1978 and an Olympic finalist in 1984.

Swimmer of the Year

The New Zealand Swimmer of the Year award was presented for the first time in 1959. The Baxter O’Neill Trophy was named after the man who had been secretary of the NZASA for 42 years. The first to receive it was 1958 Commonwealth Games butterfly silver medallist Tessa Staveley.


Swimming successes owe much to the efforts of talented coaches. One, Duncan Laing (1931–2008), has been inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame. Laing coached champion Danyon Loader.

Other swimming sports


Diving is the art of jumping headfirst into water, often while performing acrobatic feats. As a competitive sport, it is judged on technical excellence. Men’s competitive springboard diving became part of the NZASA championship programme in 1920. A women’s championship was introduced in 1924, and platform diving in 1952.

Diving was under the control of the New Zealand Amateur Swimming Association until 1985 when the New Zealand Diving Authority was formed. It was renamed Diving New Zealand in 2001.

New Zealand divers have been selected for Empire and Commonwealth Games since 1930, and have won four bronze medals, all in the 3-metre springboard competition: Jack Stewart (1950 and 1954), Mark Graham (1982) and Nicky Cooney (1990).

Rebecca Ewert was the first New Zealand diver to compete in an Olympics, in 1976 at Montreal. Since then Ann Fargher, Gary Lamb and Mark Graham (all 1984) and Tania Paterson (1992) have gained Olympic selection.

New Zealand divers have competed at numerous World Championships and World Cup events. In 2002 Kaitlyn White was victorious in the girls’ platform event (14–15 years) at the World Junior Diving Championships in Germany. Only White and Tania Paterson have won world junior titles.

A swimming all-rounder

New Zealander Lily Copplestone, whose swimming feats included breaststroke and diving championship titles and a 1929 attempt on Cook Strait, moved to Canada and coached a swimming team at the University of Western Ontario. She became interested in synchronised swimming, and under the name Billie MacKellar, went on to become an international coach and judge of the sport. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1993.

Synchronised swimming

Synchronised swimming (often abbreviated to synchro) is a routine of elaborate and precise movements performed to music by solo swimmers, duets or teams. It is judged on technical merit and artistic impression. It developed both as a sport and a spectacle in Europe, North America and Australia from the late 19th century, and was popularised in the 1940s in the films of Esther Williams.

Synchro began in New Zealand in the 1930s and from the 1940s there were women’s groups in Dunedin and Auckland.

In the early 1960s the Auckland Synchronised Swimming Championships began, bringing together clubs from around the country. After the formation of more clubs in the early 1970s the first National Championships were held in 1979. The governing body, Synchro Swim New Zealand, was established about that year. Originally part of the NZASA, it became autonomous in 2004.

Since the late 1970s New Zealanders have participated in international competitions, including the Olympics from 1984 and the Commonwealth Games from 1986. At the Commonwealth Games Katie Sadleir won a bronze medal in the solo event in 1986, and Nina and Lisa Daniels won bronze in 2006.

Water polo

Water polo is a competitive swimming sport for two teams, each consisting of six players and a goalie. The game is played in a pool with a goal at each end. Each team attempts to get the most goals by passing the ball from hand to hand.

The game was introduced to New Zealand in 1892, 23 years after it began in England. Christchurch had the first club, but soon more were formed in other towns and cities. The first national championships, contested between clubs, were won by Christchurch in 1892. In 1909 interprovincial competitions began. Initially a man’s sport, by the early 20th century it was also played by women.

From 1940 the game was administered by a board under the control of the NZASA. Since 1985 the New Zealand Water Polo Association has been the governing body. A national water polo team participated in the Auckland Empire Games in 1950, but New Zealand has not yet been represented at the Olympics.

Underwater hockey

Underwater hockey is a six-a-side game played by two teams who use small sticks to flick a puck (a lead disc) along the bottom of a pool and into a goal at either end. The game is 30 minutes long, with three minutes of half time. The governing body is Underwater Hockey New Zealand, and New Zealand teams are regarded as among the best in the world. In 2011 they won two gold medals, a silver and a bronze at the World Championships in Amsterdam.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: John McBeth, 'Swimming', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

He kōrero nā John McBeth, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013, updated 27 o Hānuere 2015