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Young Carterton swimmers set the gold standard

Scarlett Wadham won nine medals at the Taranaki 12 and Under Short Course Championships last month. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
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When asked about her future career plans, Ava Wilson’s answer is straight to the point: to represent New Zealand at the Olympics, like her hero Dame Sophie Pascoe.

Having snagged four national first place titles this month alone, the Greytown teenager is well on her way to realising her dream.

Ava Wilson, with her four national gold medals, and coach Russell Geange at the Carterton Indoor Pool.

Ava is one of a group of young athletes from the Carterton Swimming Club (CSC) who has, over the past few weeks, achieved stunning success at national and regional events: bringing home a haul of medals and setting a string of personal bests.

At last month’s National Age Group Swimming (NAGS) Championships, held in Wellington, 13-year-old Ava scooped three gold medals, dominating the competition in the 200m, 400m, and 800m freestyle events.

Her success comes hot on the heels of a gold medal win at the National Secondary Schools Open Water Championships, held in Tauranga in early April.

Ava finished the 2.8km swim, around Rabbit Island at Mt Maunganui, in 43 minutes and 11 seconds – first in the 13-14 age group and sixth female home overall.

Also turning in an impressive performance at the NAGS Championships was 15-year-old James Church, who made three finals in the highly competitive under-16 boys’ category – finishing with personal bests in freestyle, backstroke, and butterfly.

Finally, 11-year-old Scarlett Wadham smoked her opponents at the Taranaki 12 and Under Short Course Championships on April 2, taking home eight gold medals and one silver.

CSC coach Russell Geange was thrilled with the swimmers’ results.

“They all did some fantastic swimming – and did Wairarapa and the Carterton Swimming Club proud.

“The kids all train hard, they put in the hours, and they’re very dedicated to their sport.

“They’ve got a very bright future ahead of them – and they deserve recognition for all their work.”

Brent Wilson, Ava’s dad, said the youngsters’ success is particularly vindicating – as the CSC often competes against much larger swimming squads with access to “a lot of resources and great training facilities”.

“It’s a pretty small club here in Carterton. Our kids are training at a small, three lane pool, in an old, run-down building,” he said.

“But they’ve been so successful – which goes to show it doesn’t matter where you’re from in the country, or how many resources you have behind you. If you put in the effort, you get the results.

“The kids work so hard. Swimming is a tough sport – it takes a lot of discipline and commitment.”

Ava, in Year 9 at Solway College, has swum with the CSC since age nine – and trains at the Carterton Indoor Pool five afternoons a week.

Leading up to a major event, she adds morning sessions to her routine, hitting the water at 6am.

She was inspired to try ocean swimming after chatting with some of the older CSC members, who compete in regular open water events in Wellington.

“I thought I should give it a try – and that it would be a great opportunity,” Ava said.

“Ocean swimming is a good fit for me, as I’m better at the long-distance events. I don’t like sprinting as much.”

Her win at the national secondary schools competition was particularly impressive, considering it was only her second open water event – her first being one of the Banana Boat Ocean Swim Series, at Oriental Parade in February.

“Open water is more difficult – especially when you’re swimming against the waves. It takes a lot more energy,” Ava said.

“You have to adapt your stroke so the waves don’t overwhelm you – and you have to keep looking up while swimming so you can see your next marker and know where you’re going.

“I was a bit scared there might be sharks – and it’s weird looking down [in the water] and not seeing much, just a whole lot of blue. But you get used to it.”

Ava said she was proud of her achievements at her first NAGS Championships this year – particularly with her performance in the 800m freestyle final, where she finished more than 30 seconds ahead of her nearest rival.

“There’s a really cool atmosphere at the big meets. You do get a bit nervous – but you just get on and do it,” Ava said.

“If she does get nervous, she doesn’t show it. In fact, she thrives in the competition environment,” Brent said.

“When the pressure’s on, she rises to the occasion and pulls out some of her best performances. She’s pretty strong-willed in that regard.”

Ava and teammate James Church got to meet Roly Crichton, former coach of Paralympics legend Dame Sophie Pascoe, at the National Age Group Swimming Championships.

Also rising to the occasion at NAGS was Rathkeale College student James Church, who made the finals for the 100m freestyle, 200m backstroke, and 50m butterfly events.

He finished fourth in the freestyle (narrowly missing out on a medal – by just 0.17sec), and sixth in the backstroke – setting a personal best of 2.01.99.

“That is the best time by a Wairarapa swimmer in many years,” coach Russell Geange said.

“He’s very dedicated sportsman and shows a lot of promise.”

Teammate Scarlett Wadham hopes to join Ava and James at NAGS in a couple of years – though, in the meantime, she’s been setting the gold standard at the regional level.

As well as her nine medals from the Taranaki Under 12 event, the Hadlow School pupil also made an impression at the Manawatu Junior Long Course Championships in March – coming home with four silvers, and one gold.

“She was amazing in both events – she cleaned up,” Geange said.

Like Ava, one of her many role models at the CSC, Scarlett has also had her first foray into open water swimming – competing at the 2022 Epic Swim event, held at Acacia Bay at Lake Taupo.

Scarlett overcame her long-running fear of swimming in the ocean to finish the 1km race second in her age group and was the 13th female home overall.

“She did so well – especially being up against swimmers in their thirties and forties,” mum Deanna Wadham said.

“Scarlett has always been a bit scared of the open water – but she just decided one day she was going to give it a go.

“She was very nervous beforehand, especially being in the deep water and swimming among so many other people. So it was a massive mental achievement for her.”

Scarlett said she loves the social side of swimming and “meeting new buddies” – but, in a competition setting, she rarely takes her eyes off the prize.

“She sets herself goals, and pushes herself to achieve them,” Deanna said.

“As a parent, it’s great to see her succeeding at something she enjoys.”

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