A Most Unusual Woman

By David

First sentences and last sentences serve two very different purposes. The first sentence wants to grab your attention. The last sentence often serves to summarize and reinforce a central message or mood. The title of this post has carried out both functions. In Agatha Christie’s novel “Cat Among the Pigeons”, the phrase, “a most unusual woman” ends the novel. Today its purpose is to draw your attention to yet another interesting character in the West Auckland Aquatics Swim Team.

Two weeks ago West Auckland Aquatics held a week long training camp in Rotorua. We stayed in a large house of the shores of Lake Rotoma; a Maori word meaning “Clear Lake”. Rotoma is a genuinely lovely part of the world. This is how Tourism New Zealand describes our destination.

“Rotoma is the clearest and cleanest lake of all the Central North Island lakes. At 10.8 Km/2 it is the fourth largest and eastern most of the Rotorua lakes. It features a multitude of white sandy beaches where you can always find a sheltered place to enjoy your day’s activities. Nearby, the Waitangi Soda Springs offer a relaxing way to unwind.”

No matter how clean and clear the lake might be, in the middle of a New Zealand winter, I thought there would be some resistance to the idea of swimming in the lake. Rhi is an Olympic Gold Medallist but flatly refused my invitation to experience Rotoma’s 11 degree centigrade (54 degrees Fahrenheit) waters. Incredibly some of the others spent a few hours playing in the lake.

Our training involved a daily commute to the seaside town of Whakatane. They have a newish (2001) Aquatic Centre with a 25 metre indoor heated pool; an idea much more to the liking of my delicate charges. Actually I have a previous swimming connection with Whakatane. It is the home town of Toni Jeffs. The old open air pool, where Toni used to train under her father’s guidance, is still used in the summer months. I have said before on Swimwatch that Toni’s magnificent stroke mechanics were very much the product of the time she spent being instructed by her father in the old Whakatane Pool. There may have been some who credited Wellington with Toni’s swimming success. And certainly I provided Toni with the opportunity to train for twelve months each year. The fundamentals though, the all important basics, were well founded long before Toni ever came to Wellington. When West Auckland Aquatics arrived in Whakatane it was not the first time this town had seen a top class swimmer in action.

Before we left for Rotoma I thought I had better find out about the team’s eating preferences. It seemed that Rhi and Jessica would eat anything. I was concerned that Justin’s only request was for a large bag of potato crisps. I suspected Zane would be easy to please. I heard him ask his mother, “What is it I don’t like?” Xavier’s Dad told me his son had never turned down an invitation to a hangi. For American readers a hangi is a Maori method of cooking. The steps involved in “putting down a hangi” entail digging a pit in the ground, heating stones with a large fire, sprinkling the stones with water to produce steam, placing the food on top of the stones, and covering it all with hessian bags, sheets, flax mats and then covering everything with leaves or dirt to cook for three hours before uncovering (or lifting) the hangi. A hangi produces rich, succulent food with a flavour quite unlike anything else. Unfortunately we never got to indulge Xavier or introduce Rhi to the joys of hangi food during our week in the centre of New Zealand’s Maori tourism.

And then I asked Erica if she liked fruit? What a fascinating treasure chest of information that simple query exposed. No, Erica said, she did not like fruit. If pushed she would eat a very firm red apple but nothing else. But before I tell you where this conversation took us I had better explain that Erica is a better than average freestyle and backstroke swimmer. She won the senior 100 backstroke at the recent New Zealand Division 2 National Championships. She has a terrific high ride through the water, almost as though she is permanently wearing a personal flotation suit. I know she would love to win a scholarship to swim for an American University. She has the talent. I hope she can realise the dream. Oh, and one other thing. Erica is without fear. During our week in Rotorua she had a shot at skydiving from 9000 feet and, along with six other team members tried out Rotorua’s new bungee jump.

Anyway back to Erica’s food preferences. “So, what about vegetables?” I asked. “No” she said, “definitely no vegetables. Perhaps some potatoes or corn but none of that green stuff.”
“How does she live?” I thought. “What do you eat?” I asked. “Cows, pigs and sheep.” She replied.

Could this possibly be right? Over the years I have met many vegetarian swimmers, who for health or personal reasons prefer not to eat meat. There have even been a few very famous swimmers who have avoided eating meat. The Australian Olympic Champion, Murray Rose, is often credited with being the first “swimming” vegetarian. However well before Rose, the first man to break a minute for 100 meters freestyle, Johnny Weissmuller avoided eating meat. Among modern Olympic swimmers Amanda Beard is probably the best known vegetarian.

But Erica is different. Here we have a full fledged carnivore; which Wikipedia tells me is an “organism that derives its energy and nutrient requirements from a diet consisting mainly or exclusively of animal tissue, whether through predation or scavenging.” Before afternoon practice I had noticed her eating a snack but had never paid any attention to the content of what was being eaten. Yesterday I thought I might catch her out eating a muesli bar. But alas there she was sitting on the pool deck happily consuming half a dozen small sausages, known in New Zealand as cocktail sausages. Genuinely a true carnivore. I asked her today what her preferred means of transport was. I should have known better, “A Harley Davidson Roadking” she replied. As I have said, “a most unusual woman.”

  • Beth Malyon

    What a delightful piece. The lakes of the Bay of Plenty are as close to heaven as you will get on earth.

    I am so glad you were able to give these guys some great memories. Whatever anyone may say about you David Wright (and most of it will be wrong!), there will sure be a bunch of young swimmers who will look back and cherish the experiences they have had with you.

  • Northern Swimmer

    Bahaha,

    You can take the girl out of West Auckland…