Zoe Baker. Photo: © Dan Mitchell/pullbuoy
Three of England’s gold medal winners from Manchester will be in Melbourne attempting to retain the titles they won in 2002. Only two of them will be sporting the red rose however as the third, Zoe Baker, returns under the silver fern. The former British swimmer is aiming to add a second Commonwealth gold medal to her collection but this time for her adopted New Zealand.
It’s not a new association of the one time City of Sheffield and Loughborough University competitor; she has been resident in Christchurch, in the heart of New Zealand’s south island, for some time. “Back in 1996, Kym Swanick, a coach of mine, came over for a job in Christchurch and he invited me over to do a training camp and get away from it all” Baker recalls “I went and I just liked it so I’ve been here ever since.”
That meant the best part of nine years flitting across the globe to fulfil her commitments to the British national team before she finally made the decision to switch her allegiance to the land of her home. Baker remains equivocal about her reasons for the change.
“It’s no secret that the reason I left Britain was Bill Sweetenham” she volunteers, matter of factly. “When an Australian came in and started treating the sprinters with no respect at all, Mark Foster and I were like ‘what’s going on!?’. I don’t have anything against Bill as a person he just didn’t support me as a sprinter so I couldn’t support GB any longer.”
But in Baker’s opinion the problems in Britain ran far deeper than just a disregard for the sprint specialists, as borne out by the recent spate of defections and retirements. “As well as me, we’ve had Robin Francis and Jo Fargus switch and the 14 retirements after the Olympics. Of course there will be retirements after a Games, but 14?”
“You can be disciplined and you can be strict but you can’t take away the fun. You look at every Australian who breaks a record they have a big smile on their face, they’re having fun. And then you see how many Brits smile – there’s no fun there.”
The lack of fun and the emphasis on performance led to problems of it’s own. According to Baker “We were given the lottery money, became full time swimmers and became professional. Then it got really arrogant and a lot of friends got lost along the way as you became more rivals than friends. I mean it got to ‘well I hope they don’t do as well because it makes me look better’ and there was just so much bitchiness within the team.”
The New Zealand team by comparison is a team united as it attempts to establish itself on the world stage and Baker clearly relishes her place as a senior member of the squad. Having rediscovered her passion for the sport, she sees herself as a role model for the younger Kiwi swimmers and is keen to pass on her experience and knowledge to that new generation.
Zoe Baker: in action at the Sydney World Cup Meet. Photo: © Dan Mitchell/pullbuoy
“I came on the team bringing my experience and hoping that I could pass on all the stuff that I had learnt. I was a world record holder when I joined the team and they’ve seen that there is someone on the team who is up there, who was a world record holder and challenges for medals, and they now think ‘I can do that, she’s only like us'”
“The team is how I remember the British team being 5 years ago and it’s good because they’re hungry and they want to be the best” she continues, hinting at the rivalry with their antipodean rivals and highlighting the importance of the team’s mental approach “With Dean (Kent) swimming so well and Hannah (McLean) doing so well the rest of the team are like ‘we can do this now, we’re no different to the Australians’. They just believe a little bit more and the more we believe the better the NZ team will be.”
“We are getting there and I’m just glad I’ve come in now so I can help these guys and by the time I retire in a few years the ball will be rolling and they’ll be out there. Hopefully we can get it all right and show these guys that there’s more to Commonwealth Games than Australia!”
Baker will no doubt be in the forefront of New Zealand’s challenge in Melbourne but will have to overcome the formidable Jade Edmistone of Australia, who took the world record in last year’s world championships. One thing is for sure, though, despite her new swimming allegiance, Baker still retains a love for the country of her birth “I support NZ in the swimming pool but when I comes to other sports, like the world cup or the rugby, I’m still English at heart!”