Swimming sensation & senior accountant Hazel is off to France

Baker Tilly Staples Rodway Auckland senior accountant Hazel Ouwehand is packing, ready to fly out as a New Zealand swimming representative. Her athlete’s uniform has prime position in her suitcase.

Time to read: 6 mins

She unboxed the uniform a couple of weeks ago, showing off the new garments to her Instagram followers. It was a “wow” realisation of the enormity of her qualification for the world's biggest four-yearly sporting event – and when those moments come, she gives herself time to savour them.  

It’s been three months since she won a 100m women’s butterfly heat at the New Zealand Swimming Championships in April, breaking the national record, earning a spot at the international event being held in France later this month, and later winning the national final.

The lithe 24-year-old cut through the water powerfully, then those live-streaming the heat saw the raw emotion as she touched the wall and looked at the timer. That megawatt smile. The tears of joy and choked voice in the post-race interview. “The feelings were overwhelming,” she said earlier this week. “I thought maybe I would do a 57.6 (seconds), so I was very surprised and obviously elated when I saw a 57.4 on the screen.”

Hazel Ouwehand swims. Photo BW Media

"The moment where it felt the most real would have been when I qualified. As soon as I hit the wall and saw the time, the feelings and emotions were overwhelming. It was a culmination of months of hard work and to have it all realised and validated..."

– Hazel Ouewehand. Photo: BWMedia 

Prior to the event, Hazel had been uncomfortable when anticipating tears of joy or devastation in front of a live audience. Then the Phoenix Aquatics swimmer decided she didn’t care – her emotions would be the natural result of 18 years’ hard work.

Tomorrow (6 July), she and her New Zealand swimming teammates will fly to Palma, Mallorca for a two-week pre-staging camp. The Spanish island is in the western Mediterranean and its temperature averages 30 °C in July. It’s the perfect spot for honing their minds and bodies.

Her mum Ruth, dad Ko and uncle Paul Qualtrough have already flown out to explore Europe, ready to support Hazel after she and the team fly to the French capital five days before the big event begins.

Hazel anticipates more “wow” moments upon arrival at the athletes' venue and the first time they go to the pool. Then it’s time to “collect ourselves… and get the job done”. She won’t attend the opening ceremony of the two-week event starting 26 July – the hours of standing wouldn’t be conducive to peak performance in her butterfly heat the next morning – but will get to enjoy the pomp and glamour of the closing ceremony.

Her preparation has gone well. There’ve been training personal bests and a lot of “good, good sessions”, she says. “For me and where I'm at this stage in my swimming career, my goal is to make a semi-final – just let her rip and then just see how it goes.”

Outside of her weekly massage and physio, she’s being seeing a sports psychologist, and that’s brought changes. She no longer listens to her “Get Pumped” playlist to fire up before a race, instead she thinks about the race and what she has to do.

Swimmer Hazel Ouewehand

"Listening to music before getting on the blocks gets you pumped up, but it doesn't give you the opportunity to think about the race and what you're about to do. The last four or five times I raced, I've not listened to music and I've found it really beneficial."

– Hazel Ouwehand. Photo: BWMedia 

She’s excited about competing on the global stage – to see what she’s capable of and make her supporters as proud as possible. The thought of being watched by millions of people around the world doesn’t faze her.  

“Diamonds are made under pressure.”

It’s said in jest, but she means it. Hazel’s competed in the Commonwealth Games, two short-course and one long-course World Championships, and multiple NZ national championship meets, so she knows what pressure looks like, even while once describing that taut, final moment on the starting block as a time when “all your skin cells are alert”.

Despite her exotic surname, she grew up in Auckland. Ouwehand is pronounced “hour hand” and it’s a mark of her Dutch heritage, courtesy of her dad Ko. Her mum Ruth had been a Learn to Swim coach (although she outsourced that job for Hazel and sisters, Holly and Chelsea). The girls loved a variety of sports, but swimming was number one and Hazel began competing at the age of six.

She also studied drama and appeared in school productions. At university, she was one of the fearless – the tall, proud young student who’d be the first of her peers to stand in an auditorium and volunteer a reply when her professors asked questions. If ever she answered incorrectly, it didn’t matter. She was learning.

Now she’s deep in the limelight, with 44,300 followers on Instagram alone and strangers applauding her every move. She’s a natural actress, confident, fun and relatable. There are also online detractors, but Hazel is strong.

As an adult, she is pure athlete, 6”3 tall with powerful shoulders and the lean, strong appearance of someone who spends 14-16 hours each week in the pool and three to five at the gym. Her height is in an advantage in some ways, a disadvantage in others. Swimmers’ arms operate as levers, she says, so she does fewer strokes, but her opponents’ shorter levers bring faster rotation. 

Alongside the intensification of her programme in the lead-up to this month's event, she was also promoted to a Baker Tilly Staples Rodway Auckland Business Advisory Services senior accountant role in March and she enjoys the extra responsibility.

“I think I'm very good at my time management and prioritising the things that need to be done first. It's also nice to be at a stage where some of the younger ones or people in levels below me ask me questions and I'm able to help them. It's good to be helpful. It's nice to be needed. I've got some great friends at the office and we have a good laugh, and the directors are so good with me and my swimming… they've always been supportive.”

Yesterday was her final day at work so they’ll have to do without her for five weeks while Hazel is on the biggest stage of her life doing the sport she was born to do.

It’s a feeling best summed up by her response when asked what she likes most about swimming: She pauses, eyes sparkling. “I think the correct question is, what do I love about swimming?”

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