Matt Hyde knows only too well the road to the Tokyo Olympics is paved in persistence, etched in exertion and dripping in discipline.
There are no short-cuts; only steps on the ladder and milestones to tick off.
The 21-year-old Tauranga swimmer has just qualified for his first world championships, after dipping more than 2secs under FINA’s 400m freestyle ‘B’ standard time at the recent national short course titles in Auckland. He’ll join an 18-strong New Zealand team heading to Hangzhou, China, in early December.
It’s not yet a cause for celebration, however - for Hyde, it’s just a reminder he’s on the right track, with a lot more work about to come his way.
“It’s very exciting but it’s another step towards where I want to be, just a step in the right direction,” says Hyde.
“There was a bit of relief because I didn’t know how fast I was going to swim and whether I was going to make the time. It still hasn’t really sunk in that I’m going but as we get closer, the excitement and the nerves will start building.”
Hyde won the 400m national title with a 3min 49.52sec effort, well inside the FINA ‘B’ qualifying time of 3:51.93.
He also won the 800m free and added bronze in the 200m.
Having already been in two national teams attending Oceania championships, the China trip will be next-level, racing and testing himself against the best in the world.
It’s the result of countless toil, up to 65km of swimming each week, under the watchful eye of coach Daniel Cooper.
Most of his pool-mates are younger - nonchalant teens splashing alongside - or older, bone-weary masters trying to retain the last echoes of their youth.
While Hyde relentlessly chugs through his sessions, Cooper quietly offers advice from poolside, with father Laurie occasionally leaning in to test his son's lactate thresholds.
Hyde’s carefree teenage years are well behind him now; he’s now into the realms of the serious swimmer, albeit with a Bachelor of Science degree from Massey University bubbling in the background.
“From when I first started swimming, there’s maybe one guy left who’s still racing against me. I almost quit when I was 15 but it’s all about perseverance.
"My old coach Graeme used to say ‘we want you to be swimming fast when you’re 21, 22 or 23, when you’re reaching the peak of your physical ability, rather than burning you out when you’re 17, 18 or 19’ and that really holds true.”
That old coach was Graeme Laing, son of the legendary Duncan, and himself a coaching mentor to former national backstroke star Cooper.
Through those links with Laing Jnr, Hyde still competes under the Matamata banner, though Cooper jokingly refers to his squad as the ‘Pool Gypsies’, swimming at Toi Ohomai each weekday morning as the sun rises, then heading across to the Mount College pool as the sun sets in the evening.
Cooper, who has scrawled ’87 weeks until Olympic trials’ across his training whiteboard, knows full-well the importance of patience and playing the long game.
Like his star charge, the coach is a quiet, slightly introverted presence, shying away from hyperbole and preferring results to speak for themselves.
“Making this team is very significant for Matt in that it keeps his fire burning for his goal of getting to the Tokyo Olympics,” says Cooper.
“It’s that first step to a pinnacle event where he’s going to gain a whole lot of experience against the best swimmers in the world - he’s raced some of them before at the likes of the Queensland champs but these will be another step up again and it’s an event that really means something.”
The next step for Hyde, after his trip to China, is to transfer his short course improvements into the long course 50m pool, where his 400m personal best is 3:57 but he needs a 3:53.58 to make the Olympic ‘B’ time, or a 3:46.78 to make the ‘A’ threshold.
He’s also got some handy rivals on the New Zealand scene, although Taranaki’s Zac Reid is focused more on the 800m,
Olympian Matt Stanley is concentrating on the 200m free and Commonwealth Games medalist Lewis Clareburt is more of a individual medley and butterfly specialist.
Either one of these swimmers would be serious 400m threats, however, along with the likes of North Shore’s Bradlee Ashby and Howick’s Daniel Hunter.
There’s nothing Hyde can do about them, however - he’d be the first to cheer them on.
Instead, he’ll just stick to his own knitting… which in his case means painstakingly stitching length upon length, constantly searching for small threads of improvement, day after day after day.
“It’s a struggle sometimes but I just love it. Some days you want the bottom of the pool to open up and swallow you but you just get through those sessions, bank them away, and get back to enjoying the sport. You can see it does pay dividends in the end and it helps get you through those low points. I love training and I love competing and I just push through it.”
New Zealand team competing at the world short course championships in Hangzhou, China, from December 11-16:
Bradlee Ashby (North Shore), George Schroder (Hokitika), Vanessa Ouwehand (St Peter's), Ruby Matthews (Evolution Aquatics), Hayley McIntosh (Northwave), Paige Flynn (St Peter's), Wilrich Coetzee (North Shore), Carina Doyle (North Shore), Yeonsu Lee (North Shore), Ciara Smith (Northwave), Daniel Hunter (Howick Pakuranga), Matt Hyde (Matamata), Andrew Jeffcoat (Fairfield), Quinton Hurley (Jasi), Caitlin Deans (Neptune), Gina McCarthy (Hillcrest), Rebecca Moynihan (Raumati), Emma Godwin (Heretaunga Sundevils).