Tenacity makes Paris dream a reality

Kane Follows (centre) celebrates with Lewis Clareburt (left) and Sam Brown (right) after swimming...
Kane Follows (centre) celebrates with Lewis Clareburt (left) and Sam Brown (right) after swimming an Olympic qualifying time and a New Zealand record at the national championships in Hastings last week. PHOTO: BW MEDIA
World champion Erika Fairweather rightly gets a lot of the attention. But another Dunedin swimmer provided one of the great stories at the national championships last week. Kayla Hodge meets a man on the cusp of realising a long-held dream.

It would have been so easy for Kane Follows to walk away.

But his journey is a testament to what can happen if you believe in your potential.

Follows rounded out the national championships with a bang last week, swimming an Olympic qualifying time and setting a New Zealand record in the men’s 200m backstroke with his time of 1min 57.13sec.

It was a big personal best for the Neptune swimmer, who went under the Olympic qualifying time by 00.37sec and bettered the national record set by Gareth Kean in 2012.

Follows was still coming to terms with his life-changing swim when he spoke to the Otago Daily Times.

"It still feels a bit surreal, to be honest," Follows said.

"You’re just kind of sitting there and life’s back to normal. Then you’re kind of like, ‘oh wow, I’m going to the Olympics’, which is still nuts to think about."

Follows was "quietly confident" a big swim was brewing at the national championships.

But having fallen short of several squad selections over the years, there was always a voice in the back of his head saying: "Is this just going to be another one I miss?"

Growing up in Auckland, Follows, whose parents were national swimmers, trained at Mount Eden but failed to make any junior national teams.

Looking for a change after school, he headed to the University of Hawai’i and had some strong results, including being an NCAA all-American in 2019.

But that same year came with heartache when he missed world championship qualification by 00.03sec, and he failed to make a senior team until this year.

While he represented New Zealand at the short course world championships in 2022, he missed the Tokyo Olympics, three world championships — sometimes by the slimmest of margins — and countless other pinnacle events.

After enduring so much failure, Follows’ emotions boiled when he saw his time at the national championships — and his friends racing against him also got excited.

Sam Brown, who had been next to Follows for all the races he missed, jumped on the Dunedin swimmer, and Andrew Jeffcoat and Lewis Clareburt also celebrated.

"It’s funny. People come up to me and say, ‘Was it worth it?’," Follow said.

"If I knew the end result was going to Paris, I would miss all those teams again to make Paris.

"It’s almost like relief . . . by the time I got home, I was like, ‘the monkey’s off the back, I finally did it’."

Follows turns 27 next month and is jokingly referred to as the "grandpa" among swimming circles.

Nationally, his age made him on the more experienced side and he questioned where his future lay if he missed qualifying again.

"I’m 26 and I don’t know if it would have been the last swim or not.

"There was definitely a point where I was questioning — at what point do you say enough is enough?"

But Follows loved racing — not so much getting up at 4.45am for training — and spoke with his parents, friends, coaches, and his partner, fellow Dunedin swimmer Caitlin Deans, who he knew would tell him if it was time to call it a day.

In the end, Follows believed in himself and so did his support network.

"There was that little bit of me that always thought I could.

"It would always be my decision in the end, but their opinions mean a lot to me. To have them behind me and always believing in me was a big driving force in keeping me in the sport."

Follows moved to Dunedin last year after his North Shore coach, Andy McMillan, a former Dunedin swimmer, was leaving and and pointed Follows to the South.

Moving closer to Deans and training under Lars Humer was a no-brainer, and the coach’s experience had been amazing, he said.

Dunedin had become a swimming hub in recent years and training next to world champion Erika Fairweather and national representatives including Deans, Zac Reid, Luan Grobbelaar kept everyone accountable.

Follows credited Humer, along with his other coaches throughout his career, for helping him break through.

"It isn’t just Lars, and I don’t think he’d want me to say it’s just Lars — I’ve had a few coaches that have helped me get here.

"But he’s just so amazing and brings that next gear out of me.

"I got to a certain point where I was stuck at the same time for five years basically, and he’s just been able to push me past that, and obviously take me to where I am now, which is pretty cool."

Follows still has to wait for official confirmation from the New Zealand Olympic Committee for his selection to Paris, but that has not changed his mindset.

He has been straight back into the pool and training hard this week.