Helena Gasson knows all about setting targets and achieving them, even when huge obstacles stand in her way.
Helena’s a top New Zealand swimmer. She’s already competed at one Olympics and is training for Tokyo 2021. She is a University of Waikato graduate and Sir Edmund Hillary scholar.
She says her first semester at university was especially tough as she embarked on a Bachelor of Sport and Leisure Studies, but her experience was a valuable lesson in proving what’s possible when you set your mind to it.
“I was training and living on Auckland’s North Shore and travelling to Hamilton for classes. My time management had to be perfect and I had to take every opportunity I could to study. I made no excuses for myself. I knew my training schedule and luckily my study timetable had no clashes with training. I had to be a lot more dedicated to finishing assignments early since I could not miss training or have late nights.”
She says the Hillary scholarship was essential for her academic and sporting successes. “It financially aided me in being able to complete my degree and swim towards an Olympics without compromising either. I did struggle initially to find this balance, but I know that I would not have completed my degree if it wasn’t for the academic support I received from the Hillary scholarship and the tools that they taught me to continue to influence my sporting ambition.”
Helena is a butterfly and individual medley specialist with a swag of national and international titles and who got her first taste of Olympic competition in Rio 2016. She didn’t medal there but the experience has made her hungry for more.
“But in late 2018 I had an accident where my horse fell on me tearing my QL [quadratus lumborum muscle] in my back. Every simple movement I made was excruciating and it really had a huge impact on my training. I ended up pulling out of competition for the year. It has been one of my biggest injuries, and it still flares up now. Never once did it cross my mind that my injury was going to end my career because I had made the goal of competing in Tokyo and I wasn’t going to let anything I could control get in the way. For the last two years Tokyo has been my focus.”
And then along came Covid, one week before Olympic trials, and the 2020 Olympics were postponed. “It was a huge hit to take mentally as we have been so focused on Tokyo and were finally going to see all the hard work we had put pay off. I have refocused for next year and I have not ruled out another Olympic cycle after Tokyo.”
To that end Helena has decided to go off shore towards the end of this year to compete in the International Swimming League with the Los Angeles-based LA Current, based in Budapest where she will be part of a professional team, training and competing with some of the world’s best swimmers. The fact Budapest is her favourite city is a bonus.
Helena says people shouldn’t be put off doing full-time study even when they’re competing in top level sport. “As long as you are committed to your dreams and goals and are organised with your workload. I feel a lot of athletes think that full-time study is too much time to add on to their training when it actually can work really well together – you just have to work hard on planning, and then stick to it!”