SOL23: Roberts hopes to build Cook Islands’ first swimming pool following Sol2023 achievements

Cook Islands’ record-breaking swimmer Wesley Roberts is forced to train overseas, as there is no swimming pool in his home country. Photos: Micah Alvince, Pacific Games News Service

Cook Islands swimmer Wesley Roberts hopes his record-breaking, gold medal-winning performances at the Sol2023 Pacific Games will help rally more people behind his mission to build the first ever swimming pool in his home country.

Sol2023 went more than swimmingly for Roberts, who was busy resetting the history books to the sound of Cook Islands drums with his record-breaking performances.

Born in Cook Islands but living and training in Australia, the 26-year-old imprinted his name in the record books twice in week one of Sol2023, as the new Pacific Games record holder for the men’s 100m and 200m freestyle, a feat he achieved on consecutive nights at Honiara’s Aquatic Centre.

Speaking to the Pacific Games News Service about going into the 100m freestyle race, the first record he set on Thursday night (23 November) he said:

“I saw the record and one of the guys said that I didn’t owe him $10 if I broke the record, so that was a bit of extra incentive. But everyone showed up tonight, which makes it that more special and you want to get the job done. Me and my coach put a plan together and it paid off.”

The new Games record was also his personal best in this event – an achievement he says was ‘special’.

“I thought I could go close, my PB (personal best) was underneath the (previous) record, but you still have to get it done on the night and I was able to PB and that’s the best time I’ve ever swam for the 100 free, so that’s also really special and exciting and I’m just glad I could get it done for the Cook Islands.”

In a sport where it is easy to be intimidated by the excellence of the New Caledonian team at the Pacific Games, Cook Islands, with only two swimmers, had a plan, an exceptional group of supporters and a mission to win medals. They dove in, swam and left the rest to the clocks.

“Coming into it (the Games) there was a bit of expectation that we would at least get a few medals. I don’t think it was as many as we’ve actually ended up getting but there was a bit of pressure on the swim team to bring back some medals for Cook Islands and I’m just glad that we’ve delivered,” Roberts told the Pacific Games News Service.

Roberts is a proud representative of Cook Islands and a passionate advocate for swimming. He hopes to contribute to the development of the sport, as well as utilise it to create positive change in the lives of Cook Islanders. His goal is to have a swimming pool in Cook Islands and promote knowledge of being safe around the water.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have any swimming pools in the Cook Islands so ‘Lani’ (Mary Connolly, his teammate) trains in New Zealand and I train in Australia.

“I’m putting it out there, we really need a swimming pool in the Cook Islands,” he said.

“I don’t just want it for us to train in, but it would be amazing for water safety and all those things. It’s a nation surrounded by water and so it would be a really special thing to be able to promote water safety, especially for kids. It’s also great for mental health and physical health moving forward.

“I know we have a bad obesity rate back home so it could potentially have an impact on that, promoting healthy lifestyles, and it would be amazing if I can accomplish that by the time I’m done.

“I would just love to get a swimming pool and then promote that thinking of being safe around the water.”

This challenge that Cook Islands face is common across many smaller Pacific nations who have competed at Sol2023. Roberts revealed he is passionate about being able to give more people access to swimming because it has contributed so much to his personal development.

“Swimming’s pretty much all I’ve known for the last 10 years so its impact has been huge. I’ve been all around the world. I’ve had the opportunity to represent Cook Islands and to hear the national anthem played out every single time is so special, and it has had a huge impact on the person that I am and instilled some really good beliefs and hard work throughout my life.

“It’s always really special when I get to put the cap on my head with the flag on it and to see the flag raised at a competition like this.”

Unable to live and train in Cook Islands, swimming keeps Roberts anchored to roots, where he was born and his family still lives, and gives him the opportunity to share it with the world.

“I’m still really connected but then swimming gives me that opportunity to get the Cook Islands out there and it’s always nice when I’m at a World Championship and people come up and ask me ‘oh where’s the Cook Islands?’ and I get to share our little paradise with the rest of the world.”

The other half of the duo that makes up Cook Islands’ swimming team, Mary (Lanihei) Connolly, who was the women’s 50m breaststroke gold medallist and 100m breaststroke silver medallist at Sol2023, shares the same national pride.

“I’m so proud to win medals for Cook Islands especially at my first Pacific Games. It is definitely a tough sport, the highs and lows and lots of training, but it always pays off when you win a medal.

“I love racing for my country. It makes me feel so proud representing my family.”

Connolly added that, outside of winning medals, swimming has also taught her life lessons.

“It has taught me to be determined and resilient. It doesn’t always go your way but there’s always something to work on, always something to improve upon and it’s a really good sport,” she said.

Also training abroad due to the non-existence of facilities in Cook Islands, she looks on the positive side of training in New Zealand.

“I’m still very connected to the Cooks, I still go back regularly to visit the family and I feel like by training in New Zealand I’m able to represent Cook Islands even better on the international stage.”

Without wanting to give away too much, Connolly also told the Pacific Games News Service that the secret to Cook Islands’ success at Sol2023 (resulting in four gold medals, two silver medals and one bronze is): “We have very good coaches, lots of support and quality not quantity”.

However, the support for the Cook Islands duo was lacking in neither quantity nor quality as the supporters played their drums and cheered for both swimmers across the week at the Aquatic Centre.

Roberts revealed: “For me personally, it has been those times when everybody has come to support at night. I think hearing those drums was even more special. I can’t hear the drums once I’m in the water. I can hear them when I’m out of the water, before the race and after the race, but I got to go and sit with them as they cheered on my teammate ‘Lani’ (Connolly) and to hear them really get amongst it was really special for me.

“The support has been amazing. Everyone has just been so awesome, all the social media messages, all the videos that people have been sending me, it has been incredible.

“So, a special shout out to all and every Cook Islander out there,” Roberts smiled.

Roberts ended the week of swimming at Sol2023 with three golds, one silver and one bronze while Connolly finished with one gold and a silver. Their combined accolades total an extraordinary seven medals for a nation still dreaming of its own swimming pool.

Their journeys continue at the World Championships in Doha next year.

By Melissa Velvel Fare, Pacific Games News Service