The butterfly effect: Hazel’s going for gold!

The pool star has overcome growing pains, shingles and bullies
Hazel smilingPhotos: Amalia Osborne

Hazel Ouwehand was destined for the water. “I was born in a birthing pool in Hamilton!” she laughs. “Mum was a learn-to-swim teacher too, so my sisters and I were always in the water when we were little.”

Hazel, 24, is in her final weeks of training before heading to the Paris Olympics, where she’ll swim in the 100-metre butterfly. It’s a specialist stroke that Hazel has thrown all her energy into since realising it was her best chance at getting to the all-important global sporting event.

“Growing up, my older sisters Holly [29] and Chelsea [27] and I did a lot of sports – gymnastics, athletics, cross-country – you name it!” grins Hazel.

She and mum Ruth, 57, are chatting to the Weekly from the Auckland office where she works as an accountant 25 hours a week to keep her, erm, afloat while she chases her Olympic dream. “It got so busy, I had to keep dropping sports until it was just swimming. Then I had to drop backstroke and medley so I could put all my effort into butterfly.”

Hazel with four and sister Chelsea with three medals around their necks when they were younger
A successful medal haul for Hazel and sister Chelsea.

The fact that Hazel’s reached the dizzy heights of world competitive swimming is impressive. At 1.93 metres, she has a powerful physique, but it caused a lot of misery when she was 12.

“I got awful growing pains,” explains Hazel. “My body put so much energy into growing, it couldn’t cope, and for about three months, my immune system was shot. I got growing pains in my knees that made me walk like an old lady, and shoulder pains that were so bad, I couldn’t lift my arms.”

At the same time, Hazel developed shingles.

Ruth says, “I thought shingles was something old people got, but our doctor explained shingles comes out when there’s a lot of stress on the body. Her coach at the time likened her to a giraffe – all arms and legs, with no idea what to do with them!”

Tall hazel bending down to her mum's height

Hazel is irrepressibly positive and confident, but that wasn’t always the case.

“Bullies targeted me a lot in primary school,” she says. “When I was about nine or 10, I had no friends at all. In years five and six, I hung out with the year twos. I was their big mumma – they called me their Sausage Roll!”

Luckily, things changed in high school.

“I remember waking up on the first day and deciding this would be the year I got friends, and it would be a good year. And it was! That day, I walked in, made friends and got my posse.”

Unfortunately, Hazel is once again getting unwelcome attention now she’s more in the public eye.

“I get hundreds of comments on my social media every day,” she shares. “People call me a man, they tell me I’m ugly… It happens a lot. But I’ve learned how to handle it – the people who are doing the name-calling mean nothing to me. I’d care if it was people who matter to me, but it’s not. I have better things to focus on.”

A group family photo
Hazel with her family (from left) Mark, Holly, mum Ruth, dad Ko, Chelsea and Heath.

Manifesting – bringing your hopes and dreams to life through powerful belief – works well for Hazel.

“I totally manifested going to the Commonwealth Games in 2022 and although I missed the qualifying time by 0.2 seconds, I got an email a week later from Swimming New Zealand to say I’d got in based on a time I’d done a year prior.”

Hazel is determined to be her best at the Olympics – something she’s been imagining for a long time.

“I’ve had a canvas of the Eiffel Tower above my bed since I was a kid,” she says. “At the time, I didn’t know that would be the city of the 2024 Olympics, but it’s perfect.”

While she’s realistic about her chances in Paris, she’s also an optimist.

Hazel smiling in the pool at the end of a race
Setting an NZ record in 2023.

“My standards for myself are really high and obviously the optimum is gold. But I’m a realist too, so if I get to the semis this time, gold will be the goal in 2028 for sure.”

Hazel’s gruelling weekly schedule includes the gym, daily swim training, her accountancy job, regular catch-ups with her nutritionist and in-depth meetings with her coach as they focus on the fine details of her technique.

“I don’t know how she does it,” says Ruth. “The backbone of this girl is just huge. I’m amazed at her commitment and focus. We are so proud of her.”

Adds Hazel, “I’m so excited. I feel like I’ve achieved my childhood dream. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

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