Gary Hurring had all the credentials to be a champion swimmer.
He is the son of Lincoln Hurring and Jean Stewart, who were world-class swimmers in the 1950s.
Backstroker Lincoln Hurring represented New Zealand at the 1952 and 56 Olympics and, but for incredible bad luck with illness and other freak occurrences, could well have won medals at both. He certainly had the world ranking to do so.
Jean Stewart won a backstroke medal at the 1950 Auckland Empire Games and at Helsinki in 1952 became the first New Zealand swimmer since Malcolm Champion in 1912 (when he was representing Australasia) to win an Olympic medal. She picked up the bronze medal in the 100m backstroke. Stewart continued to represent New Zealand until the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
After they settled in Auckland, both Lincoln and Jean Hurring became involved in swimming tuition. Therefore it was hardly a shock that their son Gary should show unusual promise when he took up swimming seriously.
But Gary, born in Auckland in 1961, was more than a just another promising youngster. The Takapuna Grammar student became a superb backstroker and would have been at his absolute peak at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the Games New Zealand boycotted after the call from American President Jimmy Carter.
Gary was a gold medallist at the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games (which earned him the Sportsman of the Year award, now known as the Halberg Award). He won brilliantly in 2min 05.99s, heading off Australians Glenn Patching and Paul Moorfoot. Hurring lowered his personal best by four sets and set a Games record. In the 100m, Hurring was rated a strong chance, too, but was disqualified in his heat for not touching the wall properly on his turn.
Shortly after Hurring travelled to Berlin, where he turned in an impressive silver medal performance in the 200m backstroke, beating pipped for the gold by American Jesse Varsallo.
He was tipped not just as a medallist, but even as a gold medallist, for the Moscow Olympics, and took it hard when he was told he would not be competing.
When he heard about the boycott, he felt devastated. “I was in shock.
As a young adult I didn’t really understand what was going on. All I realised was that I’d been training harder than ever before and had put in so many horrendous hours of work and that I was building to my peak, and then the whole thing crashed down around me with one phone call one evening.
“I was very upset. To me politics and sport were like oil and water. They just didn’t mix. Sport was used as a tool. I wish our swimming association had been stronger and had said they were going to send a team regardless. I know some other codes went and that some Australian swimmers ended up going, and had a record medal haul. I would have loved to be part of that.”
Hurring said that these days he had put the Moscow memories behind him.
“The subject comes up occasionally, and there is always a little regret, but I try not to cry over spilt milk. I try to disregard the negatives and move on.”
Disillusioned in 1980, Hurring drifted away from the sport, spending a couple of years surfing on the Gold Coast. He worked as a labourer to pay the bills. His appetite for swimming was rekindled when he turned on the television and saw the 1982 Brisbane commonwealth Games swimming taking place.
He felt he’d been robbed. He eventually took a swimming scholarship at a university in Hawaii and returned to top competitive swimming in time for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. There he finished fourth in the 100m backstroke and fifth in the 200m backstroke. American Rick Carey dominated those events, but Hurring was just a fingertip away from a medal.
“I was incredibly close to a medal in Los Angeles. My mother got an Olympic bronze and I really wanted to get at least that, but it was not to be.”
He continued swimming until 1986 and contested the 100m and 200m backstroke events at the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games. By then New Zealand had a new backstroke star, Paul Kingsman, who earned silver medals in both events. Hurring swam 58.97s in the 100m and 2min 10.2s and did not go near to even making finals.
In 1988, Hurring, who had toyed with becoming a chippie, moved to Wellington to coach swimming professionally. He helped set up the Capital Swim Club and has built his career steadily. Since the late 1980s, he has coached a succession of leading New Zealand swimmers, Toni Jeffs, Michelle Burke, Jon Winter, Tash Hind, Gareth Head, Samantha Lee, Samantha Lucie-Smith, Clair Benson and Emma Robinson among them.
Though it took a while for him to get the recognition he was due, he has also become acknowledged as one of New Zealand’s leading coaches and was part of the 2012 New Zealand team to the London Olympics and to the 2013 Barcelona world championships.
Hurring said his own experiences as a swimmer helped him as a coach. “It’s not impossible to coach without having been a swimmer, but I am able to use my own experiences as a reference point. Having competed has opened my eyes as a coach.”