Brian Legros

May 24th, 2018

After training this morning I dropped Eyad off at his immigration lawyer’s office in Queen Street. Further up Queen Street, close to the turn into Karangahape Road, I passed the White House strip club and the memories came flooding back. You see the owner of the White House is Brian LeGros, a terrific guy and, in every sense of the word, in all his dealing with me, a gentleman.

I met Brian before he owned the White House. In those days he lived in Wellington and owned the Liks strip club. It was actually Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) who introduced me to Brian. You see back in those days SNZ ran a “Meet your local strip club owner” service.

No, I’m joking. The truth is while I was waiting in the SNZ office for a meeting with the CEO, David Meyer I noticed a small advertisement for Brian’s Liks strip club on the back page of the SNZ monthly magazine. The purpose of my meeting was to ask Meyer whether there was any possibility of financial assistance for Toni Jeffs’ preparation for the World Short Course Championships and the Olympic Games. Meyer couldn’t help.

That afternoon I told Toni there was no help available from SNZ but I had noticed the Liks’ advertisement in their magazine. Perhaps the owner had an interest in swimming and would consider helping Toni. After two or three phone calls Brian agreed to meet Toni and me in his office at the club.

The meeting was not at all what my prejudice expected. We were shown into a very conservative looking office. Brian was sitting behind a standard oak desk. A lovely black Labrador called Boss greeted us with the warmth typical of the breed. I explained to Brian what we needed and why we had ended up in his office. It turned out Brian knew very little about swimming. He had placed the advertisement through an agency.

“How much money do you need?” he asked.

I told him the full amount. “Okay” he said, “Heather, get my cheque book. Since your phone call I’ve checked you out and we will sponsor you through to the Olympic Games.” And that’s what happened.

Do you want to know the truly remarkable thing about that? Not once did Brian ask us for anything in return. His financial help came with no conditions. He was happy to be part of a team that won a bronze medal at the World Cup Finals and went on to prepare for the Olympic Games. The fact Toni struggled at the Olympics was not her fault or Brian’s. They did their bit. Sadly, I screwed up her preparation. Brian never displayed any disappointment or censure for that mistake. He might not have known much about swimming but he certainly knew about people.

After Brian agreed to help I asked him if there was anything I could do to promote his club. Brian said, no he was not looking for publicity. I asked, if I got in touch with Television New Zealand would he agree to an interview. He agreed to that.

I rang Keith Quinn at Television New Zealand and asked if he was interested in the story. Keith said yes. He would have a camera crew at Brian’s club the next morning. The interviews seemed to go well. Brian explained that SNZ had declined our request but he was in a position to help and enjoyed supporting the underdog. One of Brian’s strippers was asked what she thought of the sponsorship. She answered brilliantly. All the girls had become swimming fans. And Toni, dressed in her best SNZ uniform, struck just the right note of appreciation.

Television New Zealand must have liked it as well. On the 6.00pm News Brian’s sponsorship was the first item of sport’s news. SNZ were not quite as happy. Half an hour after the broadcast I got a call from CEO, David Meyer. He ordered Toni and me to be in his office at 10.00 the next morning. A meeting had been called to consider whether we should be charged with bringing the sport into disrepute.

I told Toni not to bother going. I would take the meeting on my own. It was a fairly big affair with David Meyer and several members of the SNZ Board. Meyer explained that SNZ could not have swimmers promoting strip clubs. Swimming was a family sport and demanded protection from that sort of exploitation. Before deciding on our punishment, did I have anything to say, he asked.

I took the SNZ magazine out of my bag and put it in the centre of the table. The back page Liks’ advertisement stood out like a beacon. “It was SNZ who gave me the idea.” I said, “You took Brian’s money to promote his club before I did. The only difference is you got $50 and I got a lot more.” The meeting ended at that point. The Board of SNZ would get back to me with their decision. They never did.

The sponsorship continued for eighteen months. Brian’s word was his bond. Every penny was paid and nothing was ever asked in return. My swim school did provide free swim lessons to the children of Brian’s strippers. I used to enjoy the irony of a prominent conservative MP’s wife sitting beside the pool talking with Brian’s strippers about schools and bringing up children. If only she had known.

The sponsorship achieved fame far beyond anything Brian or I ever imagined. Taxi drivers told Brian they frequently got Japanese fishermen asking to be taken to the strip club that sponsored the Olympic swimmer. The main sports story in the huge American paper “USA Today” was Liks’ sponsorship. I’m betting it’s the only time New Zealand swimming has achieved that status. And Air New Zealand upgraded my SNZ economy ticket to first class for the flight to Barcelona for the Olympic Games.

So thank you Brian. Thank you for the support. Thank you for the fun. Thank you for the memories. And thank you for being a bloody good mate.

A Mirror Image

May 23rd, 2018

I have written before about the importance of the Asian Games to the Saudi Arabia Swimming Federation. Saudi swimmers are not fast enough to compete successfully at the Olympic Games and so the Asian Games are their Olympics. While I was coaching in Saudi Arabia the message coming from the Head Office was a constant and desperate litany of pleas for Asian success. I was told future funding decisions were going to depend on the results. I had to wave my western coaching wand and come up with Asian winners.

It was never going to happen of course. The standard of administration had much in common with Swimming New Zealand; the blind leading those unable to see. But unlike New Zealand the standard of Saudi coaching was also terrible. New Zealand has a good coaching infrastructure; educated and experienced coaches are all that is saving the sport from terminal disaster. Saudi had the worst of both worlds; bad administrators and bad coaches.

When I arrived in Jeddah, so-called national swimmers were training about 15 kilometres a week. I know that mileage is not everything but 15 kilometres no matter what the 15 kilometres involves is always going to be inadequate. The best swimmer in Saudi was Eyad Masoud. When I came back to New Zealand Eyad came too and applied for and was granted New Zealand refugee status. In six months his training mileage went from 15 kilometres to 70 kilometres and his best 100m freestyle improved from 59 to 53. That happened, not because of brilliant coaching, but because the guy was given a chance that would never have been possible in the desert that is Saudi swimming.

In spite of the fact that the Federation was run by a New Zealander it remained backward and ineffective. The administration, including the New Zealander, operated a classic “cargo-cult” regime. By that I mean Saudi Arabia has much in common with the movement first described in Melanesia which encompassed a range of practices that occurred in the wake of contact with more technologically advanced societies. The name derived from the belief which began among Melanesians in the late 19th and early 20th century that various ritualistic acts such as the building of an airplane runway will result in the appearance of material wealth, particularly highly desirable Western goods (i.e., “cargo”), via Western airplanes.

The expression of cargo-cult in Saudi swimming was given form in their construction of three identical German Olympic Aquatic Centres. The logic seemed to be if they built the best pools the best swimmers would follow. They send teams to exotic locations for training camps. But always there was the impression that they believed that the location alone is going to result in swimming success. They build first class weight rooms, cold water treatment baths, saunas and massage rooms that lie waiting for champions to appear. Their whole approach to training champion swimmers is brilliantly illustrated by the fact that all their “western” pools are built with changing and toilet facilities for women – but of course women, in Saudi Arabia, are not allowed to swim. Plenty of toilets – just no women.

They have everything a swimming champion could possibly need but no one who knows how to use any of it. And the boss, a New Zealander, should have known better. Instead of addressing the reality problem he wasted thousands trying to convince the world that poor learn-to-swim was the cause of Saudi Arabia’s competitive woes. What a load of rubbish.

When I left Saudi Arabia I wrote a 5000 word report for the federation. Its purpose was to address the performance shortcomings. It made 10 recommendations.

Recommendation One – Continue to promote Sibaha Learn to Swim
The program is good but should be simplified in order to allow more independent schools to become Sibaha compliant. The policy should aim to spread the Sibaha initiative and not make it so exclusive that no one can qualify.
Recommendation Two – Abandon the SASF involvement in direct learn to swim and focus on promoting independent Sibaha compliant swim schools.
The SASF is best involved in promoting and policing the business of swimming. Independent private contractors can be responsible for day to day operations. By focusing on and lifting the standards of private operators the SASF will be more effective.
Recommendation Three – Abolish short term foreign coaching and foreign training camps
KSA swimming must be run by KSA people. Bringing in a foreigner once a year is not going to do that. The function required is to turn KSA based coaches into international coaches capable of high performance coaching.
Recommendation Four – Appoint a Head Coach with a new role
Appoint a coach with responsibility to coach KSA coaches – to improve the coaching environment and performance and to tutor KSA coaches in the importance of a 40/20/40 aerobic, anaerobic and speed training balance
Recommendation Five – Change amount of work
Introduce minimum weekly training distances and introduce penalties for non-compliance and rewards for compliance.
Recommendation Six – More competition
Make available a racing program of about 100 races per annum. Introduce two national championships and an inter-city league championship
Recommendation Seven – Website, Records and Results
Design an effective website that provides swimmers with current and relevant information and news and especially prepare national age group and open swimming records.
Recommendation Eight – Involve non-KSA born swimmers
Investigate with the KSA Olympic Committee, FINA and other KSA government agencies the practicality of allowing non-born Saudi residents to be members of KSA national swim teams.
Recommendation Nine – A coach driven environment
Undertake initiatives recommended that promote the importance and responsibilities associated with coaching in the KSA. To produce a coach driven sport.
Recommendation Ten – The involvement of women
Investigate with the KSA Olympic Committee and other KSA government agencies the practicality of allowing women to swim and to be members of KSA national swim teams.

Of course nothing has been done. The New Zealand CEO has gone but the problems remain the same. The Asia Games are now just a few months away. They begin on 8 August in Indonesia. We will soon see whether all that spending has bought them a result. Like New Zealand I think you will find the answer is no – and ironically for many of the same reasons. We must not mock. New Zealand swimming has its own cargo-cult. And while we do, the planes of success will not land here either. Something tribal chiefs Cotterill and Johns will never understand.

Organisational Creep

May 21st, 2018

 We have all heard of excuses for not rushing change. “More haste, less speed” and “take it easy” come to mind. There is good sense in these sayings. “Act in haste and repent at leisure” has a lot of merit. But really the speed of change at Swimming New Zealand makes the progress of a garden snail look like a Ferrari at top speed.

But possibly we should not be questioning Swimming New Zealand’s management of change. After all, the Chairman, Bruce Cotterill, has published books and sold speeches on that very subject. The Celebrity Speakers’ website tells me Cotterill “is a passionate leader of change, and is genuinely interested in business performance improvement. He is a lifetime leader, who focuses on clear objectives, enhanced personnel engagement and improved customer orientation. He has continuously delivered vastly improved results through his involvement in organisations.”

With that resume the performance of Swimming New Zealand is a mystery beyond reason. Take the appointment of Gary Francis for example. Remember when he was appointed as the Targeted Athlete and Coach Manager? This was going to be the change that would lead New Zealand swimming into the 21st Century. This was the dawn of a new era. This was Cotterill and Johns in action; breathing life into their drowning sport.

Well the appointment was announced in January 2018. Note, the “NZ Swim” Facebook page says it was in February but, as usual, they get the facts wrong. Anyway Francis has been paid by the Swimming New Zealand membership for four months and what has happened. In wages we have probably paid Francis the thick-end of $50,000 and what Targeted Athlete and Coach results have we got in return. Not a damn thing is the answer.

On the 24 April 2018 the admittedly unreliable “NZ Swim” Facebook page tells me that:

The targeted athlete and coach programme is an initiative that will form part of the refreshed Swimming New Zealand High Performance Strategy that will be communicated to the swimming community shortly.

This communication was hoped to have been done before the National Age Group champs last week, but this has been brought back to be communicated towards the end of May and beginning of June in meetings in regions such as Auckland, Taranaki, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.

Specific details of these meetings will be communicated to the swimming regions.

That was a month ago, we are now well into the “end of May” period and we have heard nothing. No meetings have been arranged, nothing. With the exception of the “NZ Swim” item, which, at best, needs to be treated as school yard gossip, the membership has been kept in the dark. I imagine Cotterill’s Celebrity Speakers’ guests would love to know that their instructor’s idea of managing change is to do nothing for four months and above all else don’t communicate in any way with those affected by the change. I can’t imagine any behavior more characteristic of this particular “passionate leader of change”.

So what has Gary Francis done for the $50,000 we’ve spent on his employment so far? Well the truth is we just don’t know. Swimming New Zealand propaganda says:

His role is to provide support, guidance and leadership to identified targeted athletes and coaches regardless of where they live and train. It’s a key role within Swimming NZ, and and is a step away from insisting that all our top swimmers have to be training at the same high performance centre to receive funding, as it means that their home coaches also receive support and continue to train their performing swimmers.

That gem also comes from “NZ Swim”. The Facebook page makes great play of standing up to Swimming New Zealand, of speaking truth to power. Sadly the truth is very different. Scratching John’s back and massaging Cotterill’s ego are NZ Swim Facebook specialties.

But back to the employment of Gary Francis. When he was appointed we said the big question was whether Gary Francis was going to change Swimming New Zealand or was Swimming New Zealand going to change Gary Francis. After four months it looks like we are getting our answer. And it is not good. It is not the answer New Zealand swimming wants or needs.

The same delays, indecision and confusion present in much that Swimming New Zealand does has characterized the appointment and inaction of Gary Francis. I don’t know how much time Johns, Francis and Cotterill think the sport has got. Do they realize the mess we are in? It certainly does not seem like it. We know the average good swimmer’s career lasts about ten years. That means something like 5% of the careers of Ashby, Clareburt and many others have come and gone in the months since the Francis appointment was announced. $50,000 and 5% of their careers have been wasted while we waited for Swimming New Zealand to do something. It is that serious? The Titanic has hit an iceberg and is sinking fast. But the reaction of the captain and his two senior offices is to spend four months playing patriotic songs and rearranging the deck chairs. Well done you guys. It has been a performance entirely in line with our expectations.

When the appointment of Francis was first announced Francis asked for Swimwatch to give the appointment time before expressing critical comment. Well we did that. Four months is plenty of time. Our patience has been tried to the limit. It is time for Gary Francis and Swimming New Zealand to join the real world where people tell the truth and meet their obligations. Avoiding criticism should be very easy. Just do something. We look forward to the Gary Francis meetings in early June – yeah right.

Put A Sock In It

May 20th, 2018

Over a number of years I have been fortunate enough to meet and watch a number of good coaches. Arch Jelley, Ross Anderson, Lincoln Hurring, Gary Hurring, Arthur Lydiard and Mark Schubert are all very different people; different personalities; from the larger than life Lincoln Hurring to the quieter more thoughtful Arch Jelley, from the  home-spun, self-educated wisdom of Arthur Lydiard, to the University of Hawaii educated skills of Gary Hurring. They are different people employing different coaching methods.

But they do have skills in common. There are some characteristics that are constants in them all. One that stands out is the quiet way they go about their coaching business. I was reminded of this common trait when I read an article recently about the hugely successful University of Texas swimming coach, Eddie Reese. This is what the 2018 report said.

Seemingly speaking in code and heading into the fourth dual meet of the season, he doesn’t look or sound worried. He’s possibly the only college coach in the country, in any sport, sitting at 0–3 who isn’t yelling, screaming, and tearing his short-cropped gray hair out. He doesn’t need to. In the last 39 seasons, Reese’s teams have taken home 13 national titles, on average exactly once every three years. The Longhorns have, since 1980, won either the Southwest or Big 12 Conference title every single year. Yelling also just isn’t his style, the only exception being — according to multiple swimmers across three generations, plus his assistant of 33 years, Kris Kubik — if he’s loudly singing one of his men’s praises. He can’t train his swimmers to win, so when they don’t he doesn’t sweat it — he trains them simply to go faster. They can only control what they can control.

As I read the report I was struck by the lines “who isn’t yelling, screaming, and tearing his short-cropped gray hair out” and “yelling also just isn’t his style”. I thought back to the occasions when I had watched Lydiard and Jelley coaching track or Schubert and Gary Hurring coaching swimming. I hadn’t heard any of them yell either. In fact I knew of one occasion when Schubert was so annoyed he ordered a swimmer out of the pool. But there was no yelling or dramatics. Schubert quietly told the swimmer it wasn’t working today. She should go home now and try again tomorrow. Gary Hurring was the same. In the three years we worked together I don’t think I ever heard him raise his voice in anger. That is not to say he didn’t get angry. He just didn’t yell about it.

Come to think of it I never yell either. Most of the time I sit quietly beside the pool. Over the years many have accused me of not walking around enough, of not talking as much as I should. The nasty ones say, “He just sits at his table, not doing anything. That’s not proper coaching.” I’m pretty sure they would say the same thing about Jelley, Lydiard and Hurring. What these self-appointed critics would know about coaching you could write on the back of a postage stamp. They say it anyway.

And then you get the opposite of the Jelleys and the Lydiards and the Schuberts and Hurrings. Yesterday I parked my car beside the Millennium Pool and walked towards the main entrance. From outside the building I could already hear the yelling of coaching instructions. The din was louder than an A380 leaving Auckland airport.

By the time I got inside you couldn’t hear yourself think. There they were, two Head Coaches with four multi-lap stopwatches screaming times and coaching instructions the length and breadth of the Millennium Pool. If coaching volume won swimming races these two would already have Phelps and Ledecky pupils. If, by some chance, you think I might be exaggerating, call into the Millennium Pool next Saturday morning. I promise you a coaching sight hard to match anywhere in the world. But bring a good pair of ear protectors.

The problem with the show these guys put on, besides being bad coaching, is that it leads the public into thinking that’s the way good coaching works. Just imagine, if you knew nothing about swimming or running, and watched two coaches at work. One was an ex-national coach with two stopwatches working overtime as he paced around the pool with his finger permanently stuck in some electric coaching light socket, yelling a constant stream of coaching advice. The other was Arch Jelley quietly timing a set without saying anything apart from the odd sentence of encouragement. There is a huge temptation to believe that activity equals results – and it doesn’t. The appearance of busy does not mean successful. Noise does not win gold medals.

In my experience the quiet approach works best. Which is not hard because the yelling and screaming doesn’t work at all. One other example demonstrates the point. Jon Winter is probably the best coach in New Zealand for running a fun training program. He brilliantly incorporates games and fun into the serious business of swimming fast. The problem with that is that poolside critics see all the fun Jon brings to his work and cannot believe it is the right thing to do. Because they know no better they want the screaming electric light socket treatment – after all that’s “real” training.

But from what I’ve seen around the world the Arch Jelley and Jon Winter approaches work best. At least that’s what the record seems to prove.

Ledecky

May 19th, 2018

It is amazing how expectations change depending on the subject. Events labelled outstanding for one person are described as a failure for some other soul. Success can be a heavy burden. Both views can, of course, be right. For example Lewis Clareburt has received a spectacular amount of praise for his 4:14.42 400 IM Commonwealth Games bronze medal swim. I see his photograph is now advertising the New Zealand Open Championships on the Swimming New Zealand website. The national federation appears to be unaware of the potential harm of their adulation, especially when their support is more fickle than a Trump wedding vow. One minute it’s Burmester, then it’s Boyle and Snyder and now Clareburt is the poster child. He would do well to remember that the NZ federation would jump into bed with anyone if it added a dollar to their NZ Sport cheque. Fortunately for Swimming New Zealand prostitution in New Zealand is a legal activity.

Compare that to a swimmer like Michael Phelps who has swum faster than Clareburt’s Commonwealth time on twenty-nine occasions. Six of those faster swims were when he was the same age or younger than Clareburt. A swim of 4:14.42 would certainly not earn him a spot advertising the national championships. He would need to be ten seconds better than that in order to earn Clareburt’s scale of adulation.

I was further reminded of how difficult life can be for the very best when I read the following report in the Guardian newspaper.

The five-time Olympic champion (Ledecky) won her preliminary heat in the 1500m freestyle on the opening day of the TYR Pro Swim Series in a time of 15 min, 20.48 sec, lowering her own world record in the event by exactly five seconds.

For months pundits have suggested Ledecky’s career might be on the decline. Oh, she has won world titles and NCAA Championships in the past twelve months but not always in world record times. According to some that was sign enough that the best of Ledecky was in the past. It seems not. Last night she put the doubters right.

And what a swim it was – 15:20.48. I decided to look at how Ledecky’s swim compares with New Zealand’s best 1500 efforts – first of all the men. The table below lists the current New Zealand record and the national championship winning time from 2011 to 2017.

Men’s National Record

Name Year Time Ledecky difference
Capp 2015 15:15.50 (4.98)

Men’s National Championships

Name Year Time Ledecky difference
Hutchins 2017 15:30.68 10.20
Capp 2016 15:23.89 3.41
Capp 2015 15:15.50 (4.98)
Capp 2014 15:25.25 4.77
Mincham 2013 15:32.13 11.65
Radford 2012 15:27.13 6.65
Dunlop-Barrett 2011 15:48.72 28.24
Average - - 8.56

As you can see the men’s New Zealand national open record is 4.98 seconds faster than Ledecky’s swim. With the exception of 2015, when Capp set the record, Ledecky would have won every men’s New Zealand 1500 metre championship. Her average margin of victory would have been a comfortable 8.56 seconds, or about 14 metres; not even close. In this event, at least, the evidence suggests that the world’s best woman is faster than our best men.

The same comparison with New Zealand women’s times is shown in the tables below.

Women’s National Record

Name Year Time Ledecky difference
Boyle 2015 15:40.14 19.66

Women’s National Championships

Name Year Time  Ledecky difference
Robinson 2017 16:30.16 69.68
Robinson 2016 17:06.95 106.47
Boyle 2015 16:22.76 62.28
King 2014 16:58.62 98.14
Boyle 2013 16:16.83 56.35
Boyle 2012 16:20.47 59.99
Baker 2011 16:25.77 65.29
Average - - 74.03

It is important to realise that when it comes to women’s 1500 metre swimming in New Zealand we are talking about some classy swimmers. Lauren Boyle is a short course world record holder (15:22.68) over the distance. She is a World Championship’s silver and bronze medallist and a Pan Pacific Game’s silver medallist. Emma Robinson also adds class to the distance events. At the Rio Olympic Games she competed in the 800m freestyle finishing 16th in 8:33.73.

But even these two struggle in the face of the Ledecky onslaught. Boyle’s New Zealand open record is 19.66 seconds, about 31 metres, behind the Ledecky swim. Imagine that Lauren Boyle wins a World Championship silver medal in a national record time and is 31 metres behind Ledecky – not because Boyle was a bad swimmer, but because Ledecky is unbelievable.

In the New Zealand national championships Ledecky’s swim would have won each title by an average margin of 74.03 seconds. That is about 120 meters. In a 50 metre pool Ledecky would have lapped the average national championship winner including class swimmers like Boyle, Robinson and Baker.

The world of top swimming is crashing onwards. The same 1500 malaise affects every event. Women’s breaststroke in New Zealand is a pathetic joke. Men’s butterfly is no better. And so it goes on. The direction Johns and Cotterill have chosen is leading New Zealand nowhere. Does anyone really believe either of those guys knows how to close the gap on Ledecky? Neither of them would have the slightest clue where to start. Both of them are out of ideas and out of sight. Something needs to change. It is not working the way it is just now.