The Extent Of The Challenge

June 21st, 2017

In a month the Swimming World Championships will begin. We have been given the normal assurances by the Swimming New Zealand Board that the New Zealand results will be better than ever. Before every international event the message coming from the Board is the same. “Boy, are we going to kill it this time.” And after the event the Board Chairman either seriously addresses the media, promising a full inquiry into why swimming has not progressed or assures everyone that the team’s performance had, in some way, been “the best ever”. It is becoming as predictable as Christmas.

There have been more tax payer funded inquiries into the malaise at SNZ than I can remember. In the recent past millions have been spent on reports from Sweetenham, Ineson and Moller. And it’s still a mess. Especially when they could have read Swimwatch for free.     

If New Zealand had actually swum “the best ever” as many times as Swimming New Zealand’s spin, we’d be beating the United States by now. In fact the country’s “best ever” result, at an event of this standard, was at the Atlanta Olympic Games, 20 years ago when Danyon Loader won two Gold Medals.

For this Belgrade 2017 World Championship the lead up by SNZ has been no less positive. Here are some of the quotes from the Head Coach Jerry Olszewski and others.

 

  • The nine swimmers to attain individual qualification in the pool is the highest number since 2005.
  • Jerry Olszewski was pleased with the promise of the team.
  • Basically all of this team and a number who just missed teams we have a healthy group of swimmers as we prepare for Tokyo 2020 and beyond.
  • The young swimmers are exciting for the future.
  • Swimming New Zealand is confident in the swimmers they have in the high performance system as well as their youth program.

 

And the Board Chairman Bruce Cotterill joined in the songs of praise.

 

  • This has been the most successful swimming era since the mid-1990s. We won five world championship medals. In the aftermath to London we had eight top-50 athletes, of whom four were seen as Rio targets. Post-Rio we’ve got 16 in the top-50 of whom 12 look capable of going to Tokyo. ”
  • “I think we’ve got the right coaching in place and a new facility [at the Millennium Institute].”

 

In the last two years, in support of this confident outlook, you and I have paid Cotterill 2 million tax payer dollars. Like obedient puppies Swimming New Zealand have persevered with the Baumann policy of centralized preparation. For twenty years the policy has not worked but evidently it is going to work this time. The predictions of success have not changed.

Let’s look at the results of the last three World Swimming Championships. Then we will have a basis on which to make a comparison.   

2011 SHANGHAI

Number of Swimmers on Team: 12

Number of Gold Medals: 0

Number of Silver Medals: 0

Number of Bronze Medals: 0

Number of Finals: 4

Number of Semi-Finals: 5

Average Place over all team members: 19th

NZ Position on Medal table: Did not appear

2013 BARCELONA

Number of Swimmers on Team: 14

Number of Gold Medals: 0

Number of Silver Medals: 0

Number of Bronze Medals: 3

Number of Finals: 6

Number of Semi-Finals: 5

Average Place over all team members: 19TH

NZ Position on Medal table: 27th

2015 KAZAN

Number of Swimmers on Team: 8

Number of Gold Medals: 0

Number of Silver Medals: 2

Number of Bronze Medals: 0

Number of Finals: 2

Number of Semi-Finals: 1

Average Place over all team members: 23RD

NZ Position on Medal table: 20th

2017 BUDAPEST

Number of Swimmers on Team: 11

Number of Gold Medals:

Number of Silver Medals:

Number of Bronze Medals:

Number of Finals:

Number of Semi-Finals:

Average Place over all team members:  

NZ Position on Medal table:

The numbers appear to highlight three trends. First, the extent to which swimming in New Zealand has relied on Lauren Boyle. From 2011 when she made up the bulk of the finals swum, to 2013 when the three bronze medals were won by her and in 2015 when she won the two silver medals. Certainly the improvement from not being included on the medal table to 27th and then 20th is all down to Lauren Boyle. Her performances papered over a lot of cracks that remained unaddressed because of her efforts.

Second the performance of the team apart from Lauren Boyle has got worse. From an average place in each swimmer’s event of 19th in 2011 and 2013 this dropped to 23rd in 2015. Of course Lauren Boyle is not going to be at this meet. She wisely decided to get her hip repaired in advance of the 2018 Commonwealth Games. We will now get an insight into what swimming in New Zealand is going to look like in the post-Boyle era. We will see whether Cotterill has spent our tax dollars wisely. We will be able to measure again whether the centralized coaching policy works.

Ironically swimmers that have done best have had the least to do with Swimming New Zealand’s centralized Millennium program. Boyle spent most of her time in the USA or Australia, Mains trains in Florida and Snyders has Salo in Los Angeles as his coach. Swimming New Zealand have no shame. They think nothing of claiming credit for swimmers trained thousands of miles from Auckland as proof that their policy of centralization is working.   

When the 2017 Championships end we will complete the table shown above. We will see whether the Cotterill and Olszewski confidence that New Zealand swimming is on the up and up is well founded. Or is their opinion as delusional as it has been prior to every other recent World Championships and Olympic Games?

PS – You never can tell with Swimming New Zealand. If they come out with some superlative, always check. They are masters of alternative facts. Even Trump could learn from these guys. Their published claim that, “the nine swimmers to attain individual qualification in the pool is the highest number since 2005” may or may not be true. What I do know is that in 2011 ten swimmers competed in individual events. In 2013 nine swimmers swam in individual events. In the 2016 Rio Olympics nine swimmers swam in individual events. And when I went to school nine and ten are the same as or more than nine.

 

CLIVE RUSHTON (27 October 1947 – 11 June 2017)

June 19th, 2017

I was not in frequent contact with Clive. I checked back on my emails and discovered we exchanged 16 messages in the past twelve months. He was a bloody good guy – no question. Clive had a quality in common with all great coaches, men like Lydiard, Jelley, Laing and Schubert. They could argue with you in the toughest, most uncompromising terms and it was never personal. You always felt you were on the same side. Like the others, Clive also had another quality that made him difficult to argue with – a thing called brains.

In fact it was brains and trust that made him such a good national coach in New Zealand. The worst feature of Jan Cameron’s rise to power was the difficulties she put in the path of Clive Rushton. As a team, the two of them could have achieved stunning results. But with Jan that was never going to happen.    

I met Clive in his first week as New Zealand’s National Coach. At the National Championships a well-known Auckland official had cheated on one of my swimmers. I protested her behaviour. It would not be uncommon for officials to close ranks at that point and admit no wrong. They do it all the time. Just look at the Kilbirnie Pool depth issue. But on this occasion, without fear or favour, Clive Rushton did the right thing. I have no doubt that in his short time in New Zealand he had heard all sorts of stories about what a trouble-maker I was. But, all that was put to one side. The official’s error was corrected. I liked Clive immediately – not because he had taken my side but because he chose to do the difficult,, the unpopular and the right thing.     

A few weeks later he came to dinner at my home. We had a memorable evening – good wine, good food and good stories about sport. Clive told us he had won a competition between officials on the British Team; who could get into the Barcelona Olympic Pool using the most novel fake pass. Some managed to get through using passes made out of toilet paper, but Clive won. He carefully burnt a slice of toast and scrapped off the Olympic logo and text. He attached an official cord on to his toast pass and walked into the arena. The Olympic security guards were done by a slice of toast.

Shortly after our dinner my daughter, Jane, broke the New Zealand short course open 200 metre breaststroke record. We thought she might be able to break it again and arranged for her to swim a trial in Palmerston North. I told Clive that Jane was going to make the attempt. When we arrived at the pool I was staggered to see Clive walk in. He had driven from Wellington just to support Jane’s swim – a measure of the man. He frequently demonstrated the same caring respect. When swimmers had some behaviour problems at the Yokohama Pan Pacific Games Clive sent out the best discipline letter I have read. It simply said, “I know what happened. It must not happen again. If it does there will be real trouble.” Twenty New Zealand swimmers were openly and honestly put on notice. That letter deserved and earned all our respect. 

Just before I left to coach in the US Virgin Islands I called Clive to let him know I was leaving. He was supportive and used a phrase I will forever associate with him. “Coaching is best done under a palm tree.” he said. He could well be right.     

A few years later I followed Clive to Saudi Arabia. He had also lived in Jeddah and was an enormous help introducing me to the local sporting hierarchy. Fitting into such a different culture comes with its share of problems. I was lucky to have the assistance of Clive Rushton. A triathlete we both helped with her swimming was the daughter-in-law of the Saudi oil giant CEO, Amin Nazer. That was a way of life we both found novel and deeply interesting.    

For several months I have been writing a third book about swimming. It is due to be published later this year. Sadly I have had to change the caption on one of the photographs. This is what the caption said, “After several failures at finding a national coach Swimming New Zealand would do well to invite Clive Rushton back. He was and still is acutely aware of the reforms needed to lift the performance of swimming in New Zealand. And he is qualified and capable of getting the job done.”

In an ironic twist, that I know Clive would love, I have just read the email sent out by the NZ Coaches Association telling us about Clive’s death. Only New Zealand swimming could spell the ex-national Head Coach’s name wrong in his obituary. It is “Rushton” not “Ruston”. In their obituary I notice that Clive Power has some kind words to say about Clive Rushton. The feeling was mutual. Here is a line from an email Clive Rushton recently sent me that speaks volumes about the qualities Clive Rushton respected and admired.

“Clive Power is no nonsense, no BS, ‘old’ (aka effective) school approach to hard, focused work, is exactly what New Zealand swimmers need.  

And a second email discusses Clive Rushton’s feelings about Swimming New Zealand.

“I have received very nice emails from some of the coaches saying “come back” and, as you know from business; the producers need someone they trust. That probably outweighs every other factor. Of course there has to be an expert and solid grounding in the relevant aspects of the sport but, once that is acknowledged, trust comes out at the top of the list in my book. I don’t think there is much trust anywhere at the moment, is there?”

You were a trusted mate Clive. Farewell and thank you. The sport of swimming, and especially swimming in New Zealand was better for your time here.         

 

 

World Peace

June 14th, 2017

Most readers will be aware there are political problems in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has fallen out with Qatar and has convinced four other members of the GCC to impose sanctions on Qatar. And I think I know the reason why and how to solve the problem. It all has to do with swimming.

Let me explain – the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a regional political organisation comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). You see, after a year in a boutique slum hotel in Saudi Arabia, I know all about the GCC. Every year the pinnacle of GCC unity is expressed in an annual swimming championship. Other sports pale in comparison. At the annual GCC Swimming Championships honour is at stake, big time. Saudi Swimming had a prince member of the royal family in charge and employed a New Zealand CEO in an effort to win the championship. Sadly it has never worked.

Year after year Kuwait wins the championships, followed closely by Qatar, then the UAE, then Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Oman usually trails the field. I learned early in my stay that a country like Saudi Arabia is not at all happy with fifth place. The biggest country, the leader of the Arab world finds it difficult to accept being beaten by minions like Qatar and Bahrain. Millions of oil dollars are spent sending swimmers around the world, employing foreign coaches and paying swimmers a living allowance. And it has never worked. Championships come and go and Saudi Arabia is fifth again.

Vision may be the problem. The CEO has bought himself the most massive American SUV. I swear his wife must have prepared a cushion with embroidered kiwis to lift him above the steering wheel.

Unable to beat their GCC partners in the pool, I am convinced, the Saudi authorities decided to stop the competition. Someone filed a complaint with FINA about Kuwait. The accusation was that Kuwait was winning because they were importing foreign swimmers. FINA agreed and Kuwait was banished from the championships. Saudi Arabia was now up to fourth place. One more place and a bronze medal would be theirs.

So now you know why Qatar has been expelled from the GCC. After years in the wilderness, in the 2017 GCC Swimming Championships, Qatar will not be able to compete and Saudi Arabia will be the third placed nation. Saudi Arabia is edging up the table. Honour is being restored.

It seemed important to convey this information to world leaders. Perhaps they could pressure Qatar, UAE, Kuwait and Bahrain swimmers to swim slowly and let Saudi Arabia win. Saudi Arabia could have its victory without the disruption to travel and commerce caused by the current ban.

I took my plan to 10 Downing Street. Unfortunately Theresa May was out at the Berlitz School learning Irish. I didn’t have much luck in Washington DC either. Rex Tillerson was too busy removing dandruff from Donald Trump’s suit and Kelly Ann Conway was receiving a fair and honest award from Fox News. I did see the Education Secretary, Nancy de Vos, who said she was pleased that global warming was not affecting the life cycle of glaciers in Kuwait.

Normal world leaders in France and Germany did seem taken with my plan. Sufficiently so that through their diplomatic efforts I believe Saudi Arabia could well win the 2017 GCC Swimming Championships. And the world will be at peace again.  

Post Script – GCC Championship results are a sad reflection on the standard of swimming in the area. It is terrible that Saudi Arabia is unable to win a competition where the men’s races (there are no women) are won in very slow times. For example in 2016:

800 Free 8:52.80, 100 Free 52.78, 200 Fly 2:13.43, 400 Free 4:14.38, 1500 Free 17:14.94, 100 Breast 1:07.20, 200 Back 2:09.60, 50 Fly 24.90.    

 

West Wave Waffle

June 13th, 2017

Just about everyone has read or heard the fitness slogans demanding greater effort. Expressions like “Go hard or go home” and “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” and “No pain, no gain” and “Success is earned with blood, sweat, and the occasional tear.” Many gym walls are papered with these calls to greater effort. Many trainers include them in their instructions.

I’ve seen some stunning displays. In one pool a group of middle aged, often overweight patrons gathered each Saturday morning for the health benefit of an hour of aqua-aerobics. What followed was an amazing cocktail of high intensity interval exercise. It was very dangerous. Every week I expected someone to pull up with a heart problem. Dive into the pool, climb out, run around the pool, faster you guys, dive back in, climb back out, do 10 push-ups, climb the diving tower and leap into the pool. And through it all the instructor demanded more effort. “Wake up. Work out. Look hot. Kick ass. Sore as hell and back for more.” she screamed.

The effect on the patrons was terrifying; bright red, gasping for air they staggered from one task to another. And as they left I frequently heard the instructor say, “That was great. Really made them hurt this morning.”

It was all so senseless, so dangerous, so nothing like the exercise I knew these people actually needed. For thirty years I have been fortunate enough to discuss swimming and athletics with some of the world’s best coaches; men like Arthur Lydiard, Arch Jelley and Mark Schubert. Between them they have coached a score of Olympic gold medal winners. Not once have I heard them berate their athletes with slogans of hard work and toil. Instead they have advised caution. Instead of, “Don’t stop. Keep going. Push harder.” These men had more sensible advice.

In my own coaching career I have been fortunate enough to coach swimmers and runners to Olympic Games and World Championships, a Master’s World Record Holder, 81 National Champions and 68 National Records and I would never dream of subjecting any of them to the abuse I have seen in aqua-aerobic and gym classes around the world. Without doubt cruelty of that type will never be successful and has no place in an exercise program.

But the reason I am writing this post is because I have just been to the Auckland Council’s West Wave Pool in Henderson, New Zealand. And I have witnessed the pinnacle of exercise stupidity. On their wall they have a prominent poster advertising their fitness classes and the heading says:

“TRAIN INSANE OR REMAIN THE SAME”   

There can be no excuse that justifies that message. The West Wave Pool is a Council facility. They have a duty to know better than this. Their own Bylaws (the Health and Hygiene Bylaw 2013) puts it better than I ever could:

“The council may revoke a code of practice that –  (a) relates to the operation of commercial services that pose an associated health risk to any persons using or accessing their services, products or business operation.”

The Bylaw contains the following clarification:

“When you plan an event you are responsible for the safety of everyone at the event.”

Well, “train insane or remain the same” most certainly does “pose a health risk” to many West Wave patrons. At this point I could discuss the physiological reasons training insane is dangerous. Instead, let me use four examples of athletes whose training I know well: John Walker, Peter Snell, Rhi Jeffrey and Toni Jeffs. Two of the runners because I knew their coaches very well and the two swimmers because I was their coach. All four were medalists at world events. All four trained about 576 times a year. Anaerobic, insane training sessions were run or swum in 24 training sessions a year; 4% of the time. If race days are added to the insane training load the two swimmers competed on about 50 days a year – 100 races. And so combined the “insane” work load for these competitors was about 74 times a year – only 13% of their annual training. The other 87% was “train don’t strain”. And remember these were world class athletes, not 50 year old, 110 kilogram, West Wave patrons wanting to lose a bit of weight.       

The poster is insane. Whoever put it on the wall is not being “responsible for the safety of everyone”. It is difficult to comprehend how a paid exercise professional could possibly think this is a suitable message. If the West Wave Pool is going to offer fitness classes in their pool or gym they need to ensure their staff is aware of the rules associated with safe training. A poster like this suggests considerable staff training is required. And required quickly before someone hurts themselves trying to “train insane”.  

 

A Good Day For New Zealand Swimming

June 11th, 2017

And so Alex Baumann is on his way. Most readers will know that Baumann was an accomplished swimmer. He won five gold medals at the Commonwealth Games and two gold medals at the understrength 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. In February 2012 he was appointed to the position of Chief Executive of High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ). And in September this year he will leave to go and live in Australia with his wife and family.

I see Paul Collins, the Chairman of HPSNZ, has lauded Baumann’s leadership and vision. According to Collins Baumann, “has lifted the bar for high performance sport in New Zealand and built an organization that is among the best in the world.”

I can’t speak for other New Zealand sports but in swimming Collins is talking rubbish. And swimming matters; after all swimming was Baumann’s sport, the sport he was supposed to know best. In my view Baumann’s time in charge has been a disaster for swimming; a disaster which in large part is his responsibility. The buck stops with Baumann and Miskimmin.

Let me set out the reasons I believe Baumann leaving is the best news New Zealand swimming has had for a long, long time. The charges against Baumann are as follows

  1. He has promoted a policy of centralization that has not and cannot work. Around the world the Baumann model, imposed on New Zealand, has been tried and discarded. Successful national programs have encouraged a wide infrastructure of many coaches participating in the national program. In New Zealand Baumann has persisted with the Soviet era model of a single national training center. The role of domestic coaches is primarily to nurture and then supply talented swimmers into the Millennium organization.

For five years, for two Olympic Games, and at a cost of around $9 million New Zealand has doggedly tried to make Baumann’s centralized model work. And it has not. No medals, nothing. In fact New Zealand’s best results have come from swimmers who have broken away from Baumann’s plan and have developed their swimming in Australia or the United States.

I am sure Baumann would have loved to impose a swimming style centralized structure on New Zealand track and field athletics. But he couldn’t. There is no way in the world that Dame Valerie Adams, Nick Willis, Hamish Carson, Tom Walsh, the Robertson brothers, or Camille Buscomb were going to relinquish their independence by accepting a Baumann imposed socialist regime. These fine athletes wanted to preserve their right to prepare in Kenya, or in the state of Michigan, or on a New Zealand farm or in an American University, or on a Swiss mountain. The sad thing about track and field is that the stellar Olympic performances of athletes who rejected the Baumann plan are used by Miskimmin and Collins as evidence that the plan works.

The centralized policy promoted by Baumann in New Zealand swimming is old fashioned, out-of-date, boring, and lacks imagination or initiative. And so good-bye Baumann. You will not be missed.

  1. The greatest damage resulting from the Baumann policy has been the savage undermining of New Zealand coaches. I’m losing count of the coaches that have been brought into the Millennium Institute since Baumann took over at HPSNZ. The best has been a New Zealander, Clive Power. Ironically he came to the rescue when Swimming New Zealand couldn’t find a foreign coach. Power is an excellent coach and clearly shows that New Zealanders are quite capable of coaching their own. But not as far as Swimming New Zealand is concerned. In Baumann’s five years Swimming New Zealand has employed two Australians, a Pom and the current American. Including the New Zealander that’s a coach a year and no one can understand why the sport can’t win anything. I suspect even Phelps would struggle if he changed coaches every twelve months.

The current Head Coach is an American age group club coach. The message Swimming New Zealand is sending to every domestic coach is that none of us are as good as an American age group club coach. The national federation scoured the world and decided that a foreign age group club coach was better than anything available in New Zealand. That is clearly not true and it is about time the New Zealand Coaches Association did something to put right the message Swimming New Zealand seem intent on peddling. The damage to the coaching infrastructure in New Zealand has been serious.

  1. I always felt uneasy about the appearance of divided loyalty when it came to Baumann. It probably did not affect his job in any way, but for me the appearance of carpet bagging was difficult to shake. For example both his children were good enough to swim for New Zealand but were shipped back to swim for Canada. His daughter swims the same events as Lauren Boyle. His son swam for Canada in the Rio Olympics in the same events as Glen Snyders. Who was Baumann supporting in Rio?

And while he was in New Zealand his wife and family home continued on in Australia. As I have said all this may have had no effect on Baumann’s performance. However as the Thomas theorem says – if something is perceived to be true it can be true in its consequences.

And now the news tells me, “The Board will begin a worldwide search to identify the best possible candidate and ensure a seamless leadership transition.” They never learn do they? They are off overseas again to find another foreigner. New Zealand’s most successful sport, rugby, seems to do just fine employing New Zealanders. Swimming must do the same. There is no need, or place, for foreign carpet bagger coaches or administrators. The Boards of HPSNZ and Swimming New Zealand should be ashamed of their worship of things foreign. The cost to New Zealand morale has been too high.

In my opinion the potential opportunities for New Zealand swimming will improve as Baumann’s jet lifts off the runway and heads west out of here.