Junior Nationals

By David

It’s Nationals time; first the Open and then the Junior Nationals. Our team has one swimmer in the Juniors and two in the Opens. I can’t wait. Those early mornings and hot afternoons have all been for this; the top of the domestic tree, it’s great. I’ve noticed some local team’s make great play of having swimmers qualify for the Open or Junior Nationals and then don’t enter the event. What’s the point of that? If you’re good enough to be there you should go and try and win the bloody thing. Besides, why stay at home when you can be where the best hang out.

When I came to the United States I was a bit unsure about the Junior Nationals. My experience of the New Zealand version had not been good. It’s a terrible meet. So bad that I refused to let Nichola Chellingworth or Jane Copland swim in it.

Juniors in New Zealand are the scene of too much hurt. They remind me of the bull fights I’ve seen in Spain. Exciting and colorful, but in the end dusty, bleeding, dead animals are dragged from the arena. New Zealand’s Junior Swimming Championships are like that. At the beginning of the week keen, enthusiastic, happy young people arrive full of anticipation, coached and honed to a competitive edge. Parents dash around the pool checking that their charge’s start list seed times have been properly entered and locating the town’s best source of pasta. Coaches patrol the pre-meet practice with all the intensity of an Olympic warm up. International swim meet promoters would die to be able to create the nervous energy present at the beginning of your average New Zealand age group championship.

By the end of the first morning’s heats you can detect the mood beginning to change. The problem is thirty swimmers enter an event, eight make a final, three get medals and one wins. Potentially there are twenty nine disappointed swimmers and fifty eight disappointed parents who can’t wait to get back to the motel for their treble gin and tonic to ease the pain. It’s a disappointment born out of expectations set far too high.

As each day goes by the mood darkens and deepens. An adult’s most valuable skill is providing comfort to another sobbing teenager. The transformation is stunning. The tremendous high of the first morning slumps during the day; is momentarily revived at the beginning of day two, only to slump even further. By day four all I want to do is get the hell out of there and make sure no swimmer of mine ever goes back. For someone whose heart is in seeing athletes soar, the New Zealand Junior Championships are not something I care to watch.

There is a good article on the US Junior Nationals in this month’s issue of the USA Swimming magazine “Splash”. In it USA Swimming seem to be aware that their event needed to avoid many of the problems characteristic of the New Zealand version. For example, they say, “Along the way, however, many coaches and others within USA Swimming saw a disturbing trend. Instead of a whistle stop on the way to senior national and international competition the Junior nationals were embedding themselves as a destination.”

The Americans have done some good things to avoid damaging the nation’s youth. First of all their event is not a normal age group meet. Everyone up to a relatively old 18 can swim in the event. This avoids youngsters being over exposed at too young an age. Secondly, the qualifying standards are really tough. They reflect the “older” cut off age. An athlete has to be pretty quick just to make the cut. There’s a fair chance swimmers that fast will have the experience and maturity to handle the occasion. Thirdly, names included on the meet’s list of alumni suggest the Juniors are working as a transition between Sectional and International athlete. “Splash” tells me that Gary Hall, Aaron Peirsol, Ian Crocker and Michael Phelps all swam here. That’s a pretty impressive list. It appears that winning is not essential either. For example, Phelps never won the event, but he seems to have come through unscathed.

I agree with the “Splash” conclusion. The meet is a fine occasion for transition swimmers to “test themselves against the best among their peers.” When all the good ones are there, win or lose, its sport at its best.