Archive for January, 2010


Sunday, January 24th, 2010

By David

Snap is not a particularly impressive word. It’s too short and clipped to mean anything important. Words like parliament, serendipity and monarchy are impressive words. That’s why the Queen is a monarch and not a snap. For me however snap is personally significant. Its meaning was reconfirmed this week when I noticed an interesting article on a New Zealand news website ( describing what it called “possibly the biggest art event ever to be held in Italy”. It interested me because the event was being held in Cassino, Italy on May 15-29 to commemorate New Zealand’s involvement in the Battle of Monte Cassino 66 years ago.

It went on to say that “Kiwi artists who have a connection with soldiers who fought in Cassino will be first invited to take part. The dates mark the liberation of towns in the area during World War 2 and are Cassino’s “busy time” of the year with veterans groups, commemoration services and unveiling of new memorials.”

It would be stretching the truth to say I was a “Kiwi artist”. The truth is I was excused art at Wairoa High School in favor of going to the gym to do weights. I thought my pictures of a dagger with a snake twisted around the blade were not too bad. I drew pretty good trees as well. I don’t know how many trees they’ve got at Monte Cassino but I’m sure I could do a fair job of putting their image on paper. Probably not good enough to merit an invitation to the Monte Cassino art show though. However if my pictorial skills aren’t up to standard; does writing count as art? I’m not the best writer in the world. There are dozens of writers that drive me mad with their easy word skills. Roger Robinson’s writing is a rare example of classic prose. Jane is better than average too. Most Swimwatch readers will have picked that up already. Quite often I try and copy her sentence construction, grammar and vocabulary skills. Roger and Jane would certainly count as “artists”. But, for the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume I’d make an invitation to the final, albeit in lane eight.

You will notice that the other criterion to join the exhibition is to “have a connection with soldiers who fought in Cassino”. Here, I am on firm ground. My Dad was at Monte Cassino in a tank. Actually he wasn’t in a tank for very long. A German shell shot up his vehicle shortly after he arrived there. In a book called “Albanete – lost opportunity at Cassino” my Dad describes his exit from the war.

“It was while looking at the possible route that we were hit. Regaining consciousness I saw that my arm was bleeding heavily and must have a tourniquet quickly. I looked up to see Joe Costello gazing through the turret at me. How he wasn’t hit is a mystery. Steve was slumped over his 75mm, bleeding badly from his back and head. Tom Middleton was lying on the floor, having fallen off his seat by the wireless. With difficulty I managed to traverse the turret by hand to enable Jack to scramble through to apply the tourniquet.

This applied I told Jack to try the motors. It was with a prayer on our lips he pressed the starter. The left engine roared into life to be followed by the right immediately afterwards. With his head out of the driver’s hatch, the better to see and get maximum speed Jack drove out through our own tanks, which were still pounding away at the enemy, to the forward Casualty Station.”

Repairing the damage cost my father his right arm and eye.

Forty five years later a lot had happened. My parents had married in a pretty elaborate ceremony in New Zealand’s First Church. I was born and my parents had divorced. My mother remarried and I lost contact with my father. He did pay for me to spend my senior year at high school in Thorp, Wisconsin and to attend New Zealand’s Outward Bound School. When Jane was twelve our swim team decided to have a summer training camp in Blenheim. My father lived there; it was time to re-establish contact. It was time for him to meet his granddaughter.

Just before we left for the camp I had an accident with a knife and cut two of the fingers on my right hand. It wasn’t all that bad but did merit eight or nine stitches and an impressively large bandage. Two days later we arrived in Blenheim. A barbeque had been arranged at my Dad’s home with his second wife, my half brother and sister and their families, all of whom I had never met. Jane seemed fine but I was pretty nervous as I walked up to the front door and rang the bell.

My Dad opened the door and paused for a moment studying the oversized bandage on my right hand. Ever so slowly he extended his only arm, his left arm to my left arm, gripped it firmly and said, “Snap”.

Google Goggle

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

By David

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with “Google Analytics”, its near cousin “StatCounter”, or any other web stats / analytics package. I’d never heard of them until Jane visited Florida in September. However the void in my computer knowledge was not particularly surprising. A few years ago when we were setting up Swimwatch, Edward Yardley, the technical brains behind the venture, nearly wet his new corduroys when I called Google “Goggle”. For a swim coach I thought it was a perfectly understandable mistake. With his degree in computer science, Edward thought I’d helped Noah build the ark.

These statistics and analytics programmes tell you all about the visits to your website each day – how many, where from, how often and what they put into their computer to end up at Swimwatch. I have say, it is bloody amazing what some people ask Google to find. I mean most visitors are sensible and stick to “Swimwatch” or “swimming news”. You probably don’t know that Swimwatch ranks on page one of Google for “swimming news”. How’s that for SEO status, right up there with the BBC, ESPN and the New York Times. And if you don’t know what SEO means, you were probably helping Noah as well.

However there are some strange buggers out there who Google all sorts of stuff. Someone wanting “Ian Thorpe naked” arrived at Swimwatch the other day. They weren’t looking for our story on Thorpe’s swimming feats. Instead they were after a site that boasted a picture of Thorpe’s head on the unclothed torso of Mr. Puny America.

It is a mystery what anyone finds on Swimwatch to justify looking for “sexy swimmers team girls pictures” or “uploaded images female swimmer” or “the seven hottest female swimmers of all time“ or even “naughty Indiana girl pictures”. Those four occur quite often from all over the world. The four most recent inquiries using those referrals came from the United States, or to be more precise Cambridge, Massachusetts, Westport, Indiana, Union, New Jersey and San Diego, California. Our reader in San Diego must have found what he was after. He spent a constructive 21min and 49sec reading two of Jane’s posts. Sadly he appears to have had little interest in my literary efforts. I do not want to give the impression that the United States has a monopoly on strange Swimwatch searches. Just today someone from Lane Cove in New South Wales, Australia felt the need to find out about “swimmer red Speedo hard photo”. I doubt there is anything on Swimwatch that would satisfy this Australian fantasy.

Some of our swimmers get more than their fair share of attention. Rhi Jeffrey and Jane Copland are the most popular. Both have personalities well suited to managing their internet attention. In fact their popularity on a swimming website, well after both of them have retired, speaks volumes for their larger than life personalities. While searches for Rhi and Jane may be understandable and even normal, there are some strange ones as well. For about a week recently our best female swimmer was Googled every day by someone in Maryland. The swimmer has never been to Maryland, doesn’t know anyone in Maryland, but clearly has a determined admirer up there somewhere.

There is one interesting national characteristic. Google searches for “coach yelling at athlete” almost always come from the United Kingdom. There is obviously a whole lot more distress about this subject in the UK than anywhere else. The Brits clearly have a thing about being yelled at by swimming coaches. Americans, who revere their swim coaches, initiate very few searches on the subject. It seems that the most concern in the UK is centered in the south. For example, today’s inquiries came from Bristol, Coulsdon in Surrey and Martock in Somerset. Parents and swimmers north of Manchester and in Scotland are not nearly as concerned about a few poolside verbals.

I was delighted to see that a Google inquiry for “Ohura Beacon Wanganui New Zealand” was directed straight to Swimwatch. The Ohura Beacon is a flight navigation beacon on the west of New Zealand’s North Island. It played an important part in my life. Twenty six years ago, at 9000 feet almost directly above the beacon the engine of my Piper Arrow burst an oil pipe and stopped. A little south of Ohura I found a friendly paddock and managed one of my better landings. I wrote about the incident in a Swimwatch story. It looks like Google enjoyed the story and are now directing all aviation inquires about the beacon to our blog. I wonder how many Air New Zealand captains have discovered an Arrow’s forced landing instead of the technical details of the Ohura Beacon.

Other fun searches that have ended up at Swimwatch include “empty pool” from someone who lives in Gin Gin, Queensland, Australia: a strange request from a strange town. A search from New Delhi, India asked “is it possible to swim in New Zealand in May?” Someone from San Jose, California wanted the opinion of Swimwatch on “cotton chicken candy nuggets”. None of these are as odd as the reader in Valdosta, Georgia in the United States who wanted our opinion on the “monte food mart in Wellington New Zealand”. It would not be fair for us to comment. We left New Zealand before Del Monte arrived. I have relations however who tell me the stores aren’t too bad: where I come from that’s pretty high praise.

It is off the subject but you may be interested to know that in the past four days Swimwatch has received 500 visits from 40 different countries. That number, spread around the world is bound to result in readers with all sorts of emotions and motives. I even heard of a reader last week who said we had insulted some of her friends. Of Course that’s not true: just Google it – “insulted my friends” – see, I told you, no mention of Swimwatch.

In Four Years, We’ll Know

Saturday, January 9th, 2010

By David

During the Christmas break, Jane came to Florida. We played a number of the games families do at this time of the year. I enjoy the Internet’s trivia quizzes. Some of the questions are great. For example, who thought up these two: Who hasn’t been Prime Minister of New Zealand and where is Stewart Island? It’s all in the intonation. Who hasn’t been the Prime Minister of New Zealand?

Last night we were asked to name four of the seven deadly sins. I never get them all but apparently they are, wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. It got me thinking about which sin was most common and most damaging to a swimmer’s career. Why did talented athletes capable of university full ride scholarships not get them? Why did others capable of swimming for their country never make it? Why do 90% of Florida’s young swimmers drop out before realizing their potential? Is there one sin that explains the vast amount of underachievement that goes on in this sport? I think its greed.

Lydiard would agree. He constantly stressed the long term nature of an athlete’s career. Four years of full international training, he said, was the minimum apprenticeship for a top international competitor. And yet there are hundreds of athletes and thousands of parents and a few score of coaches who want results faster than that. In the United States, it’s especially bad. Around every corner there’s a McDonalds drive-through swim team. In my first three years here I was constantly being sent emails telling me I couldn’t coach a fast swimmer. The emails have dried up a bit since our team qualified six swimmers for the US National Championships, broke two Master’s World Records, won the Ft. Lauderdale International 4×50 relay and had swimmers win the open men’s freestyle and fly events at the same meet.

In spite of that I still see examples of the sin of greed. As Lydiard put it once, “In six months they will know they were right. In six years though, they will know their mistake. And then it’s too late.”

Let me give you a few examples.

I coached an extraordinarily gifted swimmer for two years. At twelve she would hang on a bar outside my office doing repeat sets of ten pull-ups. Concerned that she might be overdoing things I finally asked her to ease off to no more than 50 pull-ups before practice. After eighteen months swimming, at 14, she was easily cruising through occasional weeks of 100 kilometer and had swum 1.02 for 100 LCM freestyle. Just after she qualified for and swam in the finals of the Caribbean Islands Championships her parents told me they were being pressured by parents from the “private school” swim team down the road. She’s swimming too far, they said. She doesn’t race enough events, her strokes all funny, her growth will be affected and she’s got no social life. Finally an email arrived. Dear Mr. Wright, it said, “Our daughter must not swim as far in training. She must race more often and she must do more stroke correction in everything except freestyle.” It was the classic over anxious parent email; Alison refers to it as our “get out of jail card”. Two months later we left what the locals call “paradise”, knowing that this extraordinary girl’s career was a lost cause. That was four years ago. Today she still swims around 1.01/1.02 for 100 freestyle, she’s doing well in school and in every way is a well rounded, good person. But she’s not competing in the finals of the US National Championships or Olympic Trials and that’s where her talent lay until her parents lost or perhaps never knew the meaning of a sound swimming education.

In New Zealand I was fortunate to coach another extraordinary talent. She swam in the finals of the Commonwealth Games, qualified for the Olympic Games, won medals in the Oceania Games, Pan Pacific Games and World Cup Finals. Although she preferred the 50 freestyle, her father said her real talent lay in the 200. I agreed and gradually geared her training toward the 200 event with the firm goal of securing that gold medal in the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Then she met a friend/partner who convinced her that more immediate rewards could be found in her favorite 50 meter event – and so they could. She began coaching herself and successfully went on to win further New Zealand Championships, break World Master’s Records and win two bronze medals in the Commonwealth Games 50 meters freestyle. In Sydney however Susan O’Neil won the 200 freestyle final in 1.58.24. Without question New Zealand could have won that race. One hundred meters in 57 followed by a minute was well within her capability. It’s about patience. Gold can be lost for the lack of it.

Recently I coached another talented young freestyler; perhaps not quite as gifted as the swimmers already mentioned in this article. However, what she missed in talent she more than made up for in work ethic. She swam further and harder than anybody I’ve coached at her age. I forever had to tell her, “That’s enough for today. You hop out now.” Given time her ability to work would have yielded plenty. My guess is that in four years she had the potential to be around – that’s above or below – 4 minutes for 400 and 8 minutes for 800 meters freestyle. Unfortunately, she had, and my guess is still has, a classic “over anxious parent” mother who has no idea how to handle winning and losing an athletic event. Kipling’s idea of meeting, with “triumph and disaster and treating those two impostors just the same” is a totally foreign concept. I’ve seen her walk out of events when her daughter didn’t perform as well as the mother thought she should. I’ve heard the girl accused of being gutless and not trying. I once heard the mother ask the girl when she was going to stop being mediocre and I was told that the girl had to swim faster to avoid the mother’s Boca Raton friends laughing at her. Wow, in that environment success is doomed to “blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” (For New Zealand readers; Boca Raton is the Remuera of South Florida)

Relevant to all these examples is potential. Clearly if a swimmers has the potential to swim 1.10 for 100 freestyle and does it, that is a major achievement; equal to the feats of a Phelps and Torres. But if you are a female capable of 8.10 for 800 meters freestyle and your best is say 8.52, then something has gone wrong. I am not impressed; 67 meters behind where you should be swimming by now is not good. Give me the 1.10 any time.

In a couple of years or so we will know whether the decisions made this year have worked or not. Lydiard was right, “In six months of course they are all right. In four years, I’m not so sure.”