Archive for February, 2010

Scorn Not

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

By David

Many Swimwatch stories discuss matters that concern elite swimming. We have written about swim suits, international championships, Mare Nostrum swim meets and national coaches. My favorite coaching is working with swimmers like Rhi Jeffrey, Oswaldo Quevedo, Jane Copland, Toni Jeffs, John Foster and Nichola Chellingworth. The revelation that, even these World class competitors were all once in someone’s Confident Beginners class, will surprise no one. In recognition of that fact, every day, I make a point of taking our juniors for the stroke correction portion of their practice.

For several reasons, it is well worth the twenty minutes. You become a better coach. A teacher once told me that elementary school teachers are better at teaching than university tutors. Teaching junior students requires more skill. At this level the task is not only to transfer information, but to transfer information in a manner that instills learning skills at the same time. That’s true for swimming too. Taking junior swimmers requires better explanations. For Rhi, “Catch a bit deeper,” is sufficient. She knows what it means and how to follow the instruction. She is also physically able to do it and even understands why it is important – and all without a long explanation from me. For juniors, good teaching requires that all that information is explained. Which means the coach has to know and think through the how and the why as well. And therein lies an exercise that is good for the coaching soul. I think I’ve answered more interesting whys and hows from juniors than from all the Rhis of the world.

Besides making the coach explain stroke techniques better, teaching young swimmers is a constant reminder of the breadth of the swimming curriculum. When all you do is coach Jane Copland type swimmers, it’s very easy to forget how much needs to be learned. I was at a swim meet with our junior swimmers this weekend. One of our eight year olds was not only swimming in his first backstroke race but ended up winning it as well. Before the race I was helping him find his lane and prepare for the right race. Americans do not bother with all that marshalling stuff so popular in the rest of the world. At big meets here you’d never get through them if you tried to carefully marshal all the swimmers. As we stood waiting for the start the eight year old asked, “How soon after I dive in do I roll over and start swimming backstroke?” Before you think that we must have omitted to cover backstroke starts, I should explain that backstroke starts had been taught on several occasions. This particular eight year old had however assumed that our in-the-water tuition had been to avoid getting out of the pool during what has been a cold Florida winter. Moments like that make you realize how much detail needs to be taught. And even then I bet there are a thousand small things you will miss. There is nothing like a few disqualifications to make you realize just how much has been missed.

The photograph below was taken at the same swim meet and is a classic illustration of this point.

It shows the start of the 10 and under boys 50 freestyle. Three of the boys in the photograph are members of our team. For one of them it was his first race, for another his second and for the third his fifth or sixth event. I’m very loyal to all the members of our team. However in this case I have to acknowledge we are still a little short of Phelps’ type starts. The really good thing about all this though is that progress is so obvious and exciting. From the uncontrolled tumbles shown in this photograph to well honed dives is not a long process and happens soon enough. We hope the three boys involved keep this picture as a reminder of how far they have progressed. We hope you enjoy the photograph and thank one of our mothers, Lori, for the skill and luck she had in capturing the moment.


Thursday, February 18th, 2010

By David

I was invited to dinner last night at the prestigious Palm Beach Sailfish Club. My host is a member of our master’s team. The Club was formed in 1914 and today provides the best buffet dinner I’ve ever seen. Lobster tails, scallops, oysters, green bean casserole, roast beef, baked duck, sushi, pork, mama’s apple pie, shot glass deserts, a cheese board to die for, crabs, fresh fruit, prawns and buckets of Russian caviar; it’s all there. They also serve the best vodka martini in a country noted for serving good vodka martinis. I spent the evening happily picking away at several lobster tails sprinkled with the Russian caviar.

On our way to dinner my host was explaining the social significance of The Palm Beach Daily News. Evidently this unashamedly society rag has little literary merit and is known locally as the Shiny Sheet. I’m told that members of the Palm Beach “would be if they could be” clique actually hire PR consultants to get their photograph into its pages. Anyone who manages to get their image into the Shiny Sheet on five or more occasions is known as a swan. My host is a swan, a status achieved, I was assured, without the aid of a PR consultant. Some of us just have it and others have to pay for it – or so it seems.

Evidentially one well known Palm Beach swan, renowned for her expensive PR advisors, has fallen upon hard times. During her description of this parvenu my host used the term “schadenfreude”. I had never heard of the word. So, when I arrived home, I looked it up. Here, with thanks to Wikipedia, is what I found.

“Schadenfreude is pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. This German word is used as a loanword in English and some other languages.”

What Wikipedia didn’t provide was any indication of whether schadenfreude was right or wrong, good or bad. I needed to look further afield. The Book of Proverbs was pretty clear, “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth.” Many philosophers seem to agree. Aristotle, Burton and Adorno portrayed the emotion of schadenfreude as trivial and mean. Of course they are right when the subject of the misfortune is an innocent, struck down through no fault of his own: a fellow human killed by a drunk driver or paralyzed by a brain tumor. To feel any joy in that sort of misfortune perverts the very meaning of humanity.

But does that standard apply when adversity comes as a result of an act or decision that caused hurt to another? Is schadenfreude good when it is directed at arrogant, pompous fools who tumble from grace as a direct result of their effort to cause harm to another? When that happens surely the subject of the fools’ attacks is justified in feeling a moment of schadenfreude. In that instance schadenfreude might not be humanity but it is most certainly human. On these occasions, “I told you so” and “what goes around comes around” and “karma” are understandable and right. These fools deserve no better.

Coaching is an occupation full of opportunities to indulge in schadenfreude. I hate to think of how often Bill Parcells has been shafted by a player or an owner and then watched their career or team crumble. Sir Alex Ferguson must have experienced the same thing. Coaching swimming certainly has more than its fair share of volunteers ready to kick the coach around only to see their own fortunes slide down the pool drain. Who hasn’t experienced parents who cart their offspring from club to club because the previous coach was “no damn good?” I’ve never seen these swimmers succeed. How often have swim coaches had good swimmers dash off to a big club somewhere in search of nirvana? These swimmers usually improve for a bit before their careers slowly slip away. Dozens of teams disintegrate into hollow shells after their zealous owners dismiss a good coach. From Parcells and Ferguson to the nation’s swim coaches all this is ample fodder for a bit of coaching schadenfreude. Or is it?

I take my lead from Lydiard. I was at his home the weekend a New Zealand track world record holder came to tell him she was moving to another coach. At the time Lydiard was annoyed and predicted her career would suffer. A year or so later I was back in Auckland and we discussed what had happened to his ex-runner and the accuracy of his earlier predictions.

The new coach had changed her training to include a lot more speed work. The runner said this was progress. She was ending each day completely spent; something that never happened while she was with Lydiard. Her new team was the right move, made at the right time. Her best was yet to come, she said. The new coach also altered her running style to something he said was “more modern” than Lydiard’s technique. They had recruited nutritionalists, sport’s scientists, sports psychologists and hypnotherapists to smooth the path to running fame. To make matters worse they used TV, radio and the press to tell the world how much better they were doing things.

Sure enough though, the runner began to run slower. She was forever getting injured and needing small medical procedures. She was being beaten in races she would have won previously. Even in New Zealand she was being beaten. Surprisingly, Lydiard didn’t seem to care. “I’ve got too many other things to do,” he said. “Now what are your swimmers doing today?” In the circumstances a bit of schadenfreude would have been reasonable and justified. But there are better things to do.

Sunday Hunting

Monday, February 15th, 2010

By David

It’s surprising how easy it is to get used to killing. When I was ten or eleven my father informed me that my Sunday chore was to find two wild goats and kill them to feed our dogs for the coming week. For eight years I did this. That’s about 832 goats. I remember the first kill like it was yesterday. Sadly, goat number 832 did not leave such a lasting impression. When I graduated from University I became a Management Trainee for Thomas Borthwick & Sons Ltd. one of New Zealand’s largest meat packing companies. They had a policy of making their trainees work at all the positions down the sheep and beef processing chains. Some of the town raised trainees asked to be excused the task of actually killing. Thanks to the 832 goats plus a couple of hundred wild pigs and a few dozen deer I was okay with captive bolt shooting steers and cutting the throats of a few of New Zealand’s 60 million sheep.

In fact I began to take great pride in being a humane executioner. Could I perform the task so quickly and cleanly that death was instant and painless: or as far as I could tell, instant and painless. Most of my mates doing the same job felt the same way. Anyone who screwed up and left an animal bleeding and alive was roundly roasted. And they had little sympathy for us University types with our flash degrees. We may have had years of scholarly reading but here life and death was determined by the keenness of a knife’s blade.

Our meat plant in Fielding killed 9000 lambs per day along three chains. That’s 3000 per chain in seven hours, or 428 lambs in an hour, or seven each minute, or one every 13 seconds. And God help anyone who was slower than that. Normal workers were paid by the number processed. One lamb in 20 seconds was costing them money. Knives would soon beat a rhythm on anything metal alerting the killer to his tardy ways. I did that job for three weeks. The mathematicians among you will have worked out that I killed 45,000 lambs in that time. Actually it was just a little over 46,000. We worked a Saturday morning in the middle week. Again I remember lamb number one – a plump Romney Cross destined for London’s Smithfield Meat Market. Lamb number 46,000 meant only that it was time to move on to some less bloody occupation. Jane now lives across the road from Smithfield Meat Market. It’s become a very trendy part of town; nightclubs, bars and great English pubs. On her way to work though, if she looks closely, I suspect she too will find several year 2010 versions of my first Romney lamb.

Shooting cattle requires just as much care to ensure a clean kill. At Fielding we killed 500 cattle a day; about one each minute. The steer I remember best however, was one I killed in Perth, Scotland. I’d spent three years building Europe’s most modern meat plant. It came time for the first animal to be killed. The beast was donated by a local farmer, James Stewart. The owners of our company arrived from London and the construction workers gathered to see the plant’s first death. I was a touch nervous as I aimed the captive bolt between the animal’s Aberdeen Angus eyes. Bang and thankfully the beast dropped and lay still – a clean kill.

But factory killing can’t compare to the search and hunt for wild goats. I was not allowed to use a multi shot magazine or telescopic sights. Each bullet had to be hand fed, each shot had to count. Miss and your prey would quickly disappear into the safety of the area’s dense bush. The easiest way to hunt was to climb to the top of the dark greywacke cliffs that surrounded my home and walk along the tops searching downhill for an unsuspecting herd. I’m not the best shot in the world and have the added disadvantage of shooting left handed. To be sure of my bullet finding its mark I needed to get closer than 50 meters from the target. When goats are frightened, but unsure where the danger is coming from, they inevitably run uphill. Stay hidden and they will dash towards you making it an easy task to collect animal number two. After a few months I got pretty good at avoiding a long heavy carry by having the week’s two goats die close to each other. It took another half hour to skin and gut the animals. Then it was time to grill thin slices of goat heart over an open fire or take a short nap in the warm afternoon sun. On a good day there was time to do both before lugging the carcasses home.

There is something special about sitting high in the New Zealand hills looking down on a thousand acres of rough green pasture and dark native bush. The wide Hangaroa River is always present, brown with silt in winter and crystal clear in summer. There is a size and peace about all this that no city can match. Cities have other qualities; other fine features. But for me the peace of a fire on a deserted hillside on a warm afternoon is a privilege without peer. Without question a perfect place to spend one’s youth.

Scratching Yourself in Public

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

By David

Nothing excites administrators and coaches more than the thought of a swimmer scratching from an event. I’ve heard swimmers accused of all sorts of character flaws at the very mention of scratching from a race. The most popular slurs involve patriotism and cowardice.

The patriotism argument goes something like this. Swimming this event may not be in your best interests. It may lay waste to your chance of setting a record in your best event due to start in fifteen minutes. We know you are the fastest qualifier for tonight’s final and need to get back to the hotel to eat and rest. It is unfortunate that you feel ill and have been running to the toilet all night. That teres major muscle tear and 103 degree fever is certainly bad luck. BUT – your team needs you. There are points to be won. Don’t you understand that the pariahs at Mongoose Aquatics are three points ahead of us? You could change all that. Your team’s future is hanging by a thread. This moment is what it means to be a Shining Light Aquatics American (insert here New Zealander, Australian or any one of the world’s other 195 countries).

The cowardice argument goes something like this. Swimming is more than a sport. It’s about character. Do you have what it takes to be successful in life? Are you a man – always said irrespective of gender? Are you tough? Can you take it – whatever it is? All these questions will be answered positively or negatively by the decision you make right now. Scratch and you will reveal character flaws that will shadow and haunt you through life. Good people do not scratch from a swimming race. Swim and you lift yourself above the common herd. You will have shown character. You will be a leader. Yours will be “the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son” – also said irrespective of gender.

It’s all rubbish of course. We’re talking about a swimming race, a sport, a game. This is not Passchendaele or the Fall of Saigon. But many administrators miss that point. The Chairman of a Club Jane swam for wrote to the team’s Board after a Caribbean Championships asking for Jane to be sanctioned. According to the Chairman, Jane’s felony was scratching from the 50 meters butterfly final. She had, he said, let the team down, lost the team points and set a bad example to younger swimmers. The truth is, I entered Jane in the heat of the butterfly race on the first day of the Championships as a warm-up swim, never expecting she would make the final. However she performed better than I anticipated and ended up comfortably in the top eight. The butterfly final however was dangerously close to the final of Jane’s favorite event, the 200 meters breaststroke. I decided to play it safe and scratched her from the fly. Jane won the breaststroke in a time that is still the Caribbean Championship record for that event. A wise decision had been made. Fortunately the Club’s Board agreed and dismissed the Chairman’s call for censure.

The decision to scratch needs to be based on what is in the best interests of the individual involved. I ask one simple question. If I had access to the information available at the time of the scratching would I have entered the swimmer in the first place? If I’d known the swimmer was not feeling well, or was likely to perform better in another event, or had hurt herself skiing, or was going to be late for her sister’s birthday would I have pushed ahead with the entry in the first place. Does the new information mean the swimmer would not have been even entered? If the answer to that question is even a mild probably, then scratching is the proper option; everyone lives to fight another day. Insist on swimming because of some spurious moral good and we all suffer. Worse than that, very probably, another swimmer is about to be added to the list of teenagers who dropped out of swimming early in their careers. This is sport not some total transformation boot camp. Even Arthur Lydiard, and he was a really tough bugger, said. “If in doubt, leave it out.”

This “scratching” philosophy means my swimmers do scratch from more races than other teams. At Mare Nostrum last year our team of five swimmers scratched from at least one event on each of the seven days of competition. Some might see that as a problem; I do not. However, do not expect a relaxed attitude to scratching to act as any protection from partisan parents. Some time ago I was accused of forcing a swimmer to compete in a swimming race. It does not take a particularly perspicacious mind to determine that the content of this article makes that suggestion really, really unlikely. However I had to explain all this at a stressful and unnecessary hearing. The complaint was found to have no substance. So there you have it; in the short space of about four years, two complaints – one for not forcing a swimmer to compete and the other for forcing a swimmer into the pool. And both wrong. It’s right what they say, you know, “there’s now’t so queer as folk.”

American Challenge

Monday, February 1st, 2010

By David

Occasionally Swimwatch receive suggestions on the content of its articles. Recently a good friend suggested Swimwatch should highlight the perilous state of New Zealand’s country schools. The suggestion had merit. Rural schools all over New Zealand are being closed. Not so very long ago the children of farming families could ride a horse or walk to their local rural school. Now they spend an hour or more in dusty school buses travelling to schools in regional towns. I went to one of the rural schools. It had three rooms, three teachers, a dental clinic, a shower block, an orchard, a vegetable garden, a tennis court and a rugby field. The education must have been fine. Three of my Te Reinga School mates ended up graduating from University with me. Fortunately Te Reinga is one of the surviving rural schools. Only two of the class rooms are in current use, but a filtered pool has replaced the Hangiroa River as the location of the school’s swim lessons. I decided the continuing health of my old school meant it was best to avoid using Swimwatch to discuss the plight of other, less fortunate, schools.

A second email this week suggested Swimwatch should tell the story of Bethany Hamilton. Now that’s a story well worth telling. She’s a Hawaiian born surfer who ran afoul of a 14 foot tiger shark while surfing at Tunnels Beach, Kauai. The shark took off her arm. Bethany recovered and is back surfing and winning some pretty big competitions. I recommend having a look at the u-tube clips of her performances. She’s bloody amazing. She says holding her balance with one arm is not a problem. It did take her two or three shots to get the hang of standing up again. The surfing world has taken her to its heart. You can tell that by the way their magazines refer to her as “the one arm surfer chick” or the “blond and tanned hottie, decked out in a yellow bikini and toting her surfboard”. On the world’s beaches such sexist praise is reserved for only the most respected subjects. Next time you don’t feel like going to your local heated pool for practice because you’ve got a cold or hurt a bit from weights, spare a thought for Bethany and get yourself down to the pool.

And so, instead of a social commentary on New Zealand’s education woes or a story of huge personal courage, I have chosen to discuss the ultimate rich man’s self-indulgence; America’s Cup yachting. The most recent 2010 challenge is even more egotistical than normal. Instead of the customary round of Louis Vuitton races to find a finalist to sail against Alinghi, this year it’s just Team USA and Alinghi playing with each other. Instead of the traditional 12 meter single hull race boats, this year the competition is between two space age multi-hull behemoths. Each boat is 90 feet long and 90 feet wide. Their masts rise 180 feet above the deck. That’s about 50 feet higher than the tallest mast on the 920 ton Cutty Sark. Instead of a best of five final, this year it’s the best of three.

Some things have stayed the same; some things about the America’s Cup never change. The competitors appear to be incapable of agreeing on anything important about their event. As usual the New York Supreme Court has had to decide on the rules and dates of the 2010 competition. Team USA’s fixed wing sail still hasn’t been approved and will clearly be the subject of litigation long after this year’s three races have been sailed. Of great pride to the small nation I call home is the number of New Zealanders in the two teams. Both team captains, Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth, are New Zealanders. I met Coutts at a New Zealand Sportsman of the Year dinner a few years ago. He seemed extraordinarily quiet. Mind you he didn’t need to say much. His sporting feats say it all really; Olympic Champion, America’s Cup Champion, World Champion and Admirals Cup Champion. In the world of sailing there is not much left for Russell Coutts to win.

Alinghi has five other sailors from New Zealand in their crew. Team USA has nine New Zealanders working to get the Cup back to America. They’re all tough buggers. Men like Dean Phipps, Andrew Taylor, Ross Halcrow and Murray Jones have been winning America’s Cup races for the last fifteen years. I’d trust them anywhere. They are proud athletes, caste in the mold of Hillary, Walker, Meads and Sutcliff. You want someone to win a race for you? These guys know how to do that. The whole event is close to being a race to decide whether my team of New Zealanders can beat your team of New Zealanders.

All this begins with the first match on 8 February 2010. Historically the 8 February has already seen some fine aquatic moments. In 1983 Eric Peters set a sailboat record of 46 days for crossing the Atlantic and in 1985 Michael Gross swam a world record of 7:38.75 for the 800 meters. Wherever New Zealanders are competing on that day; whatever event is involved, Swimwatch wish them well. A just and fair conclusion: one that avoids a trip to the State Supreme Court in search of justice.