Auckland Swimming

By David

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Not, as you may believe the Tale of Two Cities, but certainly a proper explanation of the last three weeks gradually and inadequately catching up with a new swim team and its community.

Peter Heidenstrom wrote a very fine book about New Zealand athletics,”Athletes of the Century: 100 years of New Zealand track and field”. In it, he talked about Alison’s running career, and concluded by writing:

Alison is my favorite kind of athlete. In 1969, she was one of those television likes to call rubbish. It took her ten years but she became one of the best in the world. As Shakespeare put it, `We know what we are but know not what we might be.’ Wright had the strength of character to stick at it and find out.

All coaches should aim to have the same thing written at the end of every swimmer’s career, whether they retire as an Olympic champion, a provincial finalist or merely someone who gave their best. If they have explored their potential, the provincial finalist, the Olympic champion and the also-ran have shared a common experience. We have initiated some changes that will offer the swimmers in our Auckland team that opportunity. They will have the chance to swim international training distances and serve appropriate gym time. There is a long way to go. In three weeks we have one swimmer who has managed a creditable weekly distance of 67 kilometers. However, the top 10 senior swimmers still only average 30 kilometers a week. This needs to improve if the group is to “share a common experience”. There may be a long way to go but we are on our way and that’s exciting.

In the past three weeks I have met with representatives of Swimming New Zealand, Auckland Swimming and the local surf life saving community – and I’ve learned plenty. For example I didn’t know that the number of New Zealanders registered as competitive swimmers had declined in recent years to the same level as the number of registered rowers – that’s “crew” for American readers. In an effort to address that worrying decline Auckland Swimming have introduced a swimming league designed in part to provide a link between learn to swim and full on competitive swimming. In Florida the “Sizzler” series of meets do the same thing and operated on similar rules. The League and Sizzler meets are a good concept. They fill the important function of introducing learn to swim graduates to competitive swimming without the massive array of rules that control the real thing.

I am doubtful whether the League and Sizzler meets will increase participation or reduce the sports dropout rate on their own. Many years ago I had lunch in Wellington with the General Manager of the Governments sport’s funding agency, The Hillary Commission. We spent most of that lunch debating whether role models or League and Sizzler type events were more valuable in promoting participation. He was all for the League idea. I was all for role models. We were both wrong. A sport needs both. Just look at the effect Michael Phelps has had in increasing participation in competitive swimming in the USA. They even call it the Phelps effect. The increased participation in rowing in New Zealand is clearly linked to the sport’s stunning international success. The League is a great concept but will struggle to be truly successful while the sport in New Zealand fails to show youngsters what the top of the mountain looks like. Swimmers in my Gold Squad weren’t even born when New Zealand won its last Olympic medal. All they have known is a series of excuses – “next time we’ll do better”. They could well be excused for wondering if it is even possible to win an Olympic swimming race from New Zealand. I think the League is a great concept but I also think there is another side to the participation enigma that is in need of some attention.

It may also be good to think up a more exotic name for the Auckland series than the League. For example Sizzler has more ring but the Americans already own that name. What about Marvel, or Spotlight or Springer? I don’t know, but something more exotic may be better suited to what the event is trying to achieve.

For years New Zealand and Australian surf lifesaving clubs and competitive swim teams have had an uneasy relationship. When I went to Australia and swam in Don Talbot’s swim squad it was a capital offense to be seen at the beach. In New Zealand many swimming clubs still cling to that way of thinking. Surf Clubs (in the US they are called Beach Lifeguard Clubs) are the enemy. Best to keep your sons and especially your daughters away from the unsavory influence of those beach bum types.

I’ve never agreed with that view. Lydiard was primarily a track coach. His successes on Olympic tracks in Rome, Tokyo, Munich and Montreal were evidence enough of his bias towards the sport taking place on a 400 meter circuit. That did not prevent him supporting cross country running. In fact he promoted this version of the sport as a hardening up and toughening exercise for his track runners. I agree with that view. The winter Alison won her first UK track title she was also Scottish cross country champion and ran in the world cross country championships in Spain. I see no reason why some involvement in surf competition cannot benefit a swimmer whose primary interest is in competitive pool swimming. I’ve seen no evidence that suggests swimming an occasional surf race for Piha Surf Club in any way reduces your chances of swimming 46 seconds for 100 meters freestyle. Certainly there is no reason not to welcome surf swimmers into any pool’s competitive training group. So if there happen to be any surf types reading Swimwatch – there is a warm pool and home for you at our Club.

Swimming in New Zealand is different from the US. I have a lot to learn. Thank you to those who have helped me in this past three weeks. But most of all thank you to the team who are putting up with the new ways – for better or for worse – of the new coach.