Too Much Time Beside the Hangi Pit

By David

I was at the West Wave gym this morning. One of our better swimmers, Nikki Johns, was doing her weight training workout. She was warming down with 15 minutes on a stationary bike, something recommended to me by New Zealand’s best swim coach, the late Duncan Laing. Several years ago my Florida swim team bought two stationary bikes. At the meeting approving the expenditure, Jonathan Golden, one of the more intelligent Board members asked the meeting whether a “stationary bike” should be considered a team fixed asset. The humour of his comment skyrocketed when the team accountant launched into a seriously detailed treatise of how stationary bikes should be treated in the team’s books. Some accountants deserve their stereotype.

Anyway back to this morning. Outside, in the pool, the New Zealand Northern Zone Underwater Hockey Championships were in full swing. It’s a pretty popular game in New Zealand but still attracts a fair amount of derision. Actually, taking the piss out of underwater hockey is not all that difficult. The game happens, out of sight, along the bottom of a two meter deep pool. Spectator sport is not the first thing that springs to mind when the principal visual attraction is fourteen pairs of fins waving in the air as players fight deep below the surface for ownership of a hockey puck. I can’t imagine it ever taking off in the US where popularity demands more obvious visual gratification. I do try, but still find it difficult to take seriously the track suits proclaiming, “New Zealand Underwater Hockey Representative”.

Part way through our warm down cycle a chap came up to me and asked if I understood what was going on in the pool. Clearly he thought the “Swim Coach” label on my track suit made me an expert on all the goings-on in the West Wave swimming pool. I explained that I didn’t really understand the game any more than he did. In case he got the wrong impression, Nikki, with blinding speed, assured him she had never played underwater hockey. He looked thoughtfully at the pool full of waving fins for a moment and said, “Some of those guys would be good to take on a scallop and shellfish dive.” Of course, an instant of absolute clarity; a purpose for underwater hockey; the perfect training vehicle for New Zealand’s next generation of shellfish gatherers. I thought Nikki was going to fall off her bike.

Our friend continued to examine the sporting spectacle unfolding before him and noticed a very white and equally overweight player about to enter the game. “He hasn’t strayed far from the hangi pit,” he said. By this time both Nikki and I were in danger of serious personal injury.

For American readers, “hangi” is a traditional New Zealand Maori method of cooking food using heated rocks buried in a pit oven. To “lay a hangi” involves digging a pit in the ground, heating stones in the pit with a large fire, placing baskets of food on top of the stones and covering everything with earth for several hours before uncovering or lifting the hangi.

It’s fun to come back to that dry New Zealand brand of humour. The type that prompted Hillary to announce his success in climbing Mt. Everest with the phrase, “We knocked the bastard off.” It’s familiar, it’s warm, it’s funny and it’s home. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, John Key, got himself into trouble recently when he strained relationships with the Maori Tuhoe tribe who are fighting to win back ownership of land confiscated by a settler government 150 years ago. Over 200 years ago Tuhoe indulged in cannibal feasts to sow fear among their enemies. Addressing a tourism conference Key said “The good news was that I was having dinner with the Ngati Porou tribe last week as opposed to their neighboring tribe, which is Tuhoe – in which case I would have been the dinner.” It’s New Zealand humor. As you can well imagine there were quite a few around here that didn’t see the joke.

So how’s the swim team in Auckland doing? Well, not too badly actually. We’re about to begin week six of our first ten week build up. Although we are miles away from having any swimmer reach 90 or 100 kilometers in a week, we do have three swimmers who are over 50 kilometers; good progress from the twenty or so kilometers that was their staple distance five weeks ago. There is a heap of potential in the team’s 30 strong Gold Squad. Lydiard said there are world champions walking the streets of every town in the country. That’s certainly true of Waitakere City and the West Wave Aquatic Center. Two of our good women swimmers are backstroke specialists, something that I find pleasing. I’ve never coached a really good backstroker. Rhi and Toni were pretty good at freestyle, Jane was better than average at breaststroke and Nichola made the World Champs top 16 in butterfly. Perhaps it’s backstroke’s turn. If so it would be have special meaning. New Zealand is very strong in women’s backstroke and most of the good ones swim for a club just across the Harbour Bridge from here. It might take a while but if you see a Swimwatch story titled “We knocked the bastard off” it won’t be about climbing Mt. Everest.

  • good luck with the new swim team, David! They’re lucky to have you.