New Zealand’s Best Swimmer

By David

Last Sunday the Herald on Sunday published two very important articles on swimming. The first covered the Machiavellian Board Room antics of Miskimmin and Butler. Andrew Alderson’s article was a most important insight into the management of sport in New Zealand. It is unusual for the main stream media to publish a story like this one. New Zealand is a small country. Just about every sport’s journalist depends on Sky Sport for a portion of their income. As you know Jan Cameron’s husband runs Sky Sport. The effect was that, for a decade, swimming got a free ride from New Zealand’s castrated sport’s journalists. Except, it seems, when Alderson decided to inform New Zealand about the political trickery practiced by SPARC and Swimming New Zealand.

It is pretty well accepted that SPARC is now in full control of what goes on in Swimming New Zealand. Miskimmin with his money and hired guns on the Swimming New Zealand Board runs the show. He decided who would be Chairman and President. He appointed the two SPARC observers and nominated and voted for himself to run the latest Review Committee. You can’t buy a paper clip down there without processing a requisition order through the CEO of SPARC. Whatever happens in London is down to Miskimmin. There should be no misunderstanding on that point. The successes and failures of the New Zealand team at the London Olympic Games belong to Peter Miskimmin. London will not be a test of how good New Zealand swimming people are at their job. London will be a test of Peter Miskimmin’s management and the men in dark suits he hired to do his bidding. Swimming people wanted Butler and Wrightson gone – out of there. Miskimmin said they had to stay. Well, Peter, you made the decision, you live with it. You backed the slick insurance salesman from Nelson. We think you were wrong. But now you stand and fall by consequences of decisions that are your responsibility.

Actually it was the second article by Andrew Alderson in last weekend’s Herald on Sunday that really caught my interest. In it Alderson discussed the progress of Melissa Ingram. In particular I was fascinated by the last paragraph of his report. Here is what it says.

Ingram is prepared to leave nothing to chance. The Herald on Sunday understands that could mean moving on from current coach Scott Talbot – potentially leaving the high performance coach with no Olympic swimmers – but she is too loyal to say.

“I’m now in the process of planning my pathway to London and I’m hoping Swimming New Zealand will help me with that.

“I was disappointed with my campaign at the world championships [15th in the 200m backstroke semifinalists], some mistakes were made with my programming. That won’t happen before London.”

I have spoken about Melissa Ingram before on Swimwatch. I would not blame her for being very annoyed that I refer to her without her permission and without ever having spoken to her. For that I apologise. However, with her indulgence one more time, I was taken with what this report said and by what it failed to say.

I first saw Melissa Ingram swim a couple of years ago at World Cup swim meets in Moscow, Stockholm and Berlin. When I first noticed that a swimmer from the New Zealand Millennium Institute was entered, I was prepared to be hugely under-impressed. I thought, here comes another product of the Cameron welfare state. My first surprise was when she turned up in Moscow on her own. Not only that, she went about her business with dignity and calm. But best of all she was a winner. This sceptic was wrong. I was hugely impressed; proud to come from the same country as this fine athlete.

Some of you may know that I spent several years watching the likes of Quax, Dixon and Walker compete and beat the best runners in the world. These were tough professional men doing their job and doing it well. They were all Olympic medallists. Two of them were world record holders and the third won the New York marathon. After watching Melissa Ingram in three meets she was their equal in every way – quite simply New Zealand’s best swimmer. And, in my view, she still is.

If Melissa Ingram struggles in London she will have been let down by Swimming New Zealand and its SPARC owners. She will not have let them down. Melissa Ingram knows more about swimming than anyone running Swimming New Zealand. She knows exactly what will work best for her through to London. For what it’s worth, my advice to Pelorus House is to find out what Melissa Ingram wants and give it to her. If she wants to work out on the dark side of Mars, find a way of getting her there. If she wants McDonalds after practice every morning, send her the vouchers. If, as this article suggests, she wants to change her coach, support that decision. Every swimmer of Melissa Ingram’s standing, must have the right to be coached by someone of their choice. Clearly she has a plan in mind for what she needs to perform well in London. Make sure she gets it. Melissa Ingram is one of the world’s best swimmers. Swimming New Zealand should start treating her like one.

There is a philosophy behind the stance taken in this article. The vast majority of athletes who win the Olympic Games are men and women, not boys and girls. Cameron was a control freak who insisted on disciplines appropriate for grade school but not relevant for adults wanting to win the Olympic Games. Her juvenile treatment of the team was one reason New Zealand performed badly during her time in charge. The remnants of that regime are still there and will take time to wane. But, for Melissa Ingram at least, wane they must if New Zealand is to change its swimming fortunes at the London Olympic Games.

  • Chris

    Hi David. Long-time, no see (or write) as they say.

    There has been so much lately to post about as it seems that there is hardly a week goes by that we don’t hear about the antics of dear old SNZ, and now it seems SPARC also! Quite frankly, I just despair over the state we are in, and as my kids would say “I am so over this”.

    But I was delighted about reading the small snippets about how your young swimmer was doing at the World Cup, in amongst all the big names, and equally, results of your rag-tag little club, on its way to being a great club once again. And this lovely post about Melissa Ingram has got me up out of my bed of melancholy and woe to add to the chorus of “Good on her, well done”.

    David, you are absolutely right. What ever she needs, she should have. She is one of only a few so far that have already qualified for the Olympics, and to have broken a record belonging to Lauren Boyle so recently (another on the ascendancy) in an event that is arguably a secondary event for her, cannot go unnoticed. She always seems to be at her best when she is on her own. Surely there is a lesson in that. When adult athletes know what they want, they should have total control over their programmes. Out of the $1.6m (is that right?) that SNZ have had from SPARC, how much actually gets to these targeted swimmers. If she wants to train overseas, then let her go and fund her.

    Incidentally, I hear also that Daniel Bell has left Scott Talbot’s programme. He had already lost Hayley Palmer, Penelope Marshall, and if Melissa goes, he won’t have any Aquablacks at all. So why is his salary being paid by SNZ?

  • Stevie

    Hey David, I agree with some of the story and disagree with some. I appreciate being able to add a few thoughts.
    We have to be pleased to see a senior swimmer keen to continue and excel. Melissa must be an inspiration for budding international competitors here, who know about her career to date. Her track record to date demonstates a huge amount of grit and determination. As has been said, she seems to do wonderfully well when on a mission – she has successfully conducted her own off shore campaigns going back to her first solo trip when she earnt well at Mare Nostrum.
    I hope the NZ swimming community celebrates the fact that Ingram is not put off by her age. These days the world prizes youthfulness more than ever and most athletes are very sensitive to how they may be seen for carrying on through their mid – late twenties. It is no coincidence, in my view, that Melissa is doing best in short course events: the science of performance is such that aging swimmers remain most competitive in their shorter events. There are many names that illustrate the point. For example, Natalie Coughlin, Toni Jeffs, Dara Torres (3 medals at Beijing when over 40; on the come back see ).
    The Herald On Sunday story included a worthwhile comment by Melissa, I think, to the effect that, generally speaking, kiwi sports fans dont understand just how competitive international swimming is in comparison say to the individual competitiveness that is faced by international rugby players. The scale of world swimming is the main driver in that idea; it is huge and, as Melissa remarked, global. The Chinese presence in London will impact the medal table massively. I understand your sentiment about how you see Melissa as the best we have, but the facts get in the way a bit. Snyders is probably our main 2012 Olympics hopeful (ranked well inside the top 10 in his events). The blunt fact is this – if any of our Olympic prospects is not ranked inside the world top 25 by say March/April, then he/she doesn’t have a dog’s show in London in July/August.
    It is widely known that Melissa wants to change to Mark Regan’s team. The news report that prompted your article may have had behind it an intention to pressurise Swimming NZ in that direction. But is that fair on Scott Talbot to permit a move on pool deck? Scott has done an okay job so far, I understand. He is keen and he learns fast. He lacks international experience (no doubt he was promoted to his current role far too soon as a result of nepotism) and he has had the misfortune to be training a couple of people who have the prima donna attitude and tend to end up telling their coach to sod off. Whether Melissa should be allowed to choose for herself what she wants, may be a tough question for SNZ. Obviously the financial constraints cannot be ignored for one to the detriment of others. There is also the need to assess whether the cheque-butt reaction of SNZ that saw Hayley Palmer funded to and fro for the Florida exercise, was an experiment that went wrong. Realistically, is Mars or otherwise an available environment in which Melissa can produce a world ranking (top 25), long course, in time for London?

  • Chris

    Just to add to my post above, I have been told that Scott Talbot has lost even more swimmers this year. He has lost Emily Thomas (who has recently given up), Andy McMillan, Hayley Palmer, Chloe Francis, Penelope Marshall, Daniel Bell … and now Melissa Ingram. In the space of less than one year! That is a very impressive roll-call of swimming talent. We don’t need to know all the detail, but is there not something seriously wrong going on? When we are only 8 months from the Olympics and less than 4 months from trials? And apparently Mark Reagan’s squad remains completely stable, no movement at all, in fact has increased in size.

    Although he still has very talented swimmers like Corney Swanepoel who has gone back to the Shore, and apparently, Matthew Stanley, Jessie Blundell and Kurt Bassett, is he any better than any other coach with swimmers looking for the breakthrough? But of course the big difference is that he is getting paid big money by SNZ and huge resources to deliver medals and finals in London, and he is struggling to even just get swimmers on the team, let alone anything else.

  • James T

    Congratulations David! I believe a few of your readers broke the Open Water debacle first, clearly picked up by others, including a reporter for the Sunday Star Times, and also I hear that brave lady Suzanne Speer went on the offensive at Board level over this. Just in today from the SNZ website:

    Geez, like someone said earlier, there is hardly a week without yet another SNZ stuff up. So basically, SNZ got caught out, yet again, Byrne and Butler peddling backwards as fast as their little legs will carry them, spinning the hell out a press release to make it sound like ‘Of course we planned this all along’.

    I tell you what Byrne and Butler. Why don’t you tell your sponsors that if they genuinely want to contribute to the sport they should take their money, give it to our swimmers to help them go to Portugal. Or better still, why don’t you SNZ help fund our swimmers to get to Portugal, at the front end, not the back?

    Now that would be a novel idea.

  • Tom

    Great post James T. I think this is the value of Swimwatch. If it hadn’t been for the community who use this forum – the open water prize money issue would probably never have been picked up by the media, and you can guarantee SNZ wouldn’t have been forced into damage control mode.

  • Two things – Is it really true that Emily Thomas has retired? She was getting some awesome results :( Surely she had a good shot at some good swims in the 100 backstroke in London? I mean this totally sincerely and without any double-meaning – I really hope she retired for all the right reasons and not because of avoidable circumstances. Like, I hope she’s happily retired and has no regrets about it, etc.

    Secondly, Tom, I would be seriously proud of that if you are right :) I hope Swimwatch makes a difference in cases like that! The version of the site here only goes back to 2006, but there has been a site here since 2003. If the site really does influence things like this, it’s nine years of bandwidth well spent.

  • Tom

    Hi Jane,

    I have some friends who work at the Herald – and while they’re not sports reporters, they’ve implied sports journalists do monitor Swimwatch. To what extent journalists use Swimwatch we’ll probably never know, but my suspicion is they use it as a resource for story leads, and then go out at do their own investigation into swimming issues (I can’t prove it, but I think the prize money at the open water event could be an example of this).

    We’re seeing a lot of that these days. While the mainstream media, to a large extent, still drives the conversation – they’re increasingly using bloggers as a resource. To use the example of sports reporting again – there probably aren’t any journalists (that I know of) in New Zealand who specialise only in swimming. So, a site like Swimwatch that does focus just on swimming (and has the time and knowledge base to get to the bottom of what is really going on) is significant.

  • Sensible Swimming


    Sadly it is true that the very talented Emily Thomas (our first Pan Pacs medal winner for how many years?) has retired. Who really knows exactly why retirement comes, but the word seems to be that she has not been happy for some time and felt incredible frustration following her injury which prevented her following up her Pan Pac success at Commonwealth Games. A sad and tragic loss of great talent before its time.

    Like others I congratulate Swimwatch for their role in changing the ill-conceived open water position. I hear that there has been extreme activity levels on Swimwatch at SNZ over the past 48 hours. I know from SNZ staff that Koru is one of SW’s most avid readers – that before anything else happens in the morning Swimwatch is read and the quality of the day in the office is determined from there. If there is a really good Swimwatch article or posting I hear that his mood becomes really foul and black! Keep up the great posts and carry on making Koru’s day!

    The open water ‘victory’ is a small one and only partial because prize money may still be going off shore (possibly, depending on who wins off course and I am backing our swimmers to do the business) and the underlying quality of intellectual thought which conceived this nonsense still exists at a slightly lower than ‘moron’ standard in SNZ. Off course this is not a grand prix type of event – it is a national championships with major selection implications and until the u-turn we had the unseemly spectacle of SNZ employees actively recruiting overseas participants and effectively diminishing the prospect of our athletes qualifying for the Olympic qualifier! That was simply outrageous.

    I am sure we have not seen the last of this type of badly joined up thinking. We still need Swimwatch!

  • NSS Parent

    I think I might have been one of those who first mentioned the Open Water prize money issue, but there were many I know who also heard the radio interview. At first I thought I was hearing things. But I am glad there has been some resolution (of sorts). However, I still find something quite distasteful about having prize money in an event that is a trials meet – no matter what the sport. I am sure I am not the only one still uneasy about this.

  • James T

    Sensible – you are bang on about the prizemoney. This is a selection meet, or at least doubling as a selection meet. It is not like any other meet. The recent World Cup run by FINA is a ‘money’ series (big money, in fact) and some of the top swimmers on this circuit use it to fund their continued life in the sport. Therese Alshammer is a typical case.

    But surely one way to deal with prizemoney in this event (if they are so insistent on having it – if only just to save face) is to have swimmers register separately, swimming in the same event either as a ‘selection’ swimmer, or a ‘money’ swimmer. You would still supposedly get those coming out for the money (nothing wrong in that) and arguably strengthening the field, our swimmers vying for the potential Olympic selection, whilst still maintaining the ‘amateur’ sporting ideals and principles, and when our top two NZ swimmers are selected, helping to fund their trip to Portugal.

    Or is that too much common sense for SNZ?

  • James T

    Of course, here is another way to view this:

    So in March for NZ Opens Olympic Trials, SNZ decide to put up prize money, based on a points system of series winners as they do in the FINA World Cup meets, approaching top Aussie swimmers in order to \strengthen\ the field, since their Trials are one week earlier.

    Imagine the headlines!

  • mac

    As an interested (non-NZ) observer, where have the swimmers mentioned above as having left Scott Talbot’s group gone? Are they all still training in NZ or have any gone overseas?

  • NSS Parent

    I know a little bit of what has happened to some of those swimmers, though maybe not all the detail because they are much older than my swimmer, but most of them at different times have been NSS swimmers (or still are) and bits and pieces get filtered down through the club.

    Of the Scott Talbot defections, Emily Thomas has now retired, far too premature in my view as she is an extremely talented swimmer, and a lovely person. She apparently now is back home in Gisborne. Penelope Marshall and Chloe Francis swim with Mark Reagan and are still part of the High Performance. There was another swimmer, Carl O’Donnell who has also switched to Mark Reagan’s squad. He also was part of Scott Talbot’s squad. Hayley Palmer was in Florida and joined the team in Shanghai for Worlds in July but was hospitalised and diagnosed over there with glandular fever and obviously couldn’t swim and was sent back home to recover. She is now back into full training with Thomas Ansorg at NSS, but I am not sure whether she is intending to eventually get back to the US. Andy McMillan went to Brisbane, though not sure who he is training with. He is apparently coming back for Trials next year. Daniel Bell is also now swimming with Thomas Ansorg, though he was in the US for a short time this year. And of course Melissa is still part of Scott’s squad, although again not sure for how long. But apparently she is over in Arizona with Mark Reagan’s squad at the high altitude camp, so I guess, all will be revealed upon her return.

    I think it would be far to say however, while not wanting to say specifically which swimmers, but most of those mentioned above left Scott Talbot’s squad under less than happy circumstances. A real shame really. However, it is not all one way traffic, as Steven Kent who came from United to NSS and swam with Thomas Ansorg has now gone to High Performance and swimming with Mark Reagan’s squad. Although rumour has it that a major reason for making the move to the HP squad was financial because all their swimmers of course have all training fees covered (a major concern for many of our senior swimmers at NSS where it costs them $218 a month, while going to Uni, working part-time and still training twice a day). Of course things such as the camp in Arizona for Mark Reagan’s squad are funded entirely. And with everything else laid on for those squads in the way of endless pool space, land training, sports science and medical support etc it is very enticing for our swimmers. Why wouldn’t they want to be part of it? Which puts some of these defections into perspective when you consider that the disillusionment has been such for some of these top swimmers that they would step out of a comparatively privileged existence in the High Performance, back into doing it the tough way with absolutely no funding support whatsoever.

  • SurprisinglyStillSwimming

    Stevie…coaches within the HPC have the final decision on who they choose to accept into their program, and keep there, so saying that Scott Talbot has had the misfortune of training a couple of swimmers with prima donna attitudes is not entirely accurate, as it ultimately was his choice. Yes he currently or previously has had swimmers with large egos and difficult personalities, but that is not to be unexpected in high performance sport, especially in an environment where many of those athletes are made to believe they are better and more deserving than their peers in other training programs, when the facts indicate otherwise (also important to note that in his day, Scott was regarded as one of the more difficult swimmers and quite the thorn in the side for his coaches). Nor is to be assumed that it was in fact the swimmers who were the cause of friction. Those swimmers who have left Scott’s program in the last year have not done so because they believe they became too good for the coach, and effectively told him to “sod off” as I believe you put it, but rather because the relationship between them and their coach was not one that either party could feel comfortable in maintaining. Partnerships such as those between athlete and coach break down for a number of reasons, and i doubt we will ever know entirely the circumstances surrounding each, but I do know that Scotts own personality and interaction with his swimmers has been questioned and was a major factor in some of the splits. I would even go so far as to say that at times he exhibited more of a prima donna attitude than some of his swimmers. Scott is a wonderfully talented, young coach who has many wonderful qualities and with the right training and skills I believe could be truly World Class, so don’t think that I am a hater, quite the opposite. I think it is important to note however, he is being paid a lot of taxpayer money to be a national coach, and he, and all national coaches, should be held accountable in the same way that the swimmers, most of whom are not receiving a living from the taxpayer pocket, are held accountable. The swimmers have to maintain performance levels and expectations, and those at the top level are subject to performance reviews and the like, so why not these coaches? If David, Thomas or Paul have swimmers make the national or development programs, celebrate that success for both athlete and coach, then support that athlete and their chosen program, because at the end of the day, it is the athlete who has to race and get the final result. If Mark or Scott, or any national coach lose a swimmer, let that swimmer take their funding and support to wherever they wish to go. If Melissa wants to train with Mark in the lane next door, or Michael Bohl in Brisbane, let her, and let her take her allocation of funding to support that venture. If Carl O’Donnel wishes to move from Mark to Scott as i believe he may have done, then reassign his amount from Mark to Scott, the same goes for Daniel Bell and Thomas Ansorg, Hayley Palmer and Randy Reese, I bet that if each swimmer carried with them a $10000 salary increase for the coach we would see just how motivated some of these coaches would become to do everything they could to hold on to their charges and get them in the best position to perform.

    It is also interesting to note how often many of the top swimmers in America and Australia move from program to program. There is certainly an argument for the need for consistency and adaptation periods, and certainly once you find something that truly clicks there may not be a need to ever change, but a lot of these swimmers are still discovering things about themselves, who they are as a person as well as a swimmer, what they respond to most and what they are looking for out of the experience – sounds a lot like dating if you ask me! Isn’t there a saying that goes… you may have to kiss a few toads before you find your prince (?). The parallels you can draw between finding love and finding a good swimming program are uncanny! I do not think it unreasonable that these swimmers experience new coaches, training groups, environments, even countries in their pursuit of excellence, and so who are we to deny them that or pass judgement on what we may perceive to be prima donna behavior when in fact it is them expanding their own knowledge and pushing their comfort zones to provide entertainment for us and that giddy feeling we get when they perform doing something we ourselves are incapable of doing. I take my hat off to each and everyone of them and wish them all the best of luck with their preparations for Olympics, Age Groups, Juniors, Club Champs etc and hope for their sake, that of our sport and my sanity, that someone with a brain takes the SNZ fat cats to outward bound and leaves them there.