Age Groups – A Matter Of Perspective

By David

I got a letter last week. It said:

Dear Mr Wright


Thank you for your application for New Zealand Superannuation. You qualify for this from 03/03/13. Your New Zealand Superannuation is $604.80 a fortnight before tax.

Isn’t that nice of the New Zealand Government – $604.80 every two weeks just for being here? New Zealand; it’s not as big as the USA, or as historic as the UK, or as French as France. But it is a great little place. I’ve lived overseas on a number of occasions; a year in Wisconsin USA, five years in England, four years in Scotland, two years in the Virgin Islands and five years in Florida USA. But New Zealand gives me something none of these places ever could; a sense of ownership responsibility. Along with four million others I own one share in this place. What happens here, matters. How it can be improved, is important.

Which is why Swimwatch exists. Main stream media is restrained in what it can say. Swimwatch is less reticent. Sport in New Zealand is badly managed. For swimming; the direction and policies imposed by Sport New Zealand are misguided and wrong. There is little prospect of change before swimming fails again at the Rio Olympic Games. The boss of Sport New Zealand, Peter Miskimmin, will be responsible for that failure – just as his policies were responsible for the swimming’s poor performance in Athens, Beijing and London. After a fourth failure surely someone will ask him to go.

Miskimmin’s failures are sufficient for me to enjoy the thought that my fortnightly $604.80 comes directly from his personal tax deduction. At least that way some of his misguided efforts are going to a good cause.

At the other end of the age group spectrum the New Zealand Age Group Swimming Championships were held last week. Many aspects of the event are disturbing. I make every effort to talk my young swimmers out of ever going anywhere near the meet. This year I didn’t go to Wellington, but two West Auckland Aquatic’s swimmers did take part. Both made it through to finals. Abigail swam two PBs for fourth and fifth. Jane swam three PBs for three silver medals. So from a parochial Club point of view it wasn’t a bad week.

But the evidence of destruction was as blatant as ever; perhaps worse. Ignoring relays, did you know that, in the 2013 Championship, there were 43 swimmers entered in ten or more events? With finals and relays that means 43 young New Zealanders were being told to swim 24 races in five days. Just how long do coaches and parents think swimmers are going to put up with that abuse? Actually I’m not sure who’s to blame for the anarchy. It is certainly not the swimmers. Is it the parents and coaches who succumb to the temptation of reflected glory that comes to those who raise or coach a multiple age group winner? Or is Swimming New Zealand responsible? It provides the temptation candy. Swimming New Zealand must know the damage their event causes. As a direct consequence of taking part in the national Age Group Championship New Zealand’s best age group swimmers edge a little closer to failure, a little nearer angry retirement. What cigarettes are to cancer, Swimming New Zealand’s Age Group Championships are to swimmer burn-out. Just as the profit motive stimulates Phillip Morris, the lure of entry fee money from the Age Group Nationals is too much for Swimming New Zealand to resist – irrespective of the cost to the sport that is their responsibility.

Perhaps you think all this talk of harm is exaggerated; the meet is a good one, providing an exciting opportunity for swimmers to test themselves against their age group peers. If you are of this persuasion, then consider this.

The USA gave up the notion of age group championships years ago. They realized the importance of being well grounded; of appreciating reality. The title of National Champion was not something to be handed out to 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 or 16 year olds who had only beaten others of their same age. One of my principal complaints with Miskimmin’s Millennium Institute is its stunning propensity to encourage swimmers to have ideas well above their station in life; to be poorly grounded. Age Group Nationals do the same thing. Lydiard never allowed his runners to claim provincial records unless they were also national records. He demanded they remain well grounded. Compare that to the adulation heaped upon multiple age group winners in Wellington. No wonder they don’t last. They have nothing more to achieve.

But, you may ask, if the views expressed here have validity where is the supporting data. Well, consider this. In the 2007 New Zealand Age Group Championships there were 18 swimmers entered in 10 or more events. That’s 25 less than the 43 entered in 10 or more events in 2013. I have no idea why the number of multiple entry swimmers would more than double in five years. It is a frightening statistic though. More importantly, however, of the 18 swimmers entered in more than 10 events in 2007 only 3 are still swimming in the National Open Championships in 2013. Fifteen of New Zealand’s most successful age group swimmers from 2007 have vanished; lost to the sport forever. Consider Ashley Rupapera. In 2007 she was amazing; 14 years old, she entered 13 individual events, swam in 22 races and won four gold medals and two silver medals. I don’t know what Ashley is doing today. However, it certainly does not include elite New Zealand swimming.

But does Swimming New Zealand care? It seems not. The organisation shows no sign of discussing the possibility that their age group policy may be causing harm. Ah, but there is money at stake – lots of lovely money. Swimming New Zealand should care however, especially when the cost of their neglect will most certainly see 40 of the 2013 Ashley Rupaperas disappear by 2018.

And, to finish this story, Swimming New Zealand may be interested in another traveller’s tale. A few years ago Jane Copland at Nice airport in France. She was standing next to Ian Thorpe. You know the one – thirteen world records and five times Olympic Champion. Thorpe asked Jane if she knew two swimmers from New Zealand. Jane said, “No, who are they?” Thorpe told Jane he had swum against the New Zealanders as a young junior swimmer. He came third in his favourite event beaten by the two New Zealanders. So, there you have it. Peter Miskimmin’s Swimming New Zealand has lost Ashley Rupapera and two swimmers better than Ian Thorpe. And age group championships are the common factor.

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