Staying Grounded

By David

The last two Swimwatch articles have mentioned the importance of staying grounded. For years many New Zealand athletes have failed to stay grounded and, as a result, have fallen short of their potential. When I was coaching Toni Jeffs, I used to call it the “New Zealand disease”. Toni was especially vulnerable. The media found the colourful personal life of New Zealand’s fastest swimmer irresistible. It would have been very easy for Toni Jeffs to have reached the conclusion that she was “the bee’s knees”; important way beyond her swimming triumphs. The fact she never did is probably the result of a pretty pragmatic personality combined with her “salt-of-the-earth” parents and a coach who kept alerting her to the dangers of a bloated ego.

Many swimmers in New Zealand today are not so lucky. Full blown cases of the New Zealand disease are everywhere – especially in the generations that have come, seen and failed at swimming in the hallowed halls of Miskimmin’s Millenium Institute. Lauren Boyle appears to be an exception. But then she has had the good fortune to spend four years swimming in an environment where the New Zealand disease would be terminal. That is not to say it is the New Zealand swimmer’s fault. It is just that those responsible for their careers have no idea what they are doing – and that includes both Camerons. From what I’ve seen and heard Sweetenham, Villanueva, Miskimmin, Baumann, the new CEO of Swimming New Zealand and the new Head Coach, either believe or have been ordered to continue the policies that have institutionalized the malady of ego delusion.

So how did New Zealand’s best coaches avoid the New Zealand disease? What did Arthur Lydiard and Arch Jelley do to prevent their genuinely world class athletes getting ideas way above their station in life? How was Toni Jeff’s swimming career different from the privileged coterie of swimmers that have filed through Miskimmin’s North Shore folly? How was Duncan Laing’s man-management so successfully down-to-earth?

Well, I know of all sorts of ways these men and women behaved differently from those responsible for the Aqua Blacks. Unlike Sweetenham none of them flew first class anywhere.  Negotiating that privilege into his UK Employment Contract says all we need to know about Sweetenham’s breeding and motives. Little wonder his charges expect more than they have earned.

And then even if they haven’t climbed Everest, today’s leaders of the Aqua Blacks use tricky wording to imply they were there with Sir Edmund Hillary. Cameron did it all the time. When Sweetenham was appointed to coach the Aqua Blacks the press release said, “In his time as Australian youth coach, Sweetenham played a role in the development of Australian greats Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett.” The average New Zealand reader would understandably read that as “Sweetenham was Thorpe and Hackett’s coach.” I’ve spoken to several observers who believe that is exactly what happened. The truth is from the age of 12, Grant Hackett was coached by Denis Cotterell. For most of his career Thorpe was coached by Doug Frost. Swimming New Zealand regularly implied that the previous Aqua Black’s coach, Mark Regan, was coach of World Champion, Lotte Friis. Regan was the Danish National Coach but was not the personal coach of the Danish super star. Lydiard, Jelley and Laing never felt any need to pad their Resumes. Involvement in top class sport demands intellectual honesty. The evidence suggests that New Zealand’s best swimmers do not have the benefit of that quality in their leaders. Those responsible for the guidance of the Millennium swimmers have taught them to spin their achievements. If you aren’t fast enough, hire a major in English. He or she may be able to find words that turn night into day.

It’s a small point but those fake National uniforms worn by the Millennium swimmers are an insult to every swimmer in New Zealand and to every athlete from any sport who has toiled to earn the real thing. I’ve known and lived with athletes who have spilt blood to wear a national singlet. Millennium imitations defile their memory and cheapen the future for those still to earn the right.

I guess my last point comes down to respect. My personal swimming career involved swimming or coaching in Wairoa, Gisborne, Wellington, Napier, London, Perth, Virgin Islands, Delray Beach and Auckland. To modify Shakespeare just a bit, I have always believed it important to, “scorn not the base degrees from which you did ascend.” Lydiard, Jelley and Laing saw life the same way. As Olympic champions or world record holders their athletes competed in meets in Wairoa, Tauranga, Cromwell, Wanganui, Hastings, Gisborne, Rotorua, Invercargill, Waipukurau, Daninevirke, Taumarunui, Nelson and, of course, Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. I’ve always thought it important to encourage my swimmers to compete around the country; to experience honest, grass roots swimming; sport that is different from the pink socks and white shoes swimming practiced in Auckland.

Swimmers I have coached have held exactly 50 national records. Three of them were set in Waipukurau, Masterton and Pahiatua. This past year or so West Auckland Aquatics swimmers have competed in meets in Morrinsville, Cambridge, Whangerai, Waipukurau, Hastings, Hamilton, Tokoroa, Wellington, Taupo, Auckland  and Papatoetoe.

The most recent, this past weekend, was the Counties/Manukau Championships in Papatoetoe. What a brilliant weekend – warm hospitable people, a lovely outdoor pool, beautiful weather and a huge entry list – for example 20 heats of the 100 breaststroke. Everything that was good and honest, clean and decent about the sport was on show at Papatoetoe this weekend. Halberg, Snell, Jelley, Lydiard, Walker and Quax would have loved it. I know I did and so did the West Auckland Aquatic’s swimmers. Thank you for a first rate weekend of swimming that revived this coach’s flagging spirits.

But you would never see Millennium swimmers or their advisors at Papatoetoe or Tokoroa. They are way too pampered for that. Imagine Sweetenham at Pahiatua. When you demand first class air tickets, you don’t go to swim meets in Pahiatua. And Sweetenham and his charges are all the poorer and less well-grounded as a consequence.

I’ve also heard Auckland commentators express petty criticism of provincial swim meets. One asked, “How was the provincial circus today.” My involvement in swimming has caused me to attend Olympic Games, World Championships, Pan Pacific Games, National Championships in five different countries and 95 World Cup events. Let me tell those in Auckland and those at Miskimmin’s Millennium Institute who do “scorn the base degrees” – swim meets like those in Papatoetoe are no circus. They offer much and it is appreciated. Thank you, Counties/Manukau.