Bill, Won’t You Please Come Home

On Monday 3 September 2007 the BBC ran the following report.


Controversial British Swimming performance director, Bill Sweetenham has stepped down after asking to be released from his contract early. The Australian was contracted until after the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Sweetenham released a statement. “My request for release from my contract was for various reasons that will remain personal to myself.” Last week, Sweetenham admitted he was still bitter at his treatment in the UK, claiming: “They brought me in to change British swimming but when it got tough, British swimming wanted to change me. It was heart-breaking.”

That report was a bit of a bomb-shell. Only three months earlier on Thursday 31 May 2007 the BBC had reported that:


Bill Sweetenham is set to stay on as a consultant after he steps down as British Swimming’s performance director at the end of the 2008 Olympics. Bill has indicated he still wants to have some sort of role after Beijing.

What was the swimming community in the UK thinking? Was Bill staying or was he leaving? Did he love the UK or hate the place? Was he going to honour the last year of his contract? Was he going to guide British Swimming to its greatest challenge at the Beijing Olympic Games? The sanest observer would be excused for wondering. In the end, one year before Beijing, with one year of his contract still to run, Bill slumped into his first class airline seat and headed home. The effort of it all had taken its toll. He even said, “Many times I felt like this is not worth it, that I am trying to do an impossible job.” Surely UK swimmers must have wondered how Bill’s vanishing act tied in with his calls for them to sacrifice; for them to work harder and to never yield. Was this a case of do what I say, not what I do? When the going got tough did Bill piss off?

I was reminded of these pre-Beijing events on the third day of this year’s New Zealand National Swimming Championships. Because on the third day, one week before Easter, Bill did not rise again – Bill disappeared. You may recall Sweetenham had been hired to coach Miskimmin’s chosen few over at the Millennium Institute for the month between Miskimmin’s previous National Coach Mark Regan leaving and the 2013 National Championships.

We will never know the full cost of the Sweetenham’s New Zealand sortie. My guess is that the cost of the Miskimmin funded, gold plated, coaching month was in excess of $55,000. Miskimmin and Swimming New Zealand will never make the actual cost public and I can’t be bothered using the Official Information Act to find out. However the month was most certainly one of the world’s more expensive coaching experiments. How was it possible that the coach that Swimming New Zealand told us was so important to the success of the Millennium’s privileged few was not present for most of the National Championships? Remember what Mark O’Connor said at the time?

It is an important time for our swimmers preparing for the upcoming State New Zealand Open championships which double as the trials for the world championships. It is important to have a coach who understands the swimmers, the country and what is ahead of them.

And yet at the pinnacle domestic event; in the middle of the meet that had cost us a fortune in coaching fees, Bill disappeared. Had he returned to his roots? Had Bill gone walk-about? Was his dreamtime act part of his contract and known to Swimming New Zealand from the beginning or had Bill simply gone bush, “done a runner”? We do need to be told the answer to that question.

Either way it is a disgrace. If Swimming New Zealand knew Sweetenham was not going to be able to stay for the National Championships he should never have been employed. According to Mark O’Connor, “Bill is one of the most credentialed swimming coaches in the history of the sport and we are pleased he is stepping in to help us out.” Well he wasn’t there to help anyone out during most of the all-important World Championship’s trials. If Swimming New Zealand knew Bill Sweetenham was on his way before the Nationals were even half way done, their initial press release, reporting his appointment, was on the brink of dishonest. It does not take an American Swim Coaches Association Level Five coaching qualification to know that a coach employed to prepare a dozen swimmers for a major meet should be at the meet. It would look a little strange if Graham Henry decided to skip the Rugby World Cup final or Mark Schubert had stayed home in Colorado during the Beijing Olympic Games. In New Zealand swimming though, nothing ceases to amaze.

If Swimming New Zealand did not know, and part way through the National Championships Bill just up and left, Swimming New Zealand should be asking for our money back. Strange as it may sound, I think it is unlikely, but possible, that Swimming New Zealand did not know of Bill’s departure. Perhaps like us Bill Sweetenham had had a guts-full of Pelorus House and the Millennium Institute. Perhaps he was all done with the shambles that passes as Miskimmin’s elite swimming regime. Like us, did he find the culture of unearned privilege too much to bear? Perhaps he was even upset by the comments on this blog. Certainly he disappeared and my contacts have no idea where he is right now. Like a convoy of coaches before him, a month of Swimming New Zealand may have proven too much for “one of the most credentialed swimming coaches in the history of the sport.” Perhaps he is on an island somewhere in his personal Aboriginal Dreamtime resting; recovering from the trauma of his visit to swimming in the Land of the Long White Cloud.