Brian Palmer

By David

Very few of us would confuse the small New Zealand town of Te Puke with the bright lights of Queen Street in Auckland. The Te Puke website promotes “easy parking” as one of the town’s key attractions. The current population of the “Kiwi fruit capital of the world” is 7150. If you drive 16 kilometres east from Te Puke on State Highway 2 and turn right onto Rotoehu Rd and drive a further 18 kilometres south into the New Zealand wilderness and at Jensen Rd take another right, about 500 meters along Jensen Rd, the first driveway on the left leads to a typical New Zealand farm house, nestled in a stand of protective trees, surrounded by acres of deep green farmland. Jensen Rd is heartland New Zealand. Well that house is where the Chief Executive of Auckland Swimming, Brian Palmer, was born and raised.

It seems the rural honesty of his home has shaped the man. When I arrived in New Zealand after eight years in the United States to start coaching at West Auckland Aquatics Brian Palmer had heard all the stories; stories of Toni Jeffs being sponsored by a strip club, of fights with Swimming New Zealand, of commercial turmoil and doubtful ethics. Palmer would have been excused for believing the very worst of people had landed in his midst.

However unlike Renford or Villanueva at Swimming New Zealand, Palmer didn’t sit in his executive office playing politics, talking behind closed doors, whispering in dark corners. No, Palmer picked up the phone and said, “I’ve heard a lot about you. Could you come over and have a cup of coffee so we can meet and chat about your new job and Auckland Swimming?” Immediately, Brian Palmer had a believer. Here was a person you could trust; someone who studied a concern first hand before forming an opinion; someone prepared to listen, a trained and disciplined mind.

That first impression has never been shaken. In the thirty years I’ve been involved in track and field athletics and swimming one or two officials stand out as exceptional; people like Jay Thomas from Florida and Arch Jelley from Auckland. Brian Palmer sits comfortably among the very best. In the short time I’ve been in Auckland he has quietly led a Castro sized revolution of change.

For young swimmers he introduced the concept of a Junior League. This blog is not the forum to explain how the Junior League works. But for excitement, involvement, participation, a sense of team and genuine fun Brian’s Junior League is the best I’ve seen. As a vehicle for introducing young people to swimming competition the Junior League is without peer. If all Brian Palmer had done in his time in Auckland was introduce the Junior League his legacy would be secure. But he has done much more.
The new starting blocks at the West Wave pool were bought and paid for through the efforts of Brian Palmer. New Zealand’s best swimmers striving to meet international qualifying standards have Palmer to thank for the benefit of modern starting equipment.

Brian Palmer has introduced major changes to Auckland’s competitive program. His goal has always been to improve the appeal of the sport to swimmers, spectators and media. I would certainly never claim that every change has worked. However kicking and screaming Brian Palmer has forced the sport in Auckland to critically examine its product; to evaluate the attraction of swimming compared to every other sport; to critically examine the performance of swimming.
Sport in New Zealand will never acknowledge the key role Brian Palmer played in bringing change to

Swimming New Zealand. Without Brian Palmer, Project Vanguard would be the reality of swimming in New Zealand. Without Brian Palmer the Chris Moller review would never have happened. Without Brian Palmer Renford, Villanueva, Lyles, Hurring and others would not have their jobs. As the catalyst of change Brian Palmer’s role was critical. The end result has not been what I wanted. I believe skilled Machiavellians took us out of the frying pan into the fire. I suspect even Brian Palmer would have preferred a different outcome.

Brian Palmer has improved the contribution of swimming to super city decision making. Actually, that’s not quite right. Before Brian there was no swimming involvement in the city’s decision making. At least now the voice of swimming is heard clearly on matters such as the access to swimming pools, the construction of new pools and the role of Council run swim schools.
Brian Palmer has also promoted a number of successful one-off events. The Night of Stars support for the Canterbury earthquake appeal was probably the highlight. A dozen Australian Olympic medallists accepted Brian’s invitation to spend a weekend in Auckland swimming and tutoring local swimmers. It was a major effort and a stunning success. In comparison, SNZ’s earthquake contribution of a few dozen unsold t-shirts looked pathetic and tragic.

No one will ever work as hard as Brian Palmer. At swim meets, in the office and on the telephone he is on call from 5.00am to 11.00pm. I know because I’ve called him at both those times. I’ve heard him criticised for the amount of work he does. They say he should delegate more. But that’s not true. He wants things done well and he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure that’s what happens. And there is nothing wrong with that.

The first Auckland Swimming meeting I attended was to consider the Project Vanguard proposal. At the meeting one woman stood out for her sharp and decisive questions. On the way home I asked my companions if they knew her name. “That’s Brian Palmer’s wife,” they replied. Rossanna’s contribution to Brian’s work for Auckland should not be underrated. Neither should the involvement of rest of Brian’s family. I should know. I coached New Zealand’s fastest freestyle sprinter until Hayley Palmer decided to swim faster. I think an important part of Brian’s success as a swimming administrator may be because, around the dinner table, he has to answer for his decisions to an insightful wife and some talented performers. Oh, if only some of the rubbish administrators I have known had to satisfy the same audience. New Zealand swimming would be a very different place.

And now Brian has resigned. Auckland Swimming has just lost a good one; a very, very good one. New Zealand Swimming has also lost more than it appreciates. It is stunning to me how often New Zealand does this – loses men and women of real talent; Lydiard, Snell, Mansfield, Te Kanawa, Rutherford, Lovelock, Hollows, Clarke, Crowe, Campion, Tamahori, Hunter and Palmer.
But the positive in this case is the past three years. Thank you, Brian, for making this coach’s job easier, better, more interesting, more productive and more fun. I am sorry to see you leave. Godspeed in your next challenge.

  • long time listener

    Brian Palmer has given fantastic service to Auckland Swimming and New Zealand Swimming. Many of his initiatives have been picked up by other regions – so thank you Brian for the service you have done to us out here in the hinterlands.

    Nicely written piece David, where/what is Brian up to now – I’m hoping this is not an obituary :)

  • Intrigued

    Is it true that Brian Palmer has left Auckland Swimming technically insolvent ?? The rumour is that Auckland have major invoices that they are unable to pay and may need to be bailed out by SNZ ?

  • David

    I have no idea of Swimming Auckland’s financial position. However I would be very cautious indeed of any story involving a SNZ financial bale out. Anything that organization does will come at a huge price. Several weeks ago I warned Auckland SNZ would find a way of using the power vacuum created by Brian leaving to win power over New Zealand’s largest region. This story of the need for money could well be SNZ’s first step in that direction. AUCKLAND BEWARE.

  • Brian Palmer

    May I firstly thank you for the generosity of your comments in this article. I have done so privately on a previous occasion, but as I am now asking for my comment to be posted it is an opportunity for me to do so publicly. I have never, ever wanted to be “the story” – if my service in Auckland was of some value to the swimming community and made a difference, then I am pleased.
    Now, the reason I am asking for this comment to be posted!
    David, I have always admired your honesty. Whether I agree or disagree with what you write I have always respected the courage you display in putting your name to every claim you make. Top marks to you.
    The same cannot be said for the gutless and ignorant visitor to this blog who has just posted slanderous and malicious rumour attached to this article.
    A question has been asked, is there any truth to a rumour that I left Auckland Swimming ‘technically insolvent’? The answer to this risible rubbish is absolutely not. That there might even be such a rumour is farcical and where it might be sourced from, one could only guess. But clearly one exists or it would not be repeated rhetorically in an effort to try and provide legitimacy to it. Is there truth to it?Absolutely not. To be ‘technically insolvent’ would mean that the ASA did not have sufficient cash, or near cash assets, to meet its obligations. That simply is not true. End of story.
    Is there any substance to a claim that there is, or that there may be discussions taking place with SNZ relating to a supposed ‘bail out’? Such a notion is almost too comical to warrant a reply, but certainly not on my watch and almost certainly not in the new Executive’s changeover. The ASA most certainly was neither insolvent, nor technically insolvent at the time when I left its employ. And I have been assured, in the strongest terms, that it is not today.
    I am proud of what has happened over the past five years at Auckland Swimming. My greatest achievement is that I have left it stronger than when I came, so taking a ‘pop’ at me is nothing new. But taking a swipe at the ASA by extension – I will be very defensive. The ASA is still a small, not-for-profit organisation, and in common with most grass roots organisations of its type is not endowed with great wealth and most certainly does not receive taxpayer support. However, it does its job and meets its objectives. A succession strategy was established and the ASA is currently led by an exceptional executive of outstanding past and present swimmers. They have a feel for the sport in a way in which non-swimmers do not, and cannot. They are doing, and will continue to do a fantastic job. The ASA will be stronger under Sarah Thomas’ executive leadership than it has ever been. I am absolutely confident of that. She will lead the ASA in a way which surpasses anything that I might have been able to accomplish. The only people who have anything to fear from that leadership are those who do not like the idea of a strong, competent and independent Auckland.
    I would suggest that anyone who chooses to malign another’s reputation should at least have the courage to leave the cloak of anonymity behind. Then and only then can your readers judge its merits.

    Brian Palmer