Archive for April, 2017

Leave Her A-Bloody-Lone

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Here at Swimwatch we have seldom discussed any subject except swimming related issues. We did comment on the ridiculous criticism John Key levelled at Kim Dotcom for owning an issue of “Mein Kampf”. And we did discuss the likelihood of the All Blacks winning the World Cup. But that’s about all.

And then last night on Television One news I watched various tennis professionals rip into Maria Sharapova for being given a wild card entry into the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany. Leading the character assassination was the Canadian Genie Bouchard. She is reported to have said:   

She’s a cheater and so to me … I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play that sport again. It’s so unfair to all the other players who do it the right way and are true. So, I think from the WTA it sends the wrong message to young kids—cheat and we’ll welcome you back with open arms. I don’t think that’s right and … [she’s] definitely not someone I can say I look up to anymore because that’s definitely ruined it for me a little bit.

Sharapova answered the best way possible by refusing to comment and winning her two first games; beating Roberta Vinci 7-5, 6-3 and Ekaterina Makarova 7-5 6-1.

Most readers will be aware that Sharapova has been serving a one month ban for taking meldonium. There were however extenuating circumstances. The drug was only banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency in January 2016. Sharapova, who had been legally taking meldonium for a medical condition, was caught about a month after the ban. She says she did not realise the drug had been banned.

For a professional of her standing, I agree, not realising is not a good enough excuse. In fact it is no excuse at all. And so her 15 month ban was more than deserved.

But she has done her time and now needs to be able to return to the work where she makes her living. Anything else would be an illegal restraint of trade. World Tennis has acted entirely properly in arranging for her to enter and compete in the Stuttgart tournament and the two events that follow Stuttgart.

And as for the precious Genie Bouchard, Shakespeare penned a short message for her.

The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. But mercy is above this sceptered sway. It is enthroned in the hearts of kings; It is an attribute to God Himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this: That, in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation.    

For Ms Bouchard a touch of humility would improve her humanity no end. Sport at any level can do without the likes of Ms. Bouchard.

And so Maria play well in Stuttgart, and best wishes from us all at Swimwatch at the French Open. Go that girl.


Too Many Races

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

Most of us would accept that the leading example of a swimmer capable of swimming multiple events is Michael Phelps. In the Beijing Olympic Games he entered and won eight events – the 100 butterfly, 200 butterfly, 200 IM, 400 IM, 4×100 free, 4×200 free and 4×100 medley.

The ABC News website recorded the event in these glowing terms  

Phelps already made history by matching Spitz’s seven golds — Now he’s one-upped Spitz’s record count, cementing his place as one of the best athletes of all time.Superman. Magical. The King. The Dolphin. The Fish. The Phenomenon.

These are just some of the words being used to describe the face of the XXIX Summer Olympics in Beijing, Michael Phelps

Few of us would disagree. Eight events in a week: what an incredible feat of application, training and commitment. By the time he swam in Beijing Phelps had been swimming at an Olympic level for eight years. He was an internationally hardened competitor. He had to be, just to survive.

But as it turns out the Phelps’ Beijing schedule was an easy week compared to the race program followed by many junior swimmers around the world.

For example in two recent meets, Alley, the swimmer mentioned earlier in this book swam in ten races in two days and six races in one day.    

But in case you are thinking Alley might be an unrepresentative anomaly I looked at the 2017 New Zealand Age Group Championships and the 2017 New Zealand Junior Championships. I noted the number of races entered by every swimmer and made a record of the number of swimmers who entered and swam eight or more events. In other words swimmers who matched or exceeded Michael Phelps Beijing schedule. The results were stunning and are recorded in the table below.

The regions shown on the table represent different areas of New Zealand. All Stars are clubs from the lower North Island, Harlequins are clubs in the northern North Island area, Aquaknights are clubs from the centre of the North Island and Makos are clubs from the South Island. Each column in the table shows the number of swimmers entered in between eight and sixteen events.

So what does this table say?

It tells us that at the combined Age Group Championships and the four regional Junior Championships a total of 575 swimmers swam in programs the same as or harder than Phelps Beijing program. 349 swimmers (60.7%) had programs with more events than Phelps. 226 swimmers (39.3%) had the same number of events as Phelps Beijing schedule. Two swimmers came within one event (15 events) of doubling Phelps Beijing total. The Harlequins region had the highest number of big entries with 145 swimmers. Harlequins is also New Zealand’s strongest and culturally most diverse region; lending weight to the idea that the better the junior the more they will be exploited.

Doing the analysis I was surprised at the disproportionate number of names that appeared to be of Asian or Polynesian origin. Of course it is not appropriate to draw conclusions from a name. However of the 575 swimmers entered in eight or more events a far higher proportion than the general population appeared to have Asian and Polynesian names. If that is true I suspect it reflects the well-known Asian reputation for pushing very hard for results; sometimes too hard it appears and the early physical maturity of many Polynesian young people.

However the ethnic conclusions are tenuous and unproven. What is not tenuous or unproven is the stunning number of young people flogged through an impossible number of events and facing an early exit from the sport.

Over racing is not only a New Zealand problem. Swimmers everywhere are over raced. For example, a quick look at the results of the first six finals in the 2107 Florida Gold Coast Junior Olympics showed that the sixty swimmers involved swam the following number of events.  

Here again the numbers are stunning. Thirty three percent of the swimmers competed in sixteen or more races in just three days. What Phelps took a week to do these guys do every day – or close to it. And still administrators, coaches and parents wonder, why do we have and 80% to 90% drop-out rate?

Entering this number of swims in an age group championship is bad. The fact it doesn’t work as a development tool for the sport is clearly demonstrated by the failure rate of junior championship winners to progress to Open National success. And yet here are the headlines that get printed by the national Federation in support of mass entries.

The pair finished with seven gold medals each to top the individual medal count. Freesir-Wetzell gained two further wins today in the 10 & under division 200m medley and 100m freestyle. She was the leading medalist overall with nine medals, comprising seven gold and two silver.

Tawa’s Jack Plummer had the most medals with nine comprising four gold, four silver and a bronze with today’s sole win in the 11 years 100m breaststroke.

Short sighted administrators actually see merit in the news that a teenager has been flogged through a dozen races in two days. And as for the clubs that participate; that too is a scandal. I wonder what their committees think of the 18th century custom of using 12 year olds in British coal mines. Oh, I understand the motivation; as parents flock to the clubs that exploit the most in the hope their child will be the next junior champion.

There may be some who find this opinion less than persuasive. Let’s see what the experts say. Several Olympic Games ago the American Aquatic Research Centre in Boulder, Colorado scanned the hand joints of every member of the American Olympic team. Their purpose was to determine what portion of the swimmers had been early developers, on time and late developers. Evidently the rate at which the hand joints close can measure an individual’s physical maturity. Of the forty athletes tested only two had matured early, five had matured on time and the majority were late developers.

The American scientists concluded that the probable explanation for the stunning failure of swimmers who develop early is the almost impossible burden of handling their early success, followed by the struggle to stay ahead of late developers who were such easy beats a few years earlier. Over and over again it happens; junior winners find it impossible to handle the “shame” of being beaten by slow swimmers who used to be miles behind; often didn’t even make finals. Interpreting it all as a failure on their part the early superstars go off to the local surf patrol or to a water polo team. And it’s absolutely understandable.

Take Ashley Rupapera for example. In 2006/7 she was amazing; at 14 years old she claimed her second national age group record with a 100IM time of 1:05.30. In the Junior Championships 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, sadly, it does not include elite New Zealand swimming.   

Age group championship meets are the scene of too much hurt. At the beginning of the week keen, enthusiastic, happy young people arrive full of anticipation, coached and honed to a competitive edge. Parents dash around the pool checking that their charge’s start list seed times have been properly entered and locating the town’s best source of pasta. Coaches patrol the pre-meet practice with all the intensity of an Olympic warm up. International swim meet promoters would die to be able to create the nervous energy present at the beginning of your average age group championship.

By the end of the first morning’s heats you can detect the mood beginning to change. The problem is thirty swimmers enter an event, eight make a final, three get medals and one wins. Potentially there are twenty nine disappointed swimmers and fifty eight disappointed parents who can’t wait to get back to the motel for their treble gin and tonic to ease the pain. It’s a disappointment born out of expectations set far too high.

As each day goes by the mood darkens and deepens. An adult’s most valuable skill is providing comfort to another sobbing teenager. The transformation is stunning. The tremendous high of the first morning slumps during the day; is momentarily revived at the beginning of day two, only to slump even further. By day four all I want to do is get out of there and make sure no swimmer ever goes back. For someone whose heart is in seeing athletes soar, junior championships are no fun at all.

Several years ago there was a good article on the US Junior Nationals in the USA Swimming magazine “Splash”. In it USA Swimming seem to be aware that their event needed to avoid many of the problems characteristics. This is what they said:

“Along the way, however, many coaches and others within USA Swimming saw a disturbing trend. Instead of a whistle stop on the way to senior national and international competition the Junior nationals were embedding themselves as a destination.”

The Americans have done some good things to avoid damaging the nation’s youth. First of all their junior event is not a normal age group meet. Everyone up to a relatively old 18 can swim in the event. This avoids youngsters being over exposed at too young an age. Secondly, the qualifying standards are really tough. They reflect the “older” cut off age. An athlete has to be pretty quick just to make the cut. There’s a fair chance swimmers that fast will have the experience and maturity to handle the occasion. Thirdly, names included on the meet’s list of alumni suggest their “Juniors” are working as a transition between Sectional and International athlete. “Splash” tells me that Gary Hall, Aaron Peirsol, Ian Crocker and Michael Phelps all swam here. That’s a pretty impressive list. It appears that winning is not essential either. For example, Phelps never won the event, but he seems to have come through unscathed.

Competition hurts, which means that when a person gets hurt often enough they eventually go off to do something else. The rule of thumb is 100 races a year. Stick to that number. Your swimmer’s future probably depends on it.

Attitude Not Altitude

Wednesday, April 19th, 2017

The phrase “attitude not altitude” was first used by Arthur Lydiard. He was unconvinced about the value of short term trips to altitude. Of course he accepted that athletes who live at high altitude or athletes who spend months or even years in high altitude camps will benefit. But Arthur is right, there is no evidence to support the idea that two or three weeks at a high altitude resort three months before a major competition will have any performance benefits.

But in spite of that, Jerry Olszewski, the American Age Group Coach, who is now Swimming New Zealand’s National Coach has convinced the Board of Swimming New Zealand to fund a high altitude training camp in Jerry’s home state, Arizona. The team will be there for two weeks and will then compete in the Mission Viejo Swim meet in California. Three months later this high altitude honed group will represent the Board of Swimming New Zealand in the World Swimming Championships.

What a terrible joke this has become. It is the sort of waste we see in third world Federations where appearance has more value than substance. Saudi Arabia is a classic example of the malaise. The country has three of the world’s best swimming pools and yet happily wastes hundreds of thousands of oil dollars sending athletes to training camps in Egypt, or Australia or New Zealand. Why?   

Well the reason is simple. For third world administrators, and that’s what they are in Saudi Arabia and New Zealand, looking and sounding good is what is important. Just think how much better Swimming New Zealand’s report to Peter Miskimmin sounds describing an Arizona high altitude camp compared to three week’s training at the Millennium Institute; Cotterill looks better and Cotterill sounds more important. In my opinion the decisions of the CEO of Saudi Arabian Swimming and the Chairman of Swimming New Zealand suffer from the same cult of ego.

Two weeks at high altitude in Arizona will be of no benefit. Well that’s not quite true. Jerry gets a paid two week trip back to his home state. So that’s good.

But for the New Zealand swimmers, on their way to Arizona, the science of swimming seems to be conclusive. In a defining study on the subject Dr A Baker from California and Dr W Hopkins from Otago University say;     

“The best duration of stay at altitude is uncertain, but the concentration of blood erythropoietin rises in the first day at an altitude.  After two weeks it is still high, but declining.  Conclusion: three or four weeks is long enough for one stay. 

We expect the benefits to begin to wane by the end of the second month after altitude exposure, and to have disappeared completely after three or four months.”

These findings plus the accepted principle that acclimatizing to high altitude can take three to six weeks conclusively tell us that a plan to spend two weeks in Arizona followed by three months back at sea level will have no effect on the performance of the New Zealand team in the Budapest World Championships. The Board of Swimming New Zealand will have wasted another $100,000.

This farce is not a problem caused by New Zealand’s local coaches or by New Zealand’s swimmers. If the results reflect bad decisions like the one to travel to Arizona, the buck for New Zealand’s poor performance stops at Cotterill and his Board. They made the decision to employ an Arizona age group coach and they accepted the recommendation to swan off to a high altitude camp in the United States. It is about time responsibility for the problems being experienced in swimming were accepted by the guilty.

In the past coaches have been made redundant and swimmers have been ostracised. Recently Gary and Donn lost their jobs. There was not enough money to pay them but plenty to spend on a fool’s errand up a mountain in the United States. In 2012 the Board of Swimming New Zealand was vested with huge powers. The buck stops with them. They are responsible. And if the results of this big spend-up are as negative as I expect, then decency demands that they move aside. Hopefully their replacements will know better than to spend money on this sort of folly.

I imagine some of you are thinking, “There he goes again; another way over the top suggestion.” But is it really? These are important decisions. They have cost the sport millions and two generations of swimmers have lost their careers. They are decisions that matter. Remember when Swimming New Zealand carted the country’s swimmers around every Mediterranean resort on a training trip before the London Olympic Games. That was a waste similar to this one. But those responsible escaped all censure. Only when the Board accept and acknowledge fault will things improve. So no, I do not think expecting the Board to stand down is way over the top at all.       

But there is a glimmer of hope. I was at the Millennium Pool this week. I was reading my phone when someone said, “Hello David. How are you?” I looked up to see Lauren Boyle. She said she had not gone to Arizona and was instead recovering from injury and preparing at the Millennium Pool. All I could think was, “What a sensible decision.”

I hope Lauren swims well in Budapest. Primarily because she is a class swimmer and a class person. But also because her decision to stay in Auckland, surrounded by her family and friends is the way champions do things. You see Lauren Boyle does not suffer from the slightest personality of ego. She is well grounded and has been hugely successful as a result. The Board of Swimming New Zealand would do well to learn from her example.

But for this Board it is too late. After Budapest they should step aside and let those as grounded as Boyle assume responsibility for the organization.      

Locker Room Talk

Thursday, April 13th, 2017

This is my first Swimwatch post for several days. It has been a busy time. Eyad arrived from Saudi Arabia and competed in the New Zealand Open Championships. He did well. He swam in four races, achieved three personal best times and made a night time swim in the 50 freestyle. Given the difficulties he faces training and competing at home his results were more than I expected. Thank you, Immigration New Zealand, Swimming New Zealand and the Waterhole Swimming Club for making his participation possible.

Just as exciting for Eyad was winning the Ocean Series 500 open water swim at Takapuna Beach, competing in the Waterhole Club Championships, completing his first short-course triathlon, bungy-jumping off the Harbour Bridge, visiting Waiheke Island and enjoying quite a few Auckland cafes.

While all this was going on I received two oddly contradictory emails. The first was from the New Zealand Swim Coaches Association with feedback from eleven coaches to the request for views on the future of coaching in New Zealand.

The views expressed are exceptional. Better than that, the feedback is remarkably similar. In one form or another, the eleven coaches seemed to agree that:

  1. The status quo is a shambles
  2. New Zealand coaches should be responsible for putting things right
  3. The environment must be coach driven and coach managed
  4. A regional coaching structure would best deliver the coaching support and education required to produce international success.
  5. Swimming New Zealand role should be an administration vehicle only.

One other thought became obvious as I read the papers submitted by the eleven coaches. When New Zealand has local coaches capable of this quality of feedback why on God’s good earth are we running off to Arizona to employ an American age group club coach. It does not take a genius to read the thoughts of Clive Power, Gary Martin, Thomas Ansorg, Emma Swanwick, Glenn Hamblyn, Sue Southgate, Narcis Gherca, Oscar van Stekelenborg, Mike Lee and Brett Naylor and know for absolutely certain that coaching quality is alive and well and living in New Zealand. And remember this list doesn’t include coaching assets like Donna Bouzaid and Gary Hurring.

Swimming’s failures are the responsibility of Cotterill and Miskimmin. They have denied these talented coaches the freedom to fly. The talent, the ability and the knowledge are present, in heaps. It’s about time Cotterill and Miskimmin gave New Zealand coaches the opportunity to prove it.

My second email was an example of the effort Cotterill will go to in order to suffocate New Zealand coaches. The email is from Swimming New Zealand to all clubs. It says  

This is to inform you that Swimming New Zealand is running an HPC orientation for any interested year 13 students who want to investigate continuing their swimming and academic careers at the HPC. The objective of this is to give athletes, coaches and their parents the ability to make an informed decision on the environment that will best suit their needs moving forward.

The orientation weekend will give Athletes the opportunity to; meet Head Coach, Jerry Olszewski, train with the SNZ High Performance Team, both in the pool and the gym, meet with High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) Athlete Life staff to discuss options regarding tertiary study, and the process around applying for and obtaining Prime Minister’s Scholarships and meet with HPSNZ Providers for the HP Team – such as Strength and Conditioning, Physio etc.

So there you have it: Cotterill’s bid to steal status and income from New Zealand coaches and clubs. Every swimmer seduced by their smart sales pitch is a swimmer and income stolen from a New Zealand club. And remember this, for the fifteen years or so they have been luring swimmers to their program Swimming New Zealand has failed over and over again. There are a dozen clubs in New Zealand university towns that could do all and better than Swimming New Zealand’s Jerry Olszewski. The email is a blatant play by Swimming New Zealand to use its power and position to take business away from local coaches and clubs and into the Millennium Institute.

So what is the conclusion from all this? It seems to me that the quality, intelligence and knowledge of New Zealand coaches are as strong as ever. The contributions of Ansorg, Power and Swanwick are especially astute. But Swimming New Zealand and an age group coach from Arizona are going out of their way to make sure these huge talents are always second to their Antares Place white elephant.

On the subject of the Antares Place swimming pool, I was at the pool today. At the same time there was another group of Saudi Arabian swimmers training and competing in New Zealand. I was obviously interested, but ended the day a little sad. Someone responsible for those boys should teach them that discussing personal details of the girls they have been looking at under the water is not acceptable in New Zealand. Slutty, sexist locker room behaviour and talk may be okay for an American President but it is not okay here.         


Saudi Arabia – The Buck Stops Here

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

“The buck stops here” is a phrase made popular by United States President Harry S. Truman. The phrase refers to the idea that the boss has to make the decisions and accept the ultimate responsibility for those decisions. Swimming New Zealand may have its moments at avoiding the responsibilities of the Truman message, but in Saudi Arabia “passing the buck” has become an art form.

But before I discuss that subject I want to comment on something said to me this week during a visit to the Millennium Pool. A Swimwatch reader stopped me in the car park and scathingly accused me of only being brave enough to write about Saudi Arabia after I was no longer there. What an idiot. I was employed by the Saudi Swimming Federation. It would have been entirely inappropriate to blog about my employer. At that stage the correct thing to do was to report to my employer internally when I thought improvements were necessary. And that is what I did. I have a dozen reports here, including one of 5000 words suggesting and on occasions demanding reform. At the time Swimwatch was not the place to air those thoughts – no matter what the car park expert might think. Now that I am no longer employed by Saudi Swimming I can comment.

But back to passing the buck. Probably the best Saudi example was the simple matter of being paid. Not a problem you would have thought in the tenth richest country in the world, owning 18% of the world’s oil reserves and the largest exporter of oil. But no – being paid when you work for Saudi Swimming is by no means certain. I began work in May 2016 and was paid in June, July and August. In September I was not paid at all. In October I was handed my month’s pay in cash because, I was told, the bank wouldn’t pay. In November I got half a month’s pay again in cash. In January I did not get paid. In February and March I got paid again and by the end of March, when I was due to end my contract, my arrears were paid.

The guy, who in theory had “The buck stops here” sign on his desk, the CEO of Saudi swimming, is a New Zealander called Brian Palmer. He used to be the CEO of Auckland Swimming. He is the guy who the author of the current Swimming New Zealand Constitution, Chris Moller, took a shot at during the Special Meeting called to approve the new Constitution. This is how the minutes record Moller’s comments

“Chris Moller then addressed the Meeting. He called for the Auckland Board and its Chief Executive to stand down, as they had requested Swimming New Zealand to do.”

I have written many words in Swimwatch supporting Brian Palmer’s work in Auckland Swimming. But, in my opinion, his management of swimming in Saudi Arabia is a joke. Here are some examples of the sort of replies I got from Palmer to my emails expressing concern about the non-payment of wages. Now remember when you read these replies this is the boss – the buck stops here.  

“Reasons for the above could be political (leverage by Saudi Arabia Olympic Committee), economic (Saudi government budgets), interdepartmental (delaying – SAOC, GPYW, Ministry of Finance) or internal (SASF has simply managed their funds badly).”

“Any person who has had their contract broken is entitled to resign and leave.  In some respects the best advice I could give to those such as yourself would be to do that.  That is why I have not provided the advice to you and others to leave.  It is also why I am not providing it now”

I cannot give a credible answer to the daily question of when and the related question of why – the above is the best effort I can make relating to why but as noted I have a reluctance to even have that considered to be definitive because it does contain a lot of conjecture and piecing together of information on my part.  When is also something I cannot accurately project.

As you know I do not have any control over issues of salary and or payments –

I think you would agree there is more buck passing there than buck stopping. The second example email about giving advice but not giving advice was so confused I began to think Moller might have been right.

And so after all those wages problems you can imagine my surprise to arrive back in New Zealand and discover a team of six Saudi swimmers plus an Australian coach have arrived to compete in the New Zealand Age Group and Open Swimming Championships. Palmer brought the Australian coach to Saudi Arabia to prepare a team for the Gulf States International Meet while I was in Jeddah. I was told by Palmer that the Australian was so broke when he arrived in Saudi that Palmer had to personally advance him money.

In my opinion this visit to New Zealand is a waste of money. Palmer told me my accommodation in Jeddah was a “boutique” hotel when in fact it was a slum. Well this visit by Saudi swimmers is another “boutique” exercise. In my view there is absolutely no justification in flying swimmers of their standard half way around the world. There are perfectly good meets in the Gulf States and Egypt that could achieve more and would cost a fraction of the price. They might not make the CEO look as important, as such a big man, as a “boutique” trip to New Zealand – and perhaps that’s the point.

The Age Group Nationals were held a week ago. I don’t know what the trip here has cost. But with airfares, accommodation, the Australian coach and the like my conservative guess is about $NZ60,000. And so what has Palmer got so far for his $60,000? Well, the Saudi team entered 27 events. There were 2 scratchings, 3 personal best times and 22 results slower than their personal best. That’s $60,000 to achieve a 12% personal-best ratio. That’s $20,000 per best swim. The buck stops where?