A Good Day For New Zealand Swimming

And so Alex Baumann is on his way. Most readers will know that Baumann was an accomplished swimmer. He won five gold medals at the Commonwealth Games and two gold medals at the understrength 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. In February 2012 he was appointed to the position of Chief Executive of High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ). And in September this year he will leave to go and live in Australia with his wife and family.

I see Paul Collins, the Chairman of HPSNZ, has lauded Baumann’s leadership and vision. According to Collins Baumann, “has lifted the bar for high performance sport in New Zealand and built an organization that is among the best in the world.”

I can’t speak for other New Zealand sports but in swimming Collins is talking rubbish. And swimming matters; after all swimming was Baumann’s sport, the sport he was supposed to know best. In my view Baumann’s time in charge has been a disaster for swimming; a disaster which in large part is his responsibility. The buck stops with Baumann and Miskimmin.

Let me set out the reasons I believe Baumann leaving is the best news New Zealand swimming has had for a long, long time. The charges against Baumann are as follows

  1. He has promoted a policy of centralization that has not and cannot work. Around the world the Baumann model, imposed on New Zealand, has been tried and discarded. Successful national programs have encouraged a wide infrastructure of many coaches participating in the national program. In New Zealand Baumann has persisted with the Soviet era model of a single national training center. The role of domestic coaches is primarily to nurture and then supply talented swimmers into the Millennium organization.

For five years, for two Olympic Games, and at a cost of around $9 million New Zealand has doggedly tried to make Baumann’s centralized model work. And it has not. No medals, nothing. In fact New Zealand’s best results have come from swimmers who have broken away from Baumann’s plan and have developed their swimming in Australia or the United States.

I am sure Baumann would have loved to impose a swimming style centralized structure on New Zealand track and field athletics. But he couldn’t. There is no way in the world that Dame Valerie Adams, Nick Willis, Hamish Carson, Tom Walsh, the Robertson brothers, or Camille Buscomb were going to relinquish their independence by accepting a Baumann imposed socialist regime. These fine athletes wanted to preserve their right to prepare in Kenya, or in the state of Michigan, or on a New Zealand farm or in an American University, or on a Swiss mountain. The sad thing about track and field is that the stellar Olympic performances of athletes who rejected the Baumann plan are used by Miskimmin and Collins as evidence that the plan works.

The centralized policy promoted by Baumann in New Zealand swimming is old fashioned, out-of-date, boring, and lacks imagination or initiative. And so good-bye Baumann. You will not be missed.

  1. The greatest damage resulting from the Baumann policy has been the savage undermining of New Zealand coaches. I’m losing count of the coaches that have been brought into the Millennium Institute since Baumann took over at HPSNZ. The best has been a New Zealander, Clive Power. Ironically he came to the rescue when Swimming New Zealand couldn’t find a foreign coach. Power is an excellent coach and clearly shows that New Zealanders are quite capable of coaching their own. But not as far as Swimming New Zealand is concerned. In Baumann’s five years Swimming New Zealand has employed two Australians, a Pom and the current American. Including the New Zealander that’s a coach a year and no one can understand why the sport can’t win anything. I suspect even Phelps would struggle if he changed coaches every twelve months.

The current Head Coach is an American age group club coach. The message Swimming New Zealand is sending to every domestic coach is that none of us are as good as an American age group club coach. The national federation scoured the world and decided that a foreign age group club coach was better than anything available in New Zealand. That is clearly not true and it is about time the New Zealand Coaches Association did something to put right the message Swimming New Zealand seem intent on peddling. The damage to the coaching infrastructure in New Zealand has been serious.

  1. I always felt uneasy about the appearance of divided loyalty when it came to Baumann. It probably did not affect his job in any way, but for me the appearance of carpet bagging was difficult to shake. For example both his children were good enough to swim for New Zealand but were shipped back to swim for Canada. His daughter swims the same events as Lauren Boyle. His son swam for Canada in the Rio Olympics in the same events as Glen Snyders. Who was Baumann supporting in Rio?

And while he was in New Zealand his wife and family home continued on in Australia. As I have said all this may have had no effect on Baumann’s performance. However as the Thomas theorem says – if something is perceived to be true it can be true in its consequences.

And now the news tells me, “The Board will begin a worldwide search to identify the best possible candidate and ensure a seamless leadership transition.” They never learn do they? They are off overseas again to find another foreigner. New Zealand’s most successful sport, rugby, seems to do just fine employing New Zealanders. Swimming must do the same. There is no need, or place, for foreign carpet bagger coaches or administrators. The Boards of HPSNZ and Swimming New Zealand should be ashamed of their worship of things foreign. The cost to New Zealand morale has been too high.

In my opinion the potential opportunities for New Zealand swimming will improve as Baumann’s jet lifts off the runway and heads west out of here.   


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