So Just What Is The Gap?

Swimming New Zealand is currently experiencing two closely related events.

First the organization is planning to move away from the centralised preparation of elite swimmers. For twenty years that policy has mindlessly absorbed Swimming New Zealand’s time and money. And the policy has failed miserably. The new plan proposes replacing the old structure with a Zone based program. Subject to knowing more about how the Zones will work the new structure should be more responsive to swimmer’s needs and should be more successful. Mind you that’s not saying much. The success bar in Swimming New Zealand is pretty low right now.

Second the New Zealand National Short Course Championships are being held this week.

The two events provide an ideal opportunity to take stock and evaluate just where the sport is at. We know the old centralised structure failed but what is the size of the problem being left behind? How far below world standards has New Zealand swimming fallen? What is the gap between the world’s best and New Zealand’s best swimmers? How long is it going to take to bridge the gap? And is the new Zone structure equipped to supply swimmers capable of lifting the sport to world class status?

Swimming New Zealand Board members frequently provide glowing answers to these questions. But we know from hard experience not to trust a word the Board says. The members know little about international swimming and it shows. For example we have been told that, “The vision of our High Performance Strategy is: inspirational swimmers, exciting the nation through exceptional results”. Unbelievably just before the Rio Olympic Games the CEO said, “resulted in bold decisions being taken and led to the development of a targeted campaign strategy aimed at improving our international performances in Rio.” And we know how that turned out. A few years earlier the same CEO provided us with this glowing testimonial, “The 2012/2013 swimming season resulted in some remarkable performances from our elite athletes. The largest ever Olympic swim team attended the 2012 London Olympic Games. New Zealand had its most successful World Short Course Championship to date.”

If you listen and believe the Board of Swimming New Zealand we should be tearing the Americans apart by now. International meets around the world should be tired of playing “God Defend New Zealand”. But how close to reality is the organization’s gloss? How fake is their fake news?   

Well the two tables below attempt to provide data-based answers to the questions. The tables show the size of the gap between New Zealand’s current swimmers and the current world record. The times shown for New Zealand’s swimmers are the fastest entry times for swimmers entered in each event at this week’s National Championships. The world records are the current FINA short course best times.

This is what the data tells us about the size of Swimming New Zealand’s performance problem.

  1. In all 34 events New Zealand’s fastest swimmers are an average of 7.2% slower that the current world records.
  2. Male swimmers are an average of 7.4% behind the current world records. Female swimmers are an average of 7.0% behind the current world records.
  3. The largest gap of 10.9% is in the men’s 50m backstroke. The closest gap is 4.5% in the men’s 1500m.
  4. The American Swim Coaches Association tells us that the ideal best rate of improvement for a good international swimmer is 3% per year.
  5. What this means is that the current gap of 7.2% between New Zealand’s best swimmers and the world record will take a minimum of 2.4 years to close – and that ridiculously assumes two things. It assumes the world record will not improve and it assumes New Zealand swimmers will improve at the American’s best rate. Neither of those things is guaranteed. In fact neither is even likely.
  6. To give you a more realistic idea of what that means – if New Zealand’s swimmers improve at twice the rate that the world record’s progress, on average, it will take five years for New Zealand swimmers to reach the world times.

And so we know the task before the new Zone structure is to create an environment in which local swimmers improve at twice the rate of the world’s best. Even at this rate it will take five years to bridge the current gap between New Zealand’s best and the world’s best swimmers. It is a big ask. The scale of the problem suggests New Zealand swimmers might struggle to be ready for Tokyo. Three years may not be long enough. Certainly New Zealand swimming will need to be at its very best over a long period to have a program that is anywhere near world class. However there is hope. It’s true the statistics make bleak reading. But as the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The figures need not be the full story. It will be interesting to see what progress is made this week.        



Event World Time NZ Time % Behind
50 m freestyle 20.26 21.52 5.9
100 m freestyle 44.94 47.30 5.0
200 m freestyle 1:39.37 1:45.70 6.0
400 m freestyle 3:32.25 3:47.35 6.6
1500 m freestyle 14:08.06 14:47.85 4.5
50 m backstroke 22.22 24.94 10.9
100 m backstroke 48.92 53.57 8.7
200 m backstroke 1:45.63 1:56.57 9.4
50 m breaststroke 25.25 27.82 9.2
100 m breaststroke 55.61 1:00.76 8.5
200 m breaststroke 2:00.44 2:10.07 7.4
50 m butterfly 21.80 23.38 6.8
100 m butterfly 48.08 52.68 8.7
200 m butterfly 1:48.56 1:56.46 6.8
100 m individual medley 50.30 54.92 8.4
200 m individual medley 1:49.63 1:56.14 5.6
400 m individual medley 3:55.50 4:11.88 6.5
Average Gap 7.4


Event World Time NZ Time % Behind
50 m freestyle 22.93 25.21 9.0
100 m freestyle 50.58 54.19 6.7
200 m freestyle 1:50.43 1:57.58 6.1
400 m freestyle 3:54.52 4:07.80 5.4
800 m freestyle 7:59.34 8:28.27 5.7
50 m backstroke 25.67 27.75 7.5
100 m backstroke 55.03 59.51 7.5
200 m backstroke 1:59.23 2:09.40 7.9
50 m breaststroke 28.64 31.32 8.3
100 m breaststroke 1:02.36 1:07.79 8.0
200 m breaststroke 2:14.57 2:28.11 9.1
50 m butterfly 24.38 25.75 5.3
100 m butterfly 54.61 57.11 4.4
200 m butterfly 1:59.61 2:07.04 5.9
100 m individual medley 56.51 1:00.61 6.8
200 m individual medley 2:01.86 2:09.74 6.1
400 m individual medley 4:18.94 4:46.41 9.6
Average Gap 7.0

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