We Ordered Caviar – Is The Chef Preparing Porridge?

My concern at the fitness of Swimming New Zealand to guide the sport out of the wilderness will not be a surprise. This blog has expressed alarm at the organisation’s decision making, its leadership and its policy goals. There is however another issue that, I think, should give us cause for anxiety.

For a year, since his employment, I have had reservations about the new CEO, Steve Johns. I did not write about those concerns. A new employee should have time to settle into the job. He needed to have time to perform. After a year, there has been time and my concerns have grown. In my view we are in trouble and here is why.

In his first interview as CEO of Swimming New Zealand, Johns told Stuff that he wanted more swimmers at the Millennium high performance centre. He said, “We will be looking at getting the best possible swimmers at it. They may have to move there as part of being a high-performance athlete.”

Just consider the authoritarian implications of that philosophy. Johns is promoting a policy that would force every good swimmer in New Zealand to leave their homes and prepare in his precious Millennium Institute. A year after his appointment, the program there doesn’t even have a Head Coach. And just consider what the nonsense of that notion would have been in the past. Danyon Loader would have had to leave Dunedin and Duncan Laing, Anthony Moss would have had to abandon his studies at Stanford University. Lauren Boyle would have been denied four years at Cal being coached by Terri McKeever.

The comment is clearly stupid. Worse than that, “they may have to move there,” in my opinion, exposes dangerously authoritarian attitudes reminiscent of long gone Soviet and East German regimes.

Mind you a “once-through-lightly” look at Steve Johns’ public utterances suggests he is not the most consistent thinker in the world. When he joined Tennis New Zealand, in 2012, it was all about elite tennis. This is what he said, “High Performance remains a strategic priority for Tennis New Zealand as it is the “shop window” of our sport.  The more success we have here, the more people will want to come in and play.”

A few years later the “strategic priority” appears to have changed. The shop window was replaced. Now Johns’ strategic plan was to achieve success “by (i) growing the number of clubs and coaches offering existing participation programmes; (ii) developing new participation initiatives; and (iii) modernising tennis through the introduction of IT systems.” The impression I got was that Steve Johns’ priorities changed away from elite performance when he realised the Sport New Zealand pokie machine worked better using participation coins.

Johns involvement in elite pool swimming has been minimal. He swam in age group competition before focusing on surf lifesaving and waterpolo. Johns’ swimming career is a classic example of a serious problem that Swimming New Zealand needs to address. In my opinion his experience highlights the worst malaise of pool swimming around the world. In fact I’ve just written a book on this subject. It is at the publishers in Germany about to be printed. Johns was a successful junior. He then joined the sport’s 90% drop-out rate to go off and join a surf club and play waterpolo. Steve Johns may be the perfect example of the sport’s massive teenage drop-out problem; of what not to do.

My next concern stems from my experience coaching in Auckland. The Chairman of the now defunct West Auckland Aquatics Club was Steven Pye. His deputy was the TV journalist, Wayne Hay. They were both fans of surf life-saving. During Steve Johns’ employment as the CEO of Surf Lifesaving Northern Region guess who was Steve Johns’ boss? You are right – Steven Pye.

I had incredible problems with Pye. In fact we ended up facing each other in a Queen Street Employment Court arbitration hearing. I had two complaints. First I was owed several thousand dollars holiday pay and second I was being subjected to unreasonable pressure to convert West Auckland Aquatics from a competitive swimming club into a training vehicle for Surf Lifesaving Northern Region. Pye seemed incapable of understanding that the West Auckland Aquatics lane space was not sufficient to run a surf and pool program alongside each other. We needed more lanes or longer hours to do both. My impression was that he would have been happy to see the pool program disappear if his surf region could have had West Auckland aquatics as a wholly owned subsidiary. I suspect Pye saw my obstruction as a problem that needed harsh measures to solve.

At the arbitration hearing Pye denied my concerns but appeared very uncomfortable when I tabled a text message from a Board member who had been at a meeting I did not attend. The message said, “Stephn said now we got membership, admin on track time to sort poolside. He asked Wayne what Holly thawt, Wayne said Holly all go. We were then told under no uncertain terms not to let you know.”

In the end it was ruled that I should be paid my holiday pay and the surf proposal was dropped. Pye and Hay left West Auckland Aquatics. The damage however was terminal.

With this history I am sure you will understand why I have concerns about a Swimming New Zealand CEO who, in my opinion, worked for a guy who put the interests surf ahead of pool. You see we know that Steve Johns in his own career chose surf ahead of pool swimming. We also know that while he was at Tennis New Zealand he moved the Head Office into the Millennium Institute. His rationale for that move was explained in their Annual Report.

“The ability for the Tennis New Zealand staff to be able to on a daily basis rub shoulders with New Zealand’s high performance elite will, I am sure, have an impact on our thinking and understanding of what it takes to achieve at the highest level.”

I just hope that Steve Johns rubbing shoulders with surf life-saving is not as intimate as his bosses ambitions appeared to be a few years ago. I have coached national champions in both the pool and in the open surf race. As I said recently the preparation required is as different as darts and heavy weight boxing.

I see I have reach 1000 words on this subject. There is however other stuff that should be discussed. I will do so next time.


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