Jan Cameron 1947-2018

 The most influential figure in recent New Zealand swimming history died this past weekend. Swimwatch readers will know that I disagreed totally with the centralised policy Jan imposed on swimming in New Zealand. But that in no way detracted from my admiration for her ability and drive. I think she was wrong but exceptionally able; a powerful force and a colourful personality. Here is how Wikipedia describes her years in New Zealand.

Cameron moved to New Zealand with her husband and in 1991 she began working as head coach for the North Shore Swimming Club, turning it from a club with little money and no resources to one that attracted New Zealand’s elite swimmers. 

In 2001, she began working as a national coach at the newly built Millennium Institute of Sport and Health (now AUT Millennium) at the Auckland University of Technology, and in 2008 she was appointed as the general manager performance and pathways at Swimming New Zealand. 

In September 2011 she resigned from this position, nearly three months after the release of the Ineson report initiated by Sport New Zealand, which described the high-performance culture of Swimming New Zealand as “negative” and “dysfunctional”

At a time like this I think it is important not to hide from the mistakes. Cameron does not need to have her legacy sanitised. It is what it is – good and bad. And so let’s briefly consider the negative. The last time Swimwatch mentioned Jan Cameron was not exactly flattering. On September 6 2011 this is the Swimwatch report on the influence of Jan Cameron.

I have already apologized to Ineson in Swimwatch and do so again now. I can see why he is an Olympic Gold medallist. He does have courage. He reported on Swimming New Zealand honestly and without favour. He did our country proud in Montreal, Canada and again when he tabled this Ineson Report. For Cameron to turn around and dismiss Ineson’s work as “rubbish” is rich beyond belief. Of course it is typical of the dismissive attitude she takes to anyone who crosses her path. Yet another of my county’s best athletes has just earned the Cameron label of “rubbish.”

Jan Cameron – you have used our time, you have exploited the talent of our best athletes, you have spent our money – and you have failed to deliver. Your nepotism and rough shod management has caused embarrassment and hurt. We are done with you and those who supported your Millennium folly. We are moving on to a future that, I hope, does not include you. Leave swimming alone and I promise Swimwatch will never mention your name again.

That is the negative. So what is positive about Jan Cameron’s twenty years in New Zealand? There is no doubt that very few individuals, maybe no one, would have been capable of taking the struggling, inconsequential North Shore Swimming Club of 1991 and turning it into New Zealand’s best and most powerful club. Sure, Jan had the help of talented coaches like Donna Bouzaid along the way but the driving force behind an impossible transformation was Jan Cameron.

And of course in making that transformation Jan coached and guided the careers of many of New Zealand’s best swimmers. They were the beneficiaries of an outstanding coach. Standing on the side of a pool coaching Jan was first class; tough, uncompromising, thoughtful and brave – all the qualities necessary to achieve her goals.

During these years one story was reported to me that explains the power of Jan’s personal qualities. I hope I have the basics right. A North Shore Club official was accused of serious financial mismanagement associated with a local school. The same official was also alleged to be misbehaving with a senior North Shore female swimmer. I was told that the first Jan knew of this was when the official appeared with a gun in the girl’s changing room at training threatening the swimmer that, unless she agreed to run away with him, he would cause her harm. I am told Jan marched into the changing room, disarmed the official, threw his gun into the pool and called the police. It takes a special person to act like that; to demonstrate that personal bravery.

Jan brought the same fearless bravery and certainty to her coaching and administration. The policy of centralization that she went on to promote hurt her legacy. The passion that she offered was peerless. I have always thought it sad that New Zealand in those days did not better recognise the twin talents involved in the sport. Clive Rushton was the SNZ High Performance Manager and Jan was the National Coach. The potential of that team was something New Zealand had not seen before and certainly has not seen since. The union of Jan’s determination with Clive’s thoughtful direction could have done wonderful things for swimming in New Zealand.

Sadly the SNZ Board did not have the ability to bring together two powerful personalities. Instead they allowed dissent and conflict to exist between the two. Eventually Jan won and New Zealand was left with Jan’s irresistible force imposing her centralized philosophy without restraint. The qualities that could have enabled her to do for New Zealand what she had managed for the North Shore Club were misapplied and wasted. But that was never Jan’s fault. That was because no one in SNZ could manage her strong personality.

And so at the end of Jan’s life I am torn and confused. On the one hand I am full of admiration for a person of outstanding personal courage, talent and drive. And on the other hand I am sad and distressed that it was misdirected and mismanaged by a weak and incompetent Board of Swimming New Zealand.

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