Swimming NZ Cons The NZ Herald

In Saturday’s NZ Herald, Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) got a headline. Not for their sterling performance at the Pan Pacific Games or their Gold Medals at the Commonwealth Games or even their increase in membership from the historic 2018 low of 5,660 competitive swimmers. No this was the CEO, Steve Johns, spinning fake news to Herald journalist, David Leggat. I considered three responses. I could ignore the report for the nonsense that it is. I could hurl abuse at SNZ for misleading New Zealand’s leading news outlet. Or I could take the report seriously and write a measured response that once again pointed out the policy fraud being sold by SNZ.

The first two options had huge appeal, but I settled on the third. I would explain why there is no changed approach; why this Francis exercise is smoking mirrors, froth and bubble, signifying nothing.

When the policy was first announced I was delighted. Since the Jan Cameron era I have used Swimwatch to highlight the shortcomings of centralised training. I was roundly condemned for those views. Staff at SNZ were warned it was dangerous to talk to me. And so, six months ago, when Gary Francis stopped me in the pool to explain his new plan I was delighted. Francis concluded that conversation with a request that I refrain from any Swimwatch criticism. “Give me a chance,” he said.

I did more than give him a chance. Two or three articles welcomed the “new” policy as an important swimming milestone. I was as taken in as Leggat has been on this occasion. That was all six months ago. The glow has had time to fade. The reality of the con has had time to appear. There is no new policy. All we have is the old policy dressed up in a new coat. Nothing material has changed. It is a con.

Before dealing with the specifics of the Leggat report, consider the logic of Steve Johns claims. Does anyone think for a minute that, given the autocratic nature of this administration, its Constitution, its Rules and its decisions, there is any chance of SNZ handing over real power to New Zealand’s clubs and coaches? Of course not. In 2011, using the Moller Report, Miskimmin and SNZ fought a life and death battle to wrest power away from the Regions, the Clubs and the coaches. SNZ has no interest in giving it back now. And they haven’t.

So let’s consider some of the points made in the David Leggat article.

  1. “So to continue with the centralised model and expect to get different results is the definition of insanity.”

Steve Johns needs to watch what he is saying. His bosses, the SNZ Board members, are the very people who did “continue with the centralised model and expected to get a different result”. For ten years and through two swimming generations that’s exactly what the Board of SNZ did and expected. And it was insane. But if Johns wants secure employment he should probably refrain from calling his Board members insane. Johns is right but calling Bruce Cotterill insane might not be a good idea.

  1. There are about 12 swimmers who sit in the senior group.

A key problem in the old centralised policy was the selection of a privileged few. SNZ’s chosen ones sat on elevated platforms at the National Championships, had secret meetings with the National Coach and wore special uniforms. They were above and separate from the rest of the swimming community. The divisions that caused remain today. It was this aspect of the centralised policy that Arthur Lydiard found most objectionable. As he said, Peter Snell would never have made the “senior group” list. Toni Jeffs would certainly have been excluded. The damage done by picking future winners far outweighs the benefits.

And that privileged selection quality has not changed. It is the same. As the Leggat article says, “There are about 12 swimmers who sit in the senior group”. Sadly it is a neglected swimmer in Dunedin or Nelson or Invercargill who is just as likely to win, but who the “new” policy excludes just as effectively as the old one did. Nothing has changed.

It is a small point, but why does SNZ persist in ignoring Emma Robinson. The Leggat article lists the chosen ones but fails to mention Robinson. She is a hugely good swimmer and would have been in the top eight at both the Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific Games. Once again it demonstrates the error of lists whether they are the old lists or the new lists they are still lists. The unearned elitism, the injustice, the bias, and the arrogance remain. Nothing has changed.

  1. “We’re looking at what is going to work best for individuals, where the best programme is for them, who is the best coach for them and what is the best environment.”

It is a pretty obvious response, but who at SNZ is qualified to determine what’s best for a swimmer and how is that in any way different from the previous policy. Already Gary Francis has admitted to being complicit in sending one of New Zealand’s best swimmers to Australia to train. The same autocratic power, that characterised the centralised training policy, is alive and well in this one. I have already warned my best swimmer to be careful when he is spoken to by anyone from SNZ. Here they are admitting that their so called “new” policy continues with the right to tell swimmers where they should be training; what’s best for them. Once again nothing has changed.

And remember this critical point. The centralised training group, that the Leggat report tells us has gone in favour of a bold new direction, is still being run and paid for by SNZ. The SNZ centralised training group is at the pool training every day just exactly as it was ten years ago under Jan Cameron. Nothing has changed.

My guess is that, what the Leggat article calls the “best environment” will all too often be the same SNZ training group as it has always been. If SNZ really meant the lies they told Leggat they would have disbanded that program. While that exists nothing has changed.              

  1. “We are very confident by 2024 of having not only really competitive swimmers but really strong coaches who know what they need to deliver.”

The stunning arrogance hasn’t changed either. SNZ don’t even realize the insult contained in that remark. What they are saying is that right now New Zealand coaches are weak and have no idea of what they need to deliver. It will take six years for New Zealand coaches to get up to speed. And that put-down has been a consistent SNZ theme for years. Nothing has changed.

It is also wrong. New Zealand is blessed with fine coaching talent. The coaches have and are being handicapped by SNZ’s policies. That hasn’t changed. But the likes of Gary Hurring, Donna Bouzaid, Jon Winter, Jeremy Duncan and a dozen others are at the top of their profession. They don’t need to be told by a club age-group coach like Gary Francis that it will take six years for them to learn how to win a swimming race. All that’s needed is for Francis and Johns to get out of the way and let them do it.

And all that is why nothing has changed. I guess the moral is before spreading SNZ’s spin all over the newspaper, journalists would be well advised to double check what they are being told. When it comes to SNZ, the source is not reliable.

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