USA Swimming Scholarships – Good Idea or Treason?

At the Wellington Gary Francis’ information meeting one woman was outspoken on the subject of American University swimming scholarships. She questioned the time Gary Francis spent contacting New Zealand swimmers in the United States. She branded swimmers who accepted USA scholarships as disloyal and not as worthy of Gary Francis’ attention as swimmers training in New Zealand. She is not alone in holding those views. How their opinions tally with the huge contribution USA scholarship swimmers like Gary Hurring, Lauren Boyle, Anthony Mosse and Paul Kingsman made to New Zealand sport, I have no idea.

Even National Federations join in the slander. For example Rowing New Zealand is guilty of gross bigotry. In 2015 single sculler Emma Twigg asked for permission to move to England and Italy to complete her Masters Degree in Management, Law and Humanities. Twigg argued the flexibility of single sculling meant she could train around her academic commitments.

The right thing for Rowing New Zealand to do was to support what was best for Twigg’s academic and rowing life. But with bigoted National Federations it’s always about them and to hell with what’s best for the athlete. They cut Twigg adrift and withdrew her government funding. Rowing New Zealand argued that 2015, Olympic qualifying year, was too important to have someone training away from the team. They were also concerned it would create an awkward precedent.

To her credit, Twigg went off and completed her degree. She also managed to successfully train on her own for the year. Rowing New Zealand does not deserve good people like Emma Twigg.

Here is a New Zealand TV1 report on the case of another world class New Zealand rower bullied by Rowing New Zealand.

Rowing New Zealand’s hard line attitude to young rowers choosing top education facilities in the US could see us losing a significant amount of our best talent. 1 NEWS can reveal 70 per cent of the men who represented New Zealand in the 2016 junior world championships are no longer rowing in the silver fern with some saying they’ve had no other option but to switch allegiances.

One such case was Lenny Jenkins – a junior world champion in 2016 who one day hoped to win an Olympic medal for New Zealand. But then he was invited to attend Ivy League university Yale in the US.

“It was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make because I was 17 at the time and I was choosing between a dream that I’d had since I was 14 and one of the best universities in the world,” he said.

Under current Rowing NZ rules, choosing Yale meant he could no longer row for his country. Jenkins says he was bullied to stay.

“I would absolutely describe it as a scare tactic. There’s no, ‘this is the positives of going to the United States, these are the negatives,’ – it’s just like, ‘these are all the negatives, you should never go, it’s not good enough, do not go’.”

In the end, Jenkins couldn’t turn down $500,000 worth of education. He’s kept rowing – this year his eight crew won the USA national title – but he’s never worn the fern again.

Rowing NZ High Performance Director Alan Cotter says, “We’ve got to be fair to the athletes that are here in NZ to pick them,” he said. They’re in our system, they’re in our pathway, they’ve committed to the sport here in NZ so that’s why we pick them at the end of March.”

The bigotry of that is beyond belief. Some jerk called Alan Cotter was prepared to deny Jenkins the opportunity of a Yale education. Karapiro or Yale? Not a hard decision.

Swimming New Zealand’s (SNZ) history is better but certainly not free of stain. Jan Cameron dismissed out of hand swimmers who accepted USA University swimming scholarships. How dare any swimmer choose an American University over her precious centralised programme. More recently Gary Francis’ reply to the Wellington woman’s outburst was to say, “I agree with you.” I don’t think Gary Francis did agree with her. Certainly his commendable selection of Ali Galyer suggests a willingness to ignore geographical location. Francis has a problem disagreeing with anyone. Unfortunately being effective in Swimming New Zealand is going to involve challenging some decade long entrenched interests. Francis probably has not got the backbone for that fight.

I’m not an expert on USA University swimming scholarships. I have however encouraged four swimmers from my squad to accept American offers. One went to UCLA, one to Hawaii and two to Washington State University. One of the Washington swimmers was my daughter Jane. Why did I support their decision to accept a scholarship offer?

Well, unlike Rowing New Zealand, I believe deeply that a coach has a duty to the whole person. Of course, from a swimming point of view, I was sad to lose the swimmers from my New Zealand team. Three of them were New Zealand Open Champions. The fourth was a silver medallist. But, as the coach of each swimmer, I was also happy to see them leave. Instead of ending up with a degree and a $30,000 student debt in New Zealand they were going to get a degree and have their tuition fees, books, accommodation and food paid for to swim in the world’s most competitive environment. It would be criminal to stand in the way of that choice.

Rowing New Zealand and the Wellington information meeting woman should be ashamed of themselves. Their attitudes are small-minded and nasty. Gary Francis needs to grow a backbone and publically stand up for what is right. There are many examples of swimmers who have accepted a USA education and have successfully swum for New Zealand. The most recent is Corey Main. An American scholarship is not a disqualifying condition. It is an option Gary Francis and all national federations should accept and welcome.

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