A Problem With Authority


Hataitai Beach

On Tuesday morning I was sitting in the Millennium Pool Whole Food Café with the four swimmers I help just now. Actually they are not all swimmers. Eyad is the only swimmer. Two of the others are triathletes and the fourth is a runner, using swimming to recover from an injury. I enjoy our after-training morning tea. The Whole Food Café staff are warm and friendly. They make a superb pot of green tea and cook delicious potato wedges that, my doctor warns me, I should not be eating.

There is never a pause in the conversation. The four of us talk way too much for that. One of the triathletes has a PhD in some obscure subject. She has read my three books on swimming and like all good university brains underlines the bits she thinks need further explanation. I enjoy the challenge of being asked to explain myself. A coach who cannot justify his or her training should not be coaching. If it is good enough to ask someone to swim six or seven kilometers, it’s only fair to explain why the two hours is good for them.

Normally the answers to her questions are not difficult. When you have spent countless hours discussing training with coaches like Lydiard, Jelley, Laing and Schubert most of the ground has been covered before. In fact a common quality in all those master coaches is their unstinting willingness to share their knowledge. Lydiard said a coach should always call himself a teacher. It put into context the responsibilities of the job. Jelley, of course, was a teacher and for years was principal of one of New Zealand’s leading “normal schools” used for training teachers. His deep knowledge of education clearly influenced his coaching. It certainly had a profound effect on my coaching life.

But back to Tuesday. My triathlete friend came up with a question that did cause surprise. “Do you,” she said, “have a problem with authority?”

Today is Wednesday and I’m still considering how to answer her question. I guess the fact that thirty-six hours have gone by means the answer is probably, yes. But it is not my fault. It is all because of swimming.

I’ve decided my rebellion began when I was four. I was a member of the Hataitai Swimming Club in Wellington. We didn’t have a pool but swam on a Saturday morning between two jetties at the Hataitai Beach. In those days, learners were awarded stickers for each stage in their swimming progress. By four years of age I had all the stickers except the last one given for completing an 800 yards swim. One Saturday I asked a club official if I could have a shot at swimming the distance. He said yes and off I went. To this day, sixty-six years later, I can remember that swim like it was yesterday. It went on forever. Thirty-two widths of Haitaitai Beach is a long way to swim when you are four years old. Eventually I finished and went to the officials to get my sticker. But no I was told my laps had not been officially counted. The official counting my laps had to go home for lunch. I would have to do the swim another time.

I was devastated. I pleaded my case with the officials to no avail. I explained I had been swimming for close to an hour. I had counted every length. “Bad luck. Come back next Saturday,” was their response. I walked up the hill, behind Hataitai Beach, to my home and explained to my mother the injustice of my cause. To her eternal credit she took my side. We went back down the hill to the beach. My mother was a pretty eloquent individual. She argued my case with considerable conviction – and she won. I was given the 800 yards sticker. My swimming certificate was complete. .

So, I guess, the implication in my triathlete friend’s question is probably right. From four years old I have had a problem with officials. Too often in the sixty-six years since I have come across officials who should not be in the job. They cheat and they lie without care or remorse. Sadly, it seems that these days, the more they are paid the worse they get. Much of what goes on in Swimming New Zealand is exactly the same as denying a four year old his 800 yards certificate. These bad buggers have made me wary and have encouraged the Swimwatch blog.

Fortunately their negative influence is matched by some wonderfully fair and good people. People like Beth Meade, Jo Draisey, Jennie Siburn, Judith Wright, Gwen Ryan, Duncan Laing, Lincoln Hurring, Jay Thomas (he’s from Florida), Maria Hartman (she was from the UK) and a dozen others stand out as honest and good people who have done swimming and athletics proud. Without question it is the influence of these people that has kept me in the sport.

There is a postscript to my 800 yards story. Thirty-five years after I swam the 800 yards my daughter Jane was three years old. On the way to Moana Pool I told her the story of my swim. She asked if she could try the same distance a year younger, at three. I agreed. For a long time that morning Duncan Laing and I stood beside the Moana Pool while Jane swam her 800 meters. She swam a slightly longer distance and a year younger than I had been. Fourteen years later Jane was selected to swim for New Zealand in the Pan Pacific Championships. Duncan Laing was coaching the team. When Jane arrived at the airport Duncan smiled and said, “Hello blondie. I remember when you swam 800 meters in the Moana Pool at three years of age.” And that’s a good bloke – a bloody good swimming official.

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