Wairoa College Swimming Sports

A couple of posts ago I was complaining that successfully taking part in high school sports hardly provides the experience needed to guide the career of an international athlete. I was talking about the CEO of Swimming New Zealand (SNZ), Steve Johns, who in his public resume makes great play of his feats as a high school swimming star.

In my experience many of the enthusiastic things I firmly believed as a high school swimmer I had to abandon when I came across the wiser heads of men like Mark Schubert, Arch Jelley and Arthur Lydiard. All that high school, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” stuff had to be replaced by level headed professionalism. In fact I frequently ended long conversations with all three of those coaches wondering how they had been so successful when their enthusiasm was so obviously inferior to mine. If I thought something had gone wrong at training all three coaches would council me not to worry, there was always tomorrow. Almost always if they made suggestions about my training plans it was to reduce their quantity or intensity. I thought they must be getting too old – past their best. I did struggle with the thought that all three seemed to be getting “past it” at the same time – just when I needed their advice most. Finally it dawned on me. I was hearing the same thing from three Olympic Champion coaches – perhaps it was me that needed to change.

It sure took a while but that change was important. The dedication of Jelley, Lydiard and Schubert was never in question. The way they applied their dedication was what was different. There was a level headed and confident maturity about the way they went about their work that my high school conditioned brain simply did not understand.

Having said that I am certain that all those coaches, and certainly me, have huge respect for the benefits of high school swimming or track athletics. Because high school sport is different from the Olympics – as different as chalk and cheese – does not make high school sport inferior or bad – just different.

And so with that thought in mind let me tell you about the Wairoa College swimming sports. Wairoa now has a fantastic indoor 25 meter pool. Dead posh they are these days. In the 60s, when I was at Wairoa College, such luxuries were not dreamed about. The town pool – called the Wairoa Baths – was a 33.3 yard outdoor pool. The location on the banks of the Wairoa River was spectacular and Wairoa’s hot summers kept the water at a good temperature.

I didn’t swim there often. My training pool was in the Hangaroa River at my home in Te Reinga, 36 kilometres from the luxuries of Wairoa city swimming. I did however compete in the Wairoa Baths, once a week at club nights and once a year at the Wairoa College school sports.

Club nights were special. I would leave school and go to Oslers Dairy – it is still there but today it’s called Oslers Bakery and Café – and buy one scoop of chips and a piece of fish. I have an idea that dinner cost one shilling, but that might be wrong. I had a special spot on the edge of the Wairoa River for eating my evening meal. Preparation completed I walked back along the river to the Baths ready to do battle with the city kids. They trained in the pool every day and had things like coaches, track suits and training schedules. My training in the river and fish and chips diet seemed to work though. I ended up winning the Auckland SC 100 breaststroke Championship and swimming in the Nationals. But, just as important, I won the annual Wairoa College swimming sports four times.

The day of the swimming sports was the highlight of my academic year. The whole school, of 400 students, was marched down to spend the day at the Wairoa Baths. I imagine that I was a pain in the proverbial arse. The Headmaster was a very conservative, straight-laced sort of guy. With good cause he must have hated the way I behaved. I knew I was the best swimmer in the school and was determined to act like a god for every minute of the five hours we were there. I wandered around, never dressed in anything more than my speedos. I overdid the dark, staining sunscreen and made sure every race was a new record. This was a God given chance to impress; an opportunity to show off my skill and talent that must not be lost. Looking back I cringe at the arrogance of it all. But at the time I bathed in the adulation. No national or international title can have been so enjoyed.

Thirty years later I went with Jane to her school swimming sports. I couldn’t help but notice the difference. By that stage Jane was a national champion and had represented New Zealand. But at the school sports she sat quietly with her friends waiting for her races. She didn’t seem to be getting nearly as much out it as I did. I guess Mark Schubert, Arch Jelley and Arthur Lydiard would understand why. It’s all a question of perspective.

I must tell you though that my college 33.3 yard breaststroke record stood unbeaten for thirty-four years. I forget what the time was. We were always trying to break twenty seconds but it may have been a bit slower than that.

The Wairoa College swimming sports were great fun and did their bit in creating my love of sport. Although that love has been moderated, channelled and disciplined over the years it remains part of the foundation that gets me to the pool for training today. So thank you Wairoa College. I hope your swimming sports are as much fun today as they were in the 1960s. They certainly were as important in my education as School Certificate, University Entrance or a Victoria University Political Science degree.

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