In my previous Swimwatch post I discussed the decision to employ East German swim coach Mike Regner. In response to the post, I received an email that said, “Would like to hear more about that story you tell … v interesting.”

But before doing that I should make it clear that the decision to employ Mike in no way affects my certainty that those who were in charge of East German sport need to be sanctioned. There is no excuse for the destruction they produced. And at last, it seems the world and FINA are correcting the pain those men caused.

After all, my family was personally affected by East German cheating. My wife, Alison ran for Great Britain and Scotland in the late 1970s and early 1980s. On many occasions she crossed paths with athletes high on steroids. On the 11 February 1981, Alison represented the UK at Cosford in a dual indoor meet against East Germany. We all knew her opposition was full of testosterone.  

However, for the reasons discussed in my previous post I put Mike into a different category. I would probably make the same decision again. But I also recognise there is an opposite and equally valid point of view.

Before we finish discussing East German drugs, it is important to say that while Mike was in New Zealand there was never the slightest hint that he was involved with drugs – and believe me I was looking. So, what did I notice?

Well shortly after he arrived in New Zealand, I sat with Mike beside the Freyberg Pool in Wellington and discussed the East German use of performance enhancing drugs. Mike showed me his meticulously handwritten diary that recorded the name of the swimmer each time she was sent to the medical centre for a drug injection. It is somehow more stark, more horrifying when you sit next to the author and see, in his careful handwriting, “Silky Horner to the medical centre.” Written in German of course. But there it was, page after page of written proof that what the world suspected, was real. The abuse was true. Sitting beside a peacefully naïve Wellington swimming pool made the horror of seeing the endless blackness of world swimming, even worse. The contrasting shock was seismic.

But it wasn’t only the drugs. Mike’s description of the abuse inflicted on coaches and swimmers alike was stunning. The damage to swimmer’s health was known and accepted. Deformed and stillborn babies were a price accepted by the state for sporting success. The cost of failure was impossible to believe. The price of missing training would never be accepted in the west. Cars were taken away. State apartments were closed. Income was withdrawn. Wives and husbands were never allowed to travel with teams. The risk of defection was too high. Mike was constantly reminded of his army rank and the penalties that would come with disobedience.

 Mike described a life that those raised in a western democracy would find impossible to understand. At least I did.

Even when Mike arrived in New Zealand his unfiltered communist background affected him as well. For example, he had no idea of the value of money. He asked for what he wanted and expected it to arrive. The words “affordable” and “not affordable” had no meaning. To Mike it seemed this was the west, this was Hollywood where money flowed like water. The state had provided all his needs, all his life. Why couldn’t I do the same in New Zealand?

So, there were negatives to employing an East German coach. But there were huge positives as well.

Head Coach of our Wellington team was Gary Hurring. Gary was an ex-swimmer. He was New Zealand Sportsman of the Year, Commonwealth backstroke champion and had placed 4th in the Berlin World Championships and the Los Angeles Olympic Games. He probably would have won the Moscow Olympics but politics saw an end to that. He had also become a first-class coach.

I was concerned about how well Gary and Mike would get on. I could tell Gary was a little nervous about Mike’s arrival. There was no need to worry. When Mike arrived, he fitted into the team without a problem. Clearly, he was very used to observing the reporting structure he was given. I think Gary would agree, the two of them got on well.

From Mike I also learned the value of education. To become a swimming coach Mike had done a four-year university degree in swim coaching. It was at university he had studied the methods of Lydiard. He found it difficult to understand how people like Gary and me with degrees in the arts ended up coaching and running a swim team. And as for the SNZ weekend coaching courses, they were completely beyond his comprehension. “How can you,” he asked, “learn as much in 8 days as I took 4 years to learn. And after 4 years no one would let me anywhere near a real swimmer.”  

Once Mike finished his swimming degree he was only qualified to become the most junior member of a team. Whatever the East German equivalent of a tea boy was, that’s where Mike started. He was gradually promoted until he became the country’s Head Coach for high altitude training. New Zealand needs to improve its swim coaching education.

Drills are a well-accepted part of swim coaching today. But when Mike arrived in New Zealand they were not nearly as well known. Consequently, I found the unusual drills he got the team to do very strange indeed. So did most of the rest of Wellington. Of course I asked what were they all about? Mike explained, the drills stayed, and the team improved.

The East German system and Mike as a coach, founded their swimming programme on aerobic distance conditioning. The success of their programme was not only about steroids. East Germany invented 100k a week of aerobic conditioning before any of us – even the Australians. I’m not saying steroids were not a cheating method of getting to 100k swum. Of course they were. But swimmers still had to swim the 100k. While the rest of the world thought 60k was a huge week’s work, Mike was at 7,000 feet somewhere in the world churning out 100k. Of course, steroids helped but so did the 100k.  

It is sad beyond belief that the west has blamed drugs as their excuse for losing to East German swimmers. It meant that the legitimate things we could have learned were lost. It was too easy for western coaches to bury their heads in the sand. Drugs excused everything. Don’t think for a second that I am soft on drugs. I’m not. But my contact with Mike showed there was more to East German swimming success than a hypodermic needle full of testosterone.

Mike stayed in New Zealand for three years. He returned to Germany to begin a successful career in sport’s broadcasting. His swim coaching career was the good, the bad and the ugly. And as a result, I learned a lot. I learned what a legitimate future could look like. I learned what dark crimes to avoid. “Silky Horner to the medical centre” is not something you quickly forget. It is sad my country missed the opportunity of Mike’s knowledge and his brilliant coaching brain.

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