A Good Day For New Zealand Swimming

June 11th, 2017

And so Alex Baumann is on his way. Most readers will know that Baumann was an accomplished swimmer. He won five gold medals at the Commonwealth Games and two gold medals at the understrength 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. In February 2012 he was appointed to the position of Chief Executive of High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ). And in September this year he will leave to go and live in Australia with his wife and family.

I see Paul Collins, the Chairman of HPSNZ, has lauded Baumann’s leadership and vision. According to Collins Baumann, “has lifted the bar for high performance sport in New Zealand and built an organization that is among the best in the world.”

I can’t speak for other New Zealand sports but in swimming Collins is talking rubbish. And swimming matters; after all swimming was Baumann’s sport, the sport he was supposed to know best. In my view Baumann’s time in charge has been a disaster for swimming; a disaster which in large part is his responsibility. The buck stops with Baumann and Miskimmin.

Let me set out the reasons I believe Baumann leaving is the best news New Zealand swimming has had for a long, long time. The charges against Baumann are as follows

  1. He has promoted a policy of centralization that has not and cannot work. Around the world the Baumann model, imposed on New Zealand, has been tried and discarded. Successful national programs have encouraged a wide infrastructure of many coaches participating in the national program. In New Zealand Baumann has persisted with the Soviet era model of a single national training center. The role of domestic coaches is primarily to nurture and then supply talented swimmers into the Millennium organization.

For five years, for two Olympic Games, and at a cost of around $9 million New Zealand has doggedly tried to make Baumann’s centralized model work. And it has not. No medals, nothing. In fact New Zealand’s best results have come from swimmers who have broken away from Baumann’s plan and have developed their swimming in Australia or the United States.

I am sure Baumann would have loved to impose a swimming style centralized structure on New Zealand track and field athletics. But he couldn’t. There is no way in the world that Dame Valerie Adams, Nick Willis, Hamish Carson, Tom Walsh, the Robertson brothers, or Camille Buscomb were going to relinquish their independence by accepting a Baumann imposed socialist regime. These fine athletes wanted to preserve their right to prepare in Kenya, or in the state of Michigan, or on a New Zealand farm or in an American University, or on a Swiss mountain. The sad thing about track and field is that the stellar Olympic performances of athletes who rejected the Baumann plan are used by Miskimmin and Collins as evidence that the plan works.

The centralized policy promoted by Baumann in New Zealand swimming is old fashioned, out-of-date, boring, and lacks imagination or initiative. And so good-bye Baumann. You will not be missed.

  1. The greatest damage resulting from the Baumann policy has been the savage undermining of New Zealand coaches. I’m losing count of the coaches that have been brought into the Millennium Institute since Baumann took over at HPSNZ. The best has been a New Zealander, Clive Power. Ironically he came to the rescue when Swimming New Zealand couldn’t find a foreign coach. Power is an excellent coach and clearly shows that New Zealanders are quite capable of coaching their own. But not as far as Swimming New Zealand is concerned. In Baumann’s five years Swimming New Zealand has employed two Australians, a Pom and the current American. Including the New Zealander that’s a coach a year and no one can understand why the sport can’t win anything. I suspect even Phelps would struggle if he changed coaches every twelve months.

The current Head Coach is an American age group club coach. The message Swimming New Zealand is sending to every domestic coach is that none of us are as good as an American age group club coach. The national federation scoured the world and decided that a foreign age group club coach was better than anything available in New Zealand. That is clearly not true and it is about time the New Zealand Coaches Association did something to put right the message Swimming New Zealand seem intent on peddling. The damage to the coaching infrastructure in New Zealand has been serious.

  1. I always felt uneasy about the appearance of divided loyalty when it came to Baumann. It probably did not affect his job in any way, but for me the appearance of carpet bagging was difficult to shake. For example both his children were good enough to swim for New Zealand but were shipped back to swim for Canada. His daughter swims the same events as Lauren Boyle. His son swam for Canada in the Rio Olympics in the same events as Glen Snyders. Who was Baumann supporting in Rio?

And while he was in New Zealand his wife and family home continued on in Australia. As I have said all this may have had no effect on Baumann’s performance. However as the Thomas theorem says – if something is perceived to be true it can be true in its consequences.

And now the news tells me, “The Board will begin a worldwide search to identify the best possible candidate and ensure a seamless leadership transition.” They never learn do they? They are off overseas again to find another foreigner. New Zealand’s most successful sport, rugby, seems to do just fine employing New Zealanders. Swimming must do the same. There is no need, or place, for foreign carpet bagger coaches or administrators. The Boards of HPSNZ and Swimming New Zealand should be ashamed of their worship of things foreign. The cost to New Zealand morale has been too high.

In my opinion the potential opportunities for New Zealand swimming will improve as Baumann’s jet lifts off the runway and heads west out of here.   


Swimming Without Knowledge Is Blind

June 6th, 2017

For three years I studied Political Science and Business Administration at Victoria University in Wellington. An interesting feature of the Business Administration course was the question of how much product knowledge was needed to manage a corporation. Would the boss of Boeing be a better boss if he had a pilot’s license? Did the CEO of the Blue Star Shipping Line need a deep sea captain’s ticket? How much mechanical engineering knowledge was required to manage Ford Motor Company?

My tutors seemed to think that there was no need for a CEO to have the detailed knowledge of a specialist operator. However, they argued, some specialist knowledge was necessary. Effective management required market and customer knowledge and some familiarity with the applicable technology; sufficient certainly to understand the organisation’s specialists. There was no need for the CEO of Boeing to pilot the company’s new aircraft but he did need to understand the information test pilots provided.      

Later experience partially confirmed that view. For several years I was the CEO of New Zealand’s largest exporter of animal by-products. I knew a fair amount about hides, skins, tallow and meat and bone meal. However to a huge extent I relied on product experts. As long as I knew enough to understand their advice we could make good collective decisions.

Since those days I have increasingly changed my opinion. Academically “some specialist knowledge” might be viewed as enough but the best decisions require more than that. Successful management involves having a much deeper understanding of the product; not to the level of a specialist perhaps but certainly a shared understanding, a similar feel for the product, a common language.

And so what does all this have to do with swimming? Well, I have experienced two organisations recently, The Saudi Arabian Swimming Federation and Swimming New Zealand. Both suffer because their CEOs, in my opinion, have insufficient specialist knowledge. In both cases, the problem is made worse by having no one in either organisation capable of providing good technical advice.

Let’s deal with Saudi Arabia first. The CEO there is a New Zealander who prior to Saudi Arabia served as a swimming administrator in New Zealand. Administration is one thing, a deep and abiding understanding of what makes a champion swimmer is something altogether different. In Saudi Arabia the lack of technical knowledge is fatal because the organisation has no specialists. Some foreigners with little technical knowledge are leading a group of Saudis who have no specialist knowledge. The blind leading the blind; at least that’s the impression. And it results in bad decisions. For example huge resources are put into learn to swim on the assumption that if a boy (there are no girls) is taught to swim well he will be better able to achieve elite success. That, of course is nonsense. Swimmers coming from a good learn to swim program will be better prepared for competitive training but if their training is poor they will fail. The problem in Saudi Arabia is that the training senior swimmers receive is rubbish. Around the world good coaches provide a balanced program. That means the aerobic content should occupy 40% of the time, anaerobic content 20% of the time and speed training 40% of the time. The programs I studied in Saudi Arabia provided aerobic training 4% of the time, anaerobic training 38% of the time and speed training 58% of the time.

Anyone providing swimming training in a 4/38/58 ratio will never win a big swimming race, ever. The Saudi Arabian Government spends millions of Riyal sending swimmers all over the world in the hope that exposing them to international competition will lift the standard of the nation’s swimming. But it is wasted money when the swimmers come home and swim in a 96% speed only program. And the problem will not go away. No one in the organization knows there is a problem, let alone possesses the knowledge required to fix it.   

And Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) is no better. There are or were three individuals in SNZ who have an understanding of elite swimming; Clive Power, Gary Hurring and Donna Bouzaid. And SNZ sacked two of them and the third has retired. At the top that has left SNZ with a CEO whose experience on their website is described as “a former New Zealand water polo representative and a titleholder in national surf lifesaving and age group swimming.” None of that is elite swimming. However his experience is probably marginally sufficient for a CEO if he had access to and was getting top flight elite swimming advice. But, in my opinion, the CEO of SNZ is not receiving advice of that calibre. The current Head Coach is an American whose experience in the United States was principally as an age group, local swim club coach. I have a pilot’s license that makes me well able to fly my Cessna Arrow between Auckland and Wellington. I am not however equipped to get anyone to London in an A380 wide body jet.

In my opinion the interests of elite New Zealand swimmers are not being properly managed because no one in the organisation understands their world; no one has the required specialist knowledge. And because of that the decision making process is unsound and the conclusions flawed. And if proof is required just look at the swimming medals won in 2000 in Sydney, in 2004 in Athens, in 2008 in Beijing, in 2012 in London and in 2016 in Rio – oh that’s right, there were none. Five Olympics and 15 million tax payer dollars and no result – something must be wrong. And in my opinion, the blind leading the blind, is a fair conclusion.

On that subject it is relevant to ask, what has happened to the coaching organisation’s initiative to intervene on behalf of Gary Hurring and Donna Bouzaid? There was a lot of noise and bluster when their sackings were announced. Opinions were called for and meetings were held. But since then nothing. I predicted at the time that the coaches association did not have the courage to force real change. Sadly, really sadly, that appears to be the case.   


I Can’t Play The Trumpet

June 5th, 2017

The United States of America has played a huge role in my sporting life. I coached there for seven years; in the US Virgin Islands and in Delray Beach, Florida. There were good times and bad. But the lasting impression was one of, what fun it was to coach some wonderful people. In the Virgin Islands, Fara, Ricki, Nicole and Annie. In Delray Beach Kirstie, Andrew, Doug, Tiffany, Skuba, Rhi, Ozzie, Jamie and John. And they were good swimmers; a world master’s record holder, Florida champions, national qualifiers, national representatives and before I got to Delray Beach Rhi was an Olympic Champion. Good people – all of them. Good times to. Remember when you guys went to Ft Lauderdale and beat all the big hot-shot clubs to win the State 4×100 medley relay championship. Remember the concern in Fara’s voice as she cautioned Annie to, “make good choices, Annie.” Remember the mountain of snow getting to the meet in Missouri. Remember Rhi’s leap and hug almost killing me after a good swim at Ft Lauderdale. Remember afternoons at Buck Island on Karen and Llewellyn’s boat. Remember you guys praying for another afternoon of Florida lightning. Remember Andrew taking down the superstar from up the road to win the Florida State High School title. Remember watching Rocky on Skuba’s parent’s boat and Skuba backing it up with a 50 second 100 meters freestyle. Remember Ozzie breaking two master’s world records. Remember, remember, remember. And it was American swimming that provided my daughter with a university education. The American university scholarship system has played a big role in lifting the standard of swimming in the United States. High school graduates are competing in a world market for scholarships. They are not awarded lightly, but for swimmers like Jane, it is a wonderful way to stay involved in swimming and receive a first class education. And so I have a lot to thank United States swimming for. But it is not just swimming. You see I spent my senior year in high school in Thorp, Wisconsin. Now that really was sporting fun. I was selected as the kicker, punts and field goals, for the school football team. Now I don’t care what sporting achievement you may have experienced. The pinnacle of fame is to be a starter on an American football team; Friday night, under lights, the band, the pep-rally, the cheerleaders, the team Lord’s Prayer before the game and the root beer, hamburgers and music in the takeaway bar after the game. No one, certainly not me, forgets their Homecoming Game, and it wasn’t even my home. And if, like me, you are lucky enough to kick a field goal at a fairly important moment in a close game the adulation knows no limits. And so you can imagine the affection I felt when I received the following email invitation. Thorp High School 50th Class Reunion, July 21st – 23rd 2017 And I am not going to go. Not because of money, or distance, or time, or travel. But as my small contribution to the resistance. For as long as that man is in charge of the White House I will not be visiting the United States. When I fly to England I will avoid the United States by going through Australia and Asia. I will miss the class reunion out of respect for the place the United States was and as a protest for what it has become. When the head of the house promotes grabbing women by the pussy, when he invites to his home Presidents who excuse soldiers who rape women as long as it’s not more than three at a time, when he snuggles up to autocratic monarchs and lectures the elected leaders of Germany, France and the United Kingdom, when he elbows world leaders out of the way to get his picture taken, when he is silent about heroes killed by a white supremacist, when he bans visitors because of their religion, when he shamelessly promotes the cult of himself and when he cuts medicine to a diabetic in order to spend millions playing golf in Florida – when he does all that I cannot lend legitimacy to his behaviour by visiting his place. As George Bush surprisingly and wonderfully put it, “some weird shit” deserves no better. And so I will stay away. I will not go to the class reunion. And I will hope that the good people I met in the United States can do something about the nightmare of their leader. In 1918, the First World War had just ended and the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Lloyd George, said he was going to make Britain a country fit for heroes to live in. My grandfather told me that Lloyd George got it slightly wrong. What he meant to say was, you had to be a hero to live there. That story pretty well sums up the United States right now. And one final thought – at Thorp High School we had a brilliant American History teacher. Mr. Fleming was his name. I have no doubt he would approve. I have no doubt he would join the resistance. And so have a good weekend. It would have been fun. But not just now, thank you.

Saudi Arabia and Donald Trump

May 22nd, 2017

Donald Trump has just left Washington to visit Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are reported to be preparing a red carpet reception. I can believe that. The Saudis and Trump are well suited to each other; in a macabre, terrible sort of way.

Trump will arrive at Riyadh Airport. The Saudis have just built a new terminal building. Like many Saudi public buildings the terminal is grand but austere. In Riyadh there is none of the liquor and cigars gloss of Dubai and Doha. The duty free reminds me of the sparse supermarkets I visited in the Soviet era USSR.

But Trump won’t mind that. He does not drink alcohol and he will not be using the public terminal. In Riyadh they have a huge glass terminal exclusively for private aviation. Trump’s 747 will park alongside a dozen other privately owned 747s. Trump will love it – two families with king complexes; massaging each other’s egos.

But the similarities do not end there. When I lived in Saudi Arabia I was just staggered by the injustice of their society; injustice that was reflected in the administration of swimming. Injustice made worse by the fact that the CEO of swimming was a New Zealander who either could not or did not want to do anything about it.

Let me give you some examples.

The treatment of foreign nationals amounts to racial apartheid. Short term western imports like me are fine. But long term residents live an impossibly segregated life. I know of Egyptian and Syrian families who have lived in Saudi Arabia for twenty years and, because they are not Saudi born, are forbidden from opening a bank account, from purchasing a house and even from using the local public swimming pool.

Just imagine if the New Zealand government announced that Asian immigrants, because of their race, were not allowed to swim in the Henderson, West Wave Pool. Just think of the chaos that would follow Maori being banned from the Auckland, Newmarket Pool. And yet the Saudi government does the equivalent of that all the time and the New Zealand CEO told me he would not do anything about it. With Trump’s attitude to aliens I suspect he will see the Saudi example as a goal for his administration to aspire. After all when so many Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers, why should they swim with real Americans?

And then of course there is the well-known position of women. That amounts to apartheid as well. There are different security queues in the airport for men and women, different standards of dress, different sections of every café and restaurant and different universities. Women are forbidden from using public pools or swimming in the sea, forbidden from driving cars, forbidden from opening a bank account without the approval of a male relative, forbidden from travel without a male chaperone, punished for talking to male strangers, forbidden from taking part in competitive sport and quite unbelievably from even praying in the same room as men – as though God cares.

In matters of gender Trump and the Saudis will not get along. I cannot imagine any Saudi royal supporting Trump’s two most famous quotes “I did try and fuck her. She was married” and, “Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” But although their attitude to women is very different, Trump and the Saudis end up in a similar place. For both of them women are items of property, devoid of rights and stripped of independence.

Although gender equality is a major issue in Saudi Arabian swimming nothing is being done to address the problem. In this world there are those who tackle the big issues with courage and without pause for their own safety. And then there are others who ignore the injustice and cower from conflict. I will leave you to guess which qualities have ruled Saudi Swimming in recent years.

There is always an excuse for doing nothing. I recall the Vanguard initiative being defeated in New Zealand swimming. A pivotal meeting was held in Wellington. It was a “Munich” moment requiring nerve and courage. Sadly it got neither. Today swimming in New Zealand is still suffering as a consequence of that failure and the 2012 constitution it spawned. That inability to lead hurt New Zealand swimming and does not appear capable of solving the two big issues of swimming in Saudi Arabia either.

But back to Trump and the Saudis; probably the most frightening effect of the Trump visit will be the confirmation, in Trumps mind, of the way rulers are supposed to be treated. I have been in Riyadh when the streets for miles around have been closed in preparation for the King’s transit. I have seen his convoy of twenty cars and an ambulance speed through the city. I have witnessed the subservient behavior of citizens to members of the royal family and I have seen the hectares of walled-off palaces in Riyadh and Jeddah.

We know Trump is like a little boy. He will want some of that. He will want CNN to show the servitude demanded of the press in Saudi Arabia where criticism of the government and royal family “are not generally tolerated. Self-censorship is pervasive.”

Fortunately for our world Trump is not going to get what he wants. Sadly for women and foreigners living in Saudi Arabia I suspect they are not either.      


The Start Of Something Extraordinary

May 16th, 2017

“The start of something extraordinary” is the slogan printed on the banner of the Swimming New Zealand website. The slogan is correct: five errors in the news report telling us about the high altitude training camp is certainly extraordinary.  

Then I thought, what would I find if I read the other news items? Perhaps five errors are not the start of something extraordinary. Perhaps that’s Swimming New Zealand’s normal standard.

Here is what I found. Some of my gripes are trivial. They do however add to an impression of an organisation that struggles to get anything right.

Report One – Team for Commonwealth Youth Games announced

This is what the website reported, “Mya Rasmussen with also be one to watch.” What they mean of course is, “Mya Rasmussen will also be one to watch.”

Report Two – Upokongaro School Celebrates Swimming Success

Here is a sentence from their Upokongaro School report.

Upokongaro School also include beach education with Surf Life Saving NZ over summer and prior to conducting any education outside the classroom that are around water, emphasis is made to ensuring students keep themselves safe whether they are in, on or around water.  

That is a mammoth 44 word sentence. The UK Government have rules about this sort of thing. Here is an extract from their blog “Inside GOV UK”.  

Research shows that when average sentence length is 14 words, readers understand more than 90% of what they’re reading. At 43 words, comprehension drops to less than 10%.

Studies also show that sentences of 11 words are considered easy to read, while those of 21 words are fairly difficult. At 25 words, sentences become difficult, and 29 words or longer, very difficult.

Long sentences aren’t just difficult for people who struggle with reading. They’re also a problem for highly literate people with extensive vocabularies.”

Having struggled to keep up with what was happening at Upokongaro School, I agree with the UK Government. Ten percent comprehension? Only if I was lucky.   

Report Three – Swimming’s rising stars bag record haul in Australia

This is a report about the Australian Age Group Championships. It is probably the most serious fault. The headline claims a “record haul” of medals. The text says:

“It brought New Zealand’s tally to a record 18 over the six-day meet”

I thought I’d go back to 2009 and check the past seven years to see if the New Zealand result in 2017 was a record. I only needed to check one year. In 2009 swimmers from NZ won 22 medals at the Australian Age Group Championships. The website claim is not true. It’s an alternative fact. And as Chuck Todd said to Kellyanne Conway, “Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”

But the confusion does not end there. The report then says:

“New Zealand finished the meet with two victories to Crawford and Christchurch’s Hannah Bates, 11 silver medals and five bronze medals, with the medals coming from nine clubs.”

The sentence is not all that long but there are three or four subjects all squashed together that make the whole thing meaningless. Someone needs to tell Swimming New Zealand that it is not necessary to jam every fact into one breathless sentence.  

Report Four – Swift Water Personal Skills Course

Two of the skills taught to members attending this course are described as:

“Move safely in and around a river environment up to grade 2+

Perform non-technical self and peer rescues in a river environment up to grade 2″

Is the river grade “two plus” or “two inches” or both.

Report Five – High Performance Team visit USA

I have already discussed this report. For the sake of completeness I will include the Swimming New Zealand’s report again. Here is what they said:

“Some of the USA’s top swimmers, such as Katie Ledecky, Nathan Adrian and Simone manual were amongst the athletes competing at the meet.

The competition was hosted by the Storied Club Mission Veijo Nandadores.”

Here is what they have wrong in just two sentences.

  1. “Simone manual” is Simone Manuel – that’s two errors
  2. “Storied Club” should be storied club – that’s another two
  3. “Veijo” should be Viejo – and that’s one more

Five errors in 34 words: that is not good. If someone in Swimming New Zealand knows enough about Mission Viejo to call it “storied” you would think they would also know how to spell the club’s name.  

Report Six – Crawford leads further medal haul in Australia

As I have said there is a general impression of incompetence. For example this report says:

“with the competition continuing until Saturday”

And then it goes on to say:

“and continues at the Brisbane Aquatic Centre until Friday.”

And then we are told:

Smith, from the emerging Whangarei club, set a personal best 3:34.03 to finish second in the 16 years 200m breaststroke.”

But in the results we are told:

“16 years: Ciara Smith (Northwave) 200 breaststroke 2:34.03”

I can understand the New Zealand Herald getting a 200 meter breaststroke time wrong by a minute. The national swimming Federation should know better.  

It is not overstating the case to say that when the organisation’s shop window is this sloppy, when they can’t write a report without silly errors, when they lie about their performance: why should anyone trust them with the careers of their children? If a school principal sent a newsletter home with this many errors would you be happy your child was in good hands? Of course not. The message coming from their website is one of confusion, poor performance and incompetence. But does the website simply reflect the organisation in general?