Discipline on the Traveling Team

There is a small, well rounded tree at the entrance to the Kiwi Packer Lodge beside the Rotorua Aquatic Center in New Zealand. My team called it the “Jan Tree”. I’m told it’s the tree Jan Cameron, the National Coach hid behind at midnight after the National Championships in 2001 to make sure her athletes never “hit the town”. She remained well hidden, I am told, because of the striking similarity between the trees stature and her own.

There must be as many ways of imposing discipline on a traveling team as there a coaches. I tend to rule with a pretty loose rein.

Don Talbot, Cameron’s ex husband is rumored to have ruled with an iron fist. When Talbot was in charge, members of the Australian team fell into two categories; those that went to bed early and those who were world renowned as masters of deception. The problem for coaches like Talbot and Bill Sweetenham, another Australian tough bugger; is they tend to inspire rebellion or dishonesty.

New Zealand’s best swim coach, Duncan Lang was a hard man too but didn’t impose a rigid set of “Southern Baptist” rules. I went with him to a World Cup Final in Majorca in 1992. He treated the team with trust and dignity. To the best of my knowledge the team’s behavior reflected that trust. I remember Toni Jeffs beating David Wilkie at pool in some bar at 2.00am on the last night, but not before she and every other team member had collected a medal in the Championship Finals. I bet that’s the last time New Zealand managed that at a meet that had “world” in its title.

Duncan could get angry though. He and New Zealand’s best breaststroke swimmer, Paul Kent, had a minor brawl in Rome Airport a few years ago. They exchanged some punches that caused neither of them any harm. Swimming New Zealand was horrified, of course. I thought the skirmish cleared the air wonderfully.

New Zealand’s current Director of Coaching, Clive Rushton, had a difficult situation to deal with a few years ago. On the last night of the Yokohama Pan Pacific Games, a sizable proportion of the New Zealand team appears to have gone right off the rails; throwing up in other people’s rooms, all that sort of thing. Whether the fact Cameron was in charge had anything to do with it I have no idea, but more than a good time was being had by many.

In the past Swimming New Zealand would have sought out the offenders and imposed summary punishment. On this occasion Rushton sent a letter that simply said, he knew what had gone on, he was new to New Zealand, nothing more would happen on this occasion but if it occurred again their would be all hell to pay. I thought it was a terrific letter. It put New Zealand’s swimmers on notice. The responsibility was theirs; obey or perish.

I’ve had a couple of moments of my own. One swimmer on a team I took to the Mare Nostrum meets provided my most remarkable moment. She had been arguing on the bus with the parent of another swimmer. She ended up giving him the stiff middle finger as she climbed from the bus outside our Canet hotel. I got the team’s rooms organized and took the hotel’s tiny elevator to the third floor. As the doors opened I heard and saw my swimmer thumping on one of the doors.

Get out here now,” she screamed, “get out here now. I haven’t finished with you yet. Get the fuck out here now.”

Cut that out. Get to your room.” I yelled above her scream.

I haven’t finished with that fucking bastard,” she shrieked back.

I’ll drag you by your hair out of here,” I threatened.

She seemed to realize I meant it and slunk away, still muttering obscenities. I knocked on the door. Steve was a big guy; about 6ft4, played college football, but I was sure would be hiding petrified at the onslaught on his door. You can imagine my horror when the door opened and two small, elderly German ladies stood on the other side. My swimmer had attacked the wrong door.

It turns out they were in their eighties, in France on holiday and came from the German city of Dresden. Now, I don’t know whether you are aware but on April 16 1945 Dresden was badly bombed by British and American airplanes. Over 5500 tons of bombs were dropped destroying 30,000 lives; 12,000 houses; “24 banks; 6470 shops; 640 warehouses; 31 large hotels; 26 public houses; 18 cinemas; 11 churches; 19 hospitals and 39 schools.”

I asked if the two would like to have a drink in the hotel bar in order that I could apologize properly. They accepted. As we sat there, they told me about that night in Dresden and the unimaginable horror of it all. Then one of them looked thoughtfully at her friend and said a line I will never forget.

That was bad,” she said, “but I think this afternoon was worse.”

I know what I did to discipline the errant child. It caused her parents great stress. In the following month they wrote some 20 emails accusing me of destroying their daughter and their family. One delightful one called me “a horrible lying man.” Before I tell you what I did though; what would you have done? What discipline would you have imposed? I’d really like to know. Next week I’ll post what was actually done in the comments section of this story so we can compare what I did with some alternative views!