Guard Pacific’s Triple Star

By David

The New Zealand National Spring Championships have just ended. As normal the Championships displayed promise and hope. As usual they evidenced flaws. There is one failing in particular that is cause for concern.

In a recent Swimwatch article titled “Make our Country Good and Great” we argued that the policy being followed in New Zealand by Jan Cameron was fundamentally flawed. Her intention was to concentrate talent and resources on Auckland’s North Shore. She called it the International Training Center (ITC) and from its well financed pool international champions would flow. That hasn’t happened. I know of several prominent coaches who predicted the plan’s failure. Foremost among them was someone who really knew his stuff when it came to winning Olympic gold medals – Arthur Lydiard.

Arthur argued that sporting success required the person doing Cameron’s job diversify and strengthen swimming throughout the country. He did not want to see Emily Thomas shipped up to Auckland. He wanted to see her Gisborne coach provided with the skills and money to take her to Olympic success in Gisborne. Burmester should have been able to and encouraged to stay in the Bay of Plenty, Fitch in Hamilton, Benson in Hastings and a dozen others in their home town with skilled and well funded coaches who had probably been with them since before they could swim.

Why was Arthur right and Cameron wrong. Well, you see a fundamental law of elite sport is that “to compete successfully requires competition – lots of competition.” Cameron’s plan has stifled competition. The very life blood that makes the whole thing work has been drained. The table below illustrates the point. It examines the results of three national championships – New Zealand, the United States and Australia.

And so you can see the dramatic effect Cameron’s policies have had on the competitiveness of swimming in New Zealand. In the USA 14 clubs shared the spoils of 24 races and in Australia 14 clubs shared 34 gold medals. In New Zealand only nine clubs were good enough to be home to one of 34 national champions. The very best and most competitive club in the USA could win only four national titles. In a country where powerful clubs like Stanford, Longhorns, Baltimore, California, Trojans and others are well financed and well coached, none of them could dominate their National Championships. The very best could win only 15% of the races on offer. The situation in Australia is the same. The most successful club won only five races, also 15% of the total. In both countries competition is cut throat and close. That’s called being competitive.

In New Zealand on the other hand one club, North Shore, won 15 of the 34 races or 44% of the total senior races swum. The points gap between North Shore and New Zealand’s second placed club was a stunning 278 points; more points than the second placed club managed to score. In the United States the points gap between the first and second place clubs was just 30 points; once again close and competitive.

The really sad thing about all this is that there are many in New Zealand who point to the dominance of North Shore as a sign of strength. A strong North Shore is a strong New Zealand, we’re told. We need to centralize the way the East Germans used to, they say. Cameron got her national job on the basis of her clubs dominance so of course she was going to stay with what she knew. It brought personal success before, perhaps it will again.

Unfortunately for my country her job had changed. A National Coach is responsible for strengthening the whole country. Cameron’s job was not to have her old club win 15 of 34 medals. Her job was to strengthen swimming throughout the country so that North Shore could win only four or five races. A National Coach is responsible for building swimming in Wellington, Hamilton, Auckland, Dunedin and Hastings so that only a few points separate the nation’s top clubs. A National Coach strengthens a country not a club. The closer the competition from clubs throughout the country; the more difficult it is for North Shore to win anything, the better. A successful National Coach makes the sport more competitive. And the data on this table shows that has not been done. The lopsided dominance of one club is New Zealand’s weakness and the National Coach’s failure.

It is a serious failure. At some stage another mentor will take over the position of National Coach. It is my hope that North Shore will still win the points and medals table. But it is my wish also that they only win by the slimmest of margins. I hope Neptune, Capital, Enterprise, United and my old club Comet are so strong and so tough that every National Championships is a fight for every last point; for every last medal. The coach that achieves that will have strengthened swimming in a manner that will result in Olympic winners.