Make Our Country Good & Great

By David

I am about to write another story on swimming in New Zealand. My warning is intended to protect readers, sick and tired of me lamenting this subject. If you are one of those who harbor animosity towards my despair for swimming in New Zealand you are not alone. Just about every person involved in the Swimwatch blog hates it when I write on this subject. They say things like, “You’ve said it all before. What good does it do?” Some are even generous enough to argue that Jan Cameron’s organization should be given more time. However in spite of your dismay and their opposition there are things that need to be said and repeated until someone stops the current waste of money and talent.

All this has been highlighted by New Zealand’s performance in the Rome World Championships. After Beijing, New Zealand’s national coach, Jan Cameron, told us to wait until Rome. New Zealand was on the verge of greatness. Well Rome has come and gone and greatness has eluded us again. No one made it through to a final. Four swims got as far as the semi-finals. New Zealand’s best placing was eleventh. However I want to be very clear, I am not apportioning any criticism to the swimmers. For years they have been let down by Cameron and the failed policy she has imposed on swimming in my country. Let me explain:

Since before the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Cameron has been in control of swimming in New Zealand. That means she was responsible for the nation’s results in 2000 in Sydney, 2004 in Athens and 2008 in Beijing. At World Championships she was in charge in 2001 in Japan, 2003 in Barcelona, 2005 in Montreal, 2007 in Melbourne and 2009 in Rome. That’s eight shots at it and she’s still hasn’t won a race.

Worse than that, is the reason for her poor performance. When Cameron first announced her plans Lydiard said to me they would debilitate the sport of swimming in New Zealand for a generation. Cameron convinced Swimming New Zealand to support the formation of an elite center for swimming on Auckland’s North Shore. For Auckland, New Zealand read Potsdam, East Germany and you will be close to the idea. SPARC and Swimming New Zealand resources were focused on the goal of creating a swimming empire on the other side of Auckland’s Harbor Bridge. Good swimmers from all over the country were encouraged to leave their home coach and swim in Auckland. And they did leave. Swimmers from Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Carterton, Rotorua and Hamilton made the journey north.

There were and still are two really bad bits to all of this.

First, hovering above the whole scheme was the unasked specter of what happens if the coaching at the elite center isn’t all that good? Cameron has employed a variety of coaches – including, in the best spirit of nepotism, her son. The only evidence we have of their ability is their performance on the world stage. As I have already explained, in the last nine years, they have been in that theatre eight times and have not won a medal. For a normal Club team that record would not be a concern. But when this team has been the recipient of the national swimming resources based on repeated promises of success, their performance is a disgrace. They have had access to bucket loads of talent and cash and have returned empty handed. If their recent coaching record is the measure, New Zealand’s best swimmers have been poorly served.

Second, while all this attention has been focused on Cameron’s grandiose schemes in Auckland, what has happened in the rest of the country? Well, they’ve been starved for cash and talent, that’s what’s happened. Worse than that, some very good regional coaches have been reduced to age group instructors for the North Shore talent pool. Who’s to say some coach in Gisborne isn’t better at training an Olympic Champion than one of Cameron’s coaches. The Gisborne coach certainly couldn’t do much worse.

Lydiard recognized the debilitating consequences of Cameron’s plan. Coaching in the rest of New Zealand would get weaker and weaker. And he was right. Swimming in New Zealand has been weakened as a result of Cameron’s folly. A few years ago, if New Zealand had been operating the Cameron way, there would have been no Loader, Simcic, Winter, Paul Kent, Mosse, Bray, Kingsman, Jeffs, Hurring, Perrott or Langrell. They all trained and prospered with their regional coach. As a direct result, numerous regional coaches had first hand experience of handling world class swimmers. Swim coaching throughout the country was stronger. In my case, my athletes have taught me as much about coaching as I ever taught them about swimming. That’s all a thing of the past. And the country will not recover quickly.

The alternative was to do what Lydiard did in Finland and Sweetenham did in the UK. What they understood was that to win major international events required improving all the nation’s coaches. That had to be the priority. Centers of excellence were fine but not at the expense of improving coaching everywhere. Lydiard traveled the length and breadth of Finland changing attitudes, lifting standards. He did not try and do it himself. But he did make sure dozens of other coaches were ready to do it where ever the next Loader appeared. And it worked. Finland won the 1500, 5000 and 10000 at the Munich Olympic Games, not with athletes coached by Lydiard, but with athletes whose coaches had been tutored by this master coach. Lydiard avoided the temptation to build a monument to ego. Instead he built the coaching resources of an entire country. There were coaches everywhere capable of nurturing an Olympic champion. And that is just what they did.

For nine years New Zealand has won nothing. We do however have a monument to ego and its not working.