Archive for May, 2010

It’s Official

Monday, May 31st, 2010

By David

My New Zealand doctor warned me that the new blood pressure drug he was recommending could result in strange, very vivid dreams. I didn’t believe the guy. That sort of psychological claptrap doesn’t happen to a bloke who enjoys a New Zealand pie or likes nothing better than watching the Steelers play the Bears on a wet, bitterly cold afternoon in Chicago. I was wrong.

During most of last night I was the laundry minder for senior athletes on the world track series. I wandered through China, two or three Middle East nations and most of Europe taking care of dirty track suits and cleaning Nike running spikes. I am pretty certain the last thing the world’s best track athletes want is some West Auckland swimming coach anywhere near their laundry. And for even dreaming this invasion I apologize. Perhaps the very long day I had at a swim meet yesterday had caused my mind to wander.

Actually it was an interesting day that once again highlighted the distinction between good officials and those who should really be doing something else. In Florida a chap called Jay Thomas was one of the best. I believe his job as an American Airlines senior Captain contributed to his calm handling of a dozen of swimming’s minor crises. If a flock of geese decided to fly through the engine of my airplane above New York, I’d be happy if Jay Thomas was up front taking care of business. The way he handled the Meet Manager job when two 50 meter pools were going flat out was better entertainment that watching the swimming.

I did not feel the same about another Florida swimming official, Leslie Lunak. Several years ago we had a debate about a swimmer’s entry at a swim meet. After it was sorted out she offered to shake hands and said clearly and in front of others that the matter ended there. A week later she complained to the President of Florida Gold Coast that I had argued with her. He is now in jail but at the time he sent me a letter saying “don’t argue with officials”, which is ironic given that the real moral of the story is “don’t trust Leslie Lunac”.

Anyway yesterday, after a very good swimmer was disqualified, the question of the timing of the fly kick in the breaststroke pull out became relevant. The rule in question was FINA rule 7.1. This is what it says.

SW 7.1 After the start and after each turn, the swimmer may take one arm stroke completely back to the legs during which the swimmer may be submerged. A single butterfly kick is permitted during the first arm stroke, followed by a breaststroke kick.

The question was whether the fly kick was still legal if it was performed after the swimmer had completed the pull but still has their arms extended downward along their sides. In other words was the stroke “completed” after the pull or after the pull and the recovery of the arms to the extended above the swimmers head position? If the pull and recovery represented a full stroke then a “late” kick was legal. If just the pull represented a full stroke then a late kick was a DQ offence. Rule 7.1 is ambiguous on this point.

The responsible official at the Auckland meet was a lady called Jill. She’s been an official in Auckland for as long as I can remember. She also has the quiet, honest demeanour of a Jay Thomas; a quality acquired, I suspect from a life time of listening to excited coaches, parents and swimmers argue their cause.

In this case she asked to see the swimmer do the turn with the “delayed” kick in the pool’s diving well. She went and consulted the meet’s senior officials and came back with a decision that the word “stroke” in the FINA rule included both the pull and recovery stages. Therefore a fly kick done between the two stages was legal. It was still being done part way through the single stroke. Just as important as the outcome was the way the question was handled. No one was threatened; no one’s integrity was being questioned. An interesting interpretation of the rules was being resolved. And that’s the way it should be.

It is off the subject but an area where New Zealand swimming has it all over the Americans is in the disqualification procedure. In New Zealand every athlete gets a signed form detailing the offence, the Rule number, the name of the IOT and Referee and their signature. In other words New Zealand does what FINA rules require. In America that might happen at the National Championships but in most other meets the first the athlete knows of their crime is when their name appears on the list of results with the dreaded initials DQ. Even then it can take a full FBI and CIA investigation to find out what the DQ was for. I had a relay team disqualified in Florida once and only heard about it a week later through one of the swimmer’s parents. I complained only to discover the parent had got the cause of the disqualification story completely wrong. That whole mess could have been avoided if the meet officials had handed out properly completed disqualification forms.

An official in Florida told me they could not complete and distribute the forms because the meets in the US were so huge. That’s just nonsense. If it’s worth putting on a meet its worth doing properly. Disqualifying someone can be quite traumatic. Officials need to explain why they made that decision. If yesterday is anything to go by they seem to be able to do it well in Auckland, New Zealand. They should be able to do it just as well in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Auckland Swimming

Monday, May 24th, 2010

By David

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

Not, as you may believe the Tale of Two Cities, but certainly a proper explanation of the last three weeks gradually and inadequately catching up with a new swim team and its community.

Peter Heidenstrom wrote a very fine book about New Zealand athletics,”Athletes of the Century: 100 years of New Zealand track and field”. In it, he talked about Alison’s running career, and concluded by writing:

Alison is my favorite kind of athlete. In 1969, she was one of those television likes to call rubbish. It took her ten years but she became one of the best in the world. As Shakespeare put it, `We know what we are but know not what we might be.’ Wright had the strength of character to stick at it and find out.

All coaches should aim to have the same thing written at the end of every swimmer’s career, whether they retire as an Olympic champion, a provincial finalist or merely someone who gave their best. If they have explored their potential, the provincial finalist, the Olympic champion and the also-ran have shared a common experience. We have initiated some changes that will offer the swimmers in our Auckland team that opportunity. They will have the chance to swim international training distances and serve appropriate gym time. There is a long way to go. In three weeks we have one swimmer who has managed a creditable weekly distance of 67 kilometers. However, the top 10 senior swimmers still only average 30 kilometers a week. This needs to improve if the group is to “share a common experience”. There may be a long way to go but we are on our way and that’s exciting.

In the past three weeks I have met with representatives of Swimming New Zealand, Auckland Swimming and the local surf life saving community – and I’ve learned plenty. For example I didn’t know that the number of New Zealanders registered as competitive swimmers had declined in recent years to the same level as the number of registered rowers – that’s “crew” for American readers. In an effort to address that worrying decline Auckland Swimming have introduced a swimming league designed in part to provide a link between learn to swim and full on competitive swimming. In Florida the “Sizzler” series of meets do the same thing and operated on similar rules. The League and Sizzler meets are a good concept. They fill the important function of introducing learn to swim graduates to competitive swimming without the massive array of rules that control the real thing.

I am doubtful whether the League and Sizzler meets will increase participation or reduce the sports dropout rate on their own. Many years ago I had lunch in Wellington with the General Manager of the Governments sport’s funding agency, The Hillary Commission. We spent most of that lunch debating whether role models or League and Sizzler type events were more valuable in promoting participation. He was all for the League idea. I was all for role models. We were both wrong. A sport needs both. Just look at the effect Michael Phelps has had in increasing participation in competitive swimming in the USA. They even call it the Phelps effect. The increased participation in rowing in New Zealand is clearly linked to the sport’s stunning international success. The League is a great concept but will struggle to be truly successful while the sport in New Zealand fails to show youngsters what the top of the mountain looks like. Swimmers in my Gold Squad weren’t even born when New Zealand won its last Olympic medal. All they have known is a series of excuses – “next time we’ll do better”. They could well be excused for wondering if it is even possible to win an Olympic swimming race from New Zealand. I think the League is a great concept but I also think there is another side to the participation enigma that is in need of some attention.

It may also be good to think up a more exotic name for the Auckland series than the League. For example Sizzler has more ring but the Americans already own that name. What about Marvel, or Spotlight or Springer? I don’t know, but something more exotic may be better suited to what the event is trying to achieve.

For years New Zealand and Australian surf lifesaving clubs and competitive swim teams have had an uneasy relationship. When I went to Australia and swam in Don Talbot’s swim squad it was a capital offense to be seen at the beach. In New Zealand many swimming clubs still cling to that way of thinking. Surf Clubs (in the US they are called Beach Lifeguard Clubs) are the enemy. Best to keep your sons and especially your daughters away from the unsavory influence of those beach bum types.

I’ve never agreed with that view. Lydiard was primarily a track coach. His successes on Olympic tracks in Rome, Tokyo, Munich and Montreal were evidence enough of his bias towards the sport taking place on a 400 meter circuit. That did not prevent him supporting cross country running. In fact he promoted this version of the sport as a hardening up and toughening exercise for his track runners. I agree with that view. The winter Alison won her first UK track title she was also Scottish cross country champion and ran in the world cross country championships in Spain. I see no reason why some involvement in surf competition cannot benefit a swimmer whose primary interest is in competitive pool swimming. I’ve seen no evidence that suggests swimming an occasional surf race for Piha Surf Club in any way reduces your chances of swimming 46 seconds for 100 meters freestyle. Certainly there is no reason not to welcome surf swimmers into any pool’s competitive training group. So if there happen to be any surf types reading Swimwatch – there is a warm pool and home for you at our Club.

Swimming in New Zealand is different from the US. I have a lot to learn. Thank you to those who have helped me in this past three weeks. But most of all thank you to the team who are putting up with the new ways – for better or for worse – of the new coach.

Coffee with the Minister of Sport

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010

By David

Since I’ve been back in New Zealand I’ve heard Swimwatch opinions on the administration and funding of sport described as disagreeable and vexatious. They are not. They are sincere views expressing concerns about the future of this sport. They could be wrong. They are certainly not written on tablets of Mt. Sinai stone. And they should not be a cause for personal attacks that put at risk employment and livelihood. Two days after I arrived back in New Zealand I received a call from a lady based in rural New Zealand who said she would like to meet me in a down town coffee shop because she didn’t want to be seen talking to me at a swimming pool. “There are some people,” she said, “who have not forgotten your Swimwatch articles.” Her concern bordered on fear. I declined the invitation. The views expressed here are no reason to hide in central city coffee shops.

If they were a New Zealand Minister of State and some main stream journalists will soon be spending a lot of time in Starbucks. The May 9th edition of the New Zealand Sunday Star-Times, contained a report by Greg Ford. Here, in part, is what it said:

“Sports Minister Murray McCully appears set to implement sweeping changes to how taxpayer money is spent on sport which could threaten of Sparc and the New Zealand Academy of Sport. McCully has taken the rare step of personally intervening in a bid to coax Fouhy out of retirement. Their alliance could have far-reaching effects for sport. Having also met with Olympic Gold Medalists, Valerie Vili and Hamish Carter, the Star Times understands McCully has endorsed theirs and Fouhy’s ideas on how high performance should be funded.

They believe the sector has become weighed down in bureaucracy, is inflexible and needs streamlining if New Zealand is to be competitive on the international sporting stage.

Sparc hands over about $42M a year in high performance funding to national sports organizations. They in turn use most of that money to fund high performance programmes, pay coaches, athletes and travel expenses.

But McCully believes some sports administrators have formed their own private fiefdoms and exert unhealthy amounts of control over public funds and taxpayers and athletes deserve a more transparent and flexible funding model. National sporting organizations are nervous about the changes because they could erode their influence of top athletes. If they fall out with their national body, their funding life-line has, in the past, been cut. In the future if they fit within certain criteria they will be able to short-circuit that process and apply directly to the one-stop-shop funder for resources.

As well as cutting out the double handling of funds, McCully wants these athletes to be able to apply for funding in 4 year blocks, to match the Olympic cycle. He told one source that it was “crazy top athletes dreams could be shattered on a single year’s performance.”

I agree with the thrust of the Ford article. That is not strident or revolutionary or a cause to be branded a trouble maker. It is simply an alternative point of view on how to best win Olympic swimming races. New Zealand has not done that since 1996. And even then it was done by a comparatively loner coach and his talented student in far off Dunedin. There were no pathway initiatives or centralized elite training squads when Duncan Lang was around. Like it or not though he got the job done.

It is not unreasonable for Swimwatch or anyone else involved in this sport to wonder if there is a better way than the course we are on at the moment. It is no secret that Swimwatch support the principle of a diversified regional team based program similar to that proposed by Arthur Lydiard and implemented by him successfully in Finland. We agree with Natalie Wiegersma; its “bloody good” down there in Southland. That may be branded as vexatious by those committed to the status quo. But it’s not. It is simply another way. One that we think will yield better returns; a better pathway perhaps. The elite athlete initiative being suggested by McCully is also a good one. Obviously Swimwatch agree with his concern. We also support the solution suggested in the Ford article. We’ve been saying so for about four years.

The Best of Junior Swimming

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

By David

The Auckland Swimming Center in New Zealand had their monthly Division Three meet this weekend. That’s the same meet Florida swimming call a Sub-JO Meet. I was interested to see how the American and New Zealand versions compared. My new club had nine swimmers competing; Cormac, Hana, Teigan, Ella, James, Bayleigh, Aimee, Brianna and Kiki.

The meet in Auckland was smaller than the average Florida Sub JO. Population probably accounts for a portion of the difference. However junior participation is important and the New Zealand meet was smaller than I expected. The last Sub JO meet I went to in Florida had 863 entries. I don’t know how many there were today in Auckland but it was a lot less than that number. Next month our club will have to double our entries to do our bit to increase the involvement of the area’s junior swimmers.

The smaller numbers did have one blessing. The meet was done and dusted in a bit over three hours; a vastly more enjoyable experience that the two day, 8.00am to 3.00pm, marathons I’ve been to in Florida. Somewhere between the two extremes there has to be a size that combines the best possible participation with an acceptable time commitment.

In New Zealand there has clearly been an effort to diminish the formality of the occasion. For example the meet did not use the pool’s electronic timing or score board and boys and girls swam in the same races. I thought the standard of stroke and turn judging in New Zealand was more appropriate to this level of competition. On several occasions I noticed Auckland officials overlook minor infringements that would have received the ultimate sanction in the United States. That might be a swimming thing or could simply reflect New Zealand’s more caring society.

Given the effort to diminish the formality of the New Zealand meet, it is odd that they persist with a full marshalling process. That convention has long been discarded by most meets in the United States where Clubs are responsible for getting their swimmers to the start. In this instance I like the American system. It encourages swimmers to take responsibility for getting to the start of their race and prepares them for the procedure used in most Grand Prix, World Cup and Mare Nostrum international meets.

The New Zealand meet was quieter than the American version. That is hardly surprising. New Zealanders are a more reserved people and America is the home of loud sporting cheers. However, I might encourage our guys to be a bit more vocal. I’m not promoting the mass hysteria practiced by some American teams. Thank God, that would never work here. Some vocal team support wouldn’t hurt though. After all, it is a sporting contest not a Sunday morning church service.

In Auckland and in Florida ribbons are presented to those swimmers who placed in each race. At this level of competition I prefer the award procedure that used to be practiced in New Zealand’s Wellington swimming center. Ribbons, there, were awarded to swimmers who swam personal best times. The sticker on the back recorded the swimmer’s event and their new personal best. It was possible to be last in a race and still be rewarded for a PB. It was also possible to be first and miss out. I liked the concept. I think it better rewarded personal effort. Some readers will probably brand this as bleeding heart, “no one should lose” liberalism. I don’t agree. At any level of competition a personal best is a win and should be recognized.

The differences between the meets could not disguise one overwhelming similarity. The enthusiasm, application, nervousness and standard of swimming of your average pre-teen American and New Zealander were common and infectious. New Zealand’s senior swimmers might not be able to match the speed of Phelps, Lochte, Hoff, Piersol, Coughlin and Schmitt but it’s not through any difference at this level. In fact I thought the standard of starts and turns, stroke mechanics and fitness on display in Auckland were probably marginally ahead of what I’d seen in my seven years watching Sub JO swimming in the United States. The inevitable conclusion is that somewhere between the enthusiastic events in Auckland this afternoon and swimming in the Olympic Games the Americans are doing it better.

So, thank you Cormac, Hana, Teigan, Ella, James, Bayleigh, Aimee, Brianna and Kiki for a great afternoon’s entertainment. See you at practice on Monday as we prepare to do just a bit better at next month’s Division Three meet. Who knows one day you may be able to take on the next generation of American stars.

Sausage Sizzle

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

By David

Lincoln Road in Auckland has had its share of publicity this week. A forest of newsprint has been devoted to discussing the opening of a new brothel, located directly across the road from the Henderson Intermediate School. For readers outside New Zealand brothels are legal here. But there are better spots than across the road from a school. The Deputy Mayor defended the situation. She claimed that the entertainment offered was allowed in this particular zone. One is tempted to ask. “And what particular personal zone is that, Madam Deputy Mayor?” There was, she said, no option but to let it proceed.

In spite of what some of you may be thinking, my visit to Lincoln Road was not prompted by the presence of this new Auckland attraction. I did however drive past. I do hope what happens inside is more exciting than the exterior. It’s a fairly boring brick house with a small “Massage” sign in the window. Some wag has brightened the place up with graffiti. “Make Love Not War” has been spray painted on a white bill board outside. I had to smile as two Mormon missionaries leaned over their bikes inspecting the new sign.

Sure enough right across the road is the Henderson Intermediate School. I’m pretty liberal when it comes to these sorts of things but in this instance local by-laws should have required a more suitable location.

My destination however was further along Lincoln Road; past the motel Alison and I stayed at for a week when we arrived from the United States and past netball courts filled with a thousand girls playing the game at which New Zealand is second best in the world. The Australians seem able to beat us at netball no matter how hard we try. My goal was the Lincoln Road Mitre10. For American readers Mitre10 is New Zealand’s Home Depot. The Lincoln Road store is huge. It has a children’s play area, a café, a massive garden center and you could build and furnish the Empire State Building with what they have in the main store.

Outside the store’s main doors Mitre10 have built a small log cabin hut. They donate the site to local charities each weekend to use for cooking and selling sausages, wrapped in bread and covered in onions, tomato sauce, English mustard and Anchor butter. It’s become so popular that there is a one year wait between making a booking and your turn to sizzle. Last weekend was my new swim team’s turn. I arrived at lunch time on Saturday knowing that no one could object to this break in diet. After all it was for a good cause. For $1.50 each I bought two of these gourmet delights. They were fantastic.

New Zealand does sausages really well. I’m sure it’s because meat here is in plentiful supply. The sausages are stuffed full of real meat. There’s barely room left for the soy and wheat fillings that ruin a good sausage elsewhere. I’m sure that Vegetarian Societies the world over cower in fear at the carnivorous onslaught of a New Zealand sausage. Honestly, if you live somewhere else, it’s worth the airfare and the 14 hour flight to New Zealand just to sample the sausages, especially the ones cooked by the swim team on Lincoln Road. Actually I happen to know these sausages were provided by another New Zealand institution, The Mad Butcher. He sells them to local charities in lots of 300 sausages for $35.

By the time I got to Mitre10 the sausage sizzle was doing a brisk trade. As Zane, one of the team’s better swimmers, said, “My God, it’s fantastic, we’ve got a queue.” And so they did. By 1.00pm the first 300 sausages were gone and Kirstie’s Mum was off to the Mad Butcher to get a second 300. It looked to me like her bag of onions was not going to last much longer either.

All this activity highlighted an important message. We might have SPARC funding and grants and dozens of full time paid people, like me, but without the parents of Zane, Kirstie, Justin, Sarah and a crowd of others the whole thing wouldn’t work. They cook sausages, do the GST returns, answer letters, pay coaches and apply for grants. And usually they do it for nothing, just so their children can have a chance at doing well in sport. Some of New Zealand’s proudest sporting moments; moments equal to and often better than anything we achieve today, were financed by a sausage sizzle. And we would be best not to forget that.

Anyway I have to stop now. Its lunch time on Sunday and I’m off back down to Lincoln Road, past its mini red light district, to Mitre10 for two more giant New Zealand sausages.