Archive for November, 2010

Auckland’s Swimming League

Saturday, November 27th, 2010

By David

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre

Observe degree, priority and place,

Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,

Office and custom, in all line of order.

Shakespeare knew what was right. I suppose he would not have known that his reference to “centre” would one day be taken to mean the West Wave Aquatic Centre in New Zealand. However he was clearly a man who understood that the universe had a natural order that was best not tampered with. For this reason, regular Swimwatch readers may recall my dismay when I returned to New Zealand and discovered that at Auckland Swimming events our club had been moved from its traditional prime location to some far corner of our home pool. Not much respect for degree, priority and place in all that, I thought. However, today at the Auckland Junior Championships natural order was restored and West Auckland Aquatics assumed its rightful premier position. I am told that in the future we may have to share this spot. But for today all is well; “office and custom, in line of order.”

After the first day’s competition I stayed on to witness the Grand Final of the Auckland Swimming League. What was this new form of swimming like? Did it have something to add to the sport in New Zealand?

But before I consider the League I should discuss a story told to me by two independent competitors and a parent at the Swimming League event. Is it true that the relationship between the New Zealand Head Coach Mark Regan and the General Manager Performance and Pathways, Jan Cameron has deteriorated to such an extent that Regan has already handed in his notice or is about to resign? Were relations between the pair so poor in New Delhi that they could barely communicate? Is Regan going home to Australia for Christmas and not coming back? Is there a possibility that a rift between Regan and Cameron is being covered up while SNZ conclude discussions with SPARC on future funding? Does SNZ consider Regan disposable as it grooms the Millennium Institute for Cameron’s son, Scott Cameron, to assume the top job? If none of these things are true it would do SNZ well to specifically deny and refute each point. It is not good to have that sort of tittle-tattle running around an Auckland swimming pool. Swimming New Zealand cannot possibly want the “Herald on Sunday” to start digging into all this sort of stuff.

If any or all of these tales are true the Board of Swimming New Zealand needs to consider how the affair has been handled. Certainly the suggestion that SPARC is being misled would be most serious for the future of every swimmer involved in the sport. If Regan has resigned it will have a serious effect on the prospects of New Zealand swimmers at the London Olympic Games. Time is short. Two years and another four million dollars will go by very quickly. The position of Swimwatch is only to convey what is being said around the pool in order to allow those responsible to clarify exactly what is going on in the New Zealand High Performance Program. SNZ would do well to remember who is paying for this program.

And so, what did I think of the final of the Auckland Swimming League? There was a huge amount to admire. The atmosphere was great. There was a good crowd. The music was good and loud and exciting. The event attracted a large cross section of new and retired swimmers. The commentary was well informed. The meet was clearly fun. It came very close to merging the excitement of a Don King boxing promotion into a swimming pool setting. A couple of cheer leaders and I’d have felt right back at home in Florida watching the Dolphins and the Jets. The final of the Auckland Swimming League was unquestionably good for swimming.

For the purist however the League Final needed something extra to make it an unqualified success. It had all the hype of a Don King promotion; hype that Don King would have understood. It had an undercard of performance that was probably better than some of the undercards on a King promotion. What the League Final did not have and King always did, was an Ali and a Foreman, two of the world’s best, beating the hell out of each other. The core of a King event was world class. At its heart the core of the Auckland League was mediocre swimming. To be really successful that amount of excitement needs a quality, quality core. A few old Olympians and some out of shape Commonwealth swimmers did not provide enough substance. If the icing is that elaborate, the cake has to taste good as well.

Perhaps the money on offer ($20,000) will improve the quality of future events. However in the League format I think there needs to be a real championship at stake. That would give the new glamour and excitement and participation, the legitimacy of tradition and “real” competition.

It was an interesting evening. And tomorrow we go back to day two of the Auckland Junior Championships and yes our chairs will still be in their rightful spot; observing degree, priority and place.

Flying Friendly Skies

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

By David

Two Air New Zealand 747s are about to bring some interesting cargo to West Auckland. West Auckland Aquatics will benefit by having them here.

Jane is the first to arrive. She comes in from London in three weeks’ time. Coach Kimberly will take training while I wait anxiously at Auckland’s International Airport. The last time I saw Jane was a year ago at Miami Airport. She was on her way back to London after a Christmas visit to Florida. The last time she was in New Zealand was three years ago when she visited Auckland with the CEO of the Seattle search engine optimization company, SEOmoz. And the last time she swam in Auckland was at the 2002 New Zealand Open Championships. She comfortably won the 100 and 200 meters breaststroke championship titles. The wins earned her selection for the New Zealand team to compete in the 2002 Pan Pacific Games in Yokohama, Japan.

Readers will probably recognize Jane as the editor and occasional contributor to the Swimwatch blog. Her last post, “Kickboard Packed” told of story of the effort that had gone into securing a swimming scholarship to study in the United States. I was touched by an email Swimwatch received from a parent in the United Kingdom in response to Jane’s story. In part the email said:

“I well remember one of the most painful days of my life was when I placed my soon to be 18 year old daughter on a plane to the United States travelling a similar journey to Jane’s. I did so (as have so many parents) in the full knowledge that our lives would never be the same again, but that this was necessary for her to provide greater opportunity than she could realize in her home town. In the intervening years the pain has been numbed but still continues and is only off set by the knowledge that for her this was the right thing as there was a limited and restricted future where she was. Like Jane, she was a talented young athlete whose swimming provided a ticket to a new life.”

In 133 words this parent captured perfectly the feeling I had watching Jane catch her flight to Yokohama. As soon as the Pan Pacific swimming was done, Jane was booked on a flight from Tokyo to Seattle to begin four years of University athletics and academic study. The correspondent is right “this was necessary for her to provide greater opportunity than she could realize in her home town; for her this was the right thing as there was a limited and restricted future where she was.”

During Jane’s visit I hope we get the opportunity to spread this British correspondent’s message to the swimmers at West Auckland Aquatics. Swimming can be so much more than training and effort, championships and titles. It can be a passport to an international career; a transformed future. Were all those ten kilometer sessions, or sets of 100x100s, worth it? Were the back-breaking training camps during college–45 degrees Fahrenheit in San Diego on the second of January as you swam endless training sessions outside–worth it? As you holiday in the south of France, or look down on New York City from the Empire State building or jog over Tower Bridge, you can bet that yes, they were.

My second visit to Auckland Airport’s international arrival terminal will be in early January 2011, to collect Rhi. Her father emailed me recently and jokingly asked, “Is New Zealand ready for the arrival of Rhi?” I’m not sure about New Zealand but I can’t wait for this larger than life American to come striding through customs. Rhi is a USA national freestyle champion, a World Long Course Championship gold medalist and she won a gold medal in the 4×200 freestyle relay at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. She swam with me for twelve months or so when I was the coach at her old club in Florida. And there is a lot of swimming left in this talented athlete.

At one US National Championships I had a meeting with the US National Coach, Mark Schubert, to discuss Rhi’s swimming. He was her coach at the University of Southern California. It’s a bit off the subject, but I’d love to know why Schubert has been fired from US Swimming. If it’s a personality fallout between Schubert and US Swimming’s Executive Director, Chuck Wielgus, I know whose side I’m on. Wielgus is an idiot. Isn’t he the one who said that US swimmers never did drugs about a week before Phelps was photographed sucking on a bong? Schubert has forgotten more about swimming that Wielgus has ever known.

Schubert knew Rhi well after their time together at USC. He had also coached many of the world’s best swimmers; Evans, Krayzelburg, Babashoff, Goodell, Benko, Cohen and Sterkell. During the meeting Schubert said, “Without question, Rhi is the most talented swimmer I’ve ever coached.” After coaching her for a year I have some understanding of his opinion. She is a huge talent and can finish a race better than any swimmer in the world. On a good day her last 50 meters is a wonder to behold.

Like all America’s best swimmers Rhi has been through the American swimming mill. It’s a tough place to learn the swimming trade. High school state championships and national records, NCAA nationals, cut throat US Olympic trials, American Nationals and Grand Prix events, Rhi has done them all and has won in them all.

She is the big picture. She has been there. She has done that. She will be good for the swimmers at West Auckland Aquatics. There is more to swimming than local age group events or Swimming New Zealand’s Age Group Championships. Real people can win Olympic swimming gold medals. And there is no better example of that than the American about to arrive in Auckland. Too right we’re ready.

I’m looking forward to the next few months. Two fine athletes, two great people, are certain to make their time here a lot of fun.

Makers, Takers and Fakers

Friday, November 19th, 2010

By David

Sixty percent of Swimwatch readers live outside New Zealand. I would imagine most of them are sick of reading about New Zealand’s Project Vanguard. Come to think of it most of the forty percent that live in New Zealand have probably had enough as well. Our next Swimwatch story will be on another subject. However, and at the risk of alienating everyone, I was at a meeting in Auckland today that was relevant to swimming and added an important insight into the Project Vanguard debate.

The meeting was hosted by Peter Miskimmin, the Chief Executive of the New Zealand government’s sport funding agency, SPARC. Miskimmin spoke for about an hour and for another hour answered a range of questions. I was impressed. First of all the Chief Executive of SPARC was out there talking to his constituents. He hadn’t just sent one of his underlings on a public relations mission. Second he fielded a wide range of questions confidently and sincerely. He is either a bloody good actor or the real deal. Certainly he converted this natural skeptic into a believer. I suspect SPARC are fortunate to have a man of his caliber leading their organization.

In his opening address Miskimmin made a remark that was relevant to swimming. He put up a slide that showed the “normal” organization structure for a sport in New Zealand; national headquarters, regional administration and clubs. He explained this was the traditional structure but a sport like Surf Life Saving (that’s Beach Life Guarding in the USA) had decided to by-pass the regional administration level and had created a new constitutional structure that involved a national headquarters linked directly to individual clubs.

Then he said, and this is a direct quote that I hurried to write down, “Swimming New Zealand” he said, “is actively considering the same thing.” That quote is hugely significant. Miskimmin has clearly been told by Swimming New Zealand that they are promoting a structure similar to Surf Life Saving; a structure that abolishes the sport’s regions in favor of a two tier Club/Head Office organization.

The problem with that is that Swimming New Zealand’s Project Vanguard ambassador, Cathy Hemsworth, is going around the country telling everyone that nothing has been decided, all the options are open and the ideal structure is merely a point on a continuum that has still to be decided. Well, that’s not what Miskimmin thinks. His opinion is that Swimming New Zealand is set on the Surf Life Saving model. Both people cannot be right and I know who I found to be more believable. I think Swimming New Zealand is misleading its constituents – again.

During the meeting’s question time Miskimmin was interrogated further about the structure of the sport’s organization. Did SPARC, he was asked, have a preferred structure? Were they promoting a structure that included a regional level or did they favor the club/national office model? Miskimmin’s reply was unequivocal. SPARC, he said, had no preference. It was up to individual sports to decide what structure best delivered services to their members.

The problem with that is that Swimming New Zealand’s Project Vanguard ambassador, Cathy Hemsworth, is going around the country telling everyone that it is SPARC that is pushing Swimming New Zealand to change its organizational structure. In Auckland Hemsworth came close to suggesting funding from SPARC could be at risk if the organization did not change its current structure. SPARC, she said, was calling for change. Both people cannot be right and I know who I found to be more believable. I think Swimming New Zealand is misleading its constituents – again.

It is appropriate for those who believe in a product to sell it to the best of their ability. Promoting its good points and stressing its advantages are entirely proper. However the Office of Fair Trading tells me that a presentation is misleading if it is likely to deceive its audience; “if it contains false statements of fact; if it conceals or leaves out important facts; if it promises to do something but there is no intention of carrying it out or if it creates a false impression, even if everything stated in it may be literally true.”

I was impressed with Peter Miskimmin. I am confident he was open and honest. I am sure his comments on organizational reform were accurate and reflected his understanding of the discussion going on inside the sport of swimming. Although he did not mention Project Vanguard I had the strong sense that he knew what it was all about.

If my opinion of Miskimmin is accurate, then the Swimming New Zealand’s Project Vanguard road show and SNZ CEO Mike Byrne should expect a call from the Office of Fair Trading any day soon.

Et Tu, Brute

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

By David

The title of this post is probably the most famous three words in literature. It has come through history to mean the ultimate betrayal by a close friend. I thought of the quote when I read an email from a colleague who attended a recent Swimming New Zealand Project Vanguard meeting. In it she told me that Cathy Hemsworth had stressed the importance of Swimming New Zealand’s view that the sport should be nationally led by one organization, with one constitution, one agenda and one set of policies, procedures and rules. If all that sounds slightly Soviet like, don’t be surprised. It is. It is also the ultimate betrayal.

If Swimming New Zealand was doing a sterling job of their current responsibilities there may be merit in them asking for more responsibility; more power. But, that is far from the case. In fact the organization is a shambles. Not because of anything the regions or the clubs have done. It’s a shambles because those responsible for running the organization in Wellington and at the Millennium Institute are doing a really bad job. There are cracks appearing all over the place and they are becoming public – for example.

On Sunday one of New Zealand’s leading newspapers, the Herald On Sunday, devoted an editorial to the problems of Swimming New Zealand. It might be possible for cynics to write Swimwatch off as uninformed. It would be more difficult to make that charge stick against the Herald On Sunday. And yet here is what they had to say:

The old adage is that sunlight is the best disinfectant. You mess up; you fess up. And when it comes to organisations that are funded with public money, the approach becomes more than just good practice: full and frank disclosure is obligatory.

When the main stream press is making that sort of editorial charge Swimming New Zealand has a huge problem. If the Herald On Sunday publically think SNZ plays fast and loose with the truth why should we believe the string of double speak coming out of the Project Vanguard hard sell road show. And it gets worse:

His infraction was described by SNZ chief executive Mike Byrne as “a couple of beers” – a term whose vagueness was always bound to encourage suspicion – and in response to further questions Byrne said: “Our feeling is that the issue is over, done and dusted.”

He was echoed by former head coach Jan Cameron, now a senior SNZ manager, who snidely wondered if the story “keeps going” because there was “nothing on to do with the All Blacks, Kiwis or whatever.”

When the public utterances of Swimming New Zealand’s two most senior managers are described by the country’s most conservative newspaper as vague and encouraging suspicion and snide the Board of Swimming New Zealand would be best to drop the whole Project Vanguard exercise and fix the mess in their own back yard. It would be a folly indeed to entrust even more responsibility to executives whose current performance is the subject of such obvious public question. Clearly Cameron and Byrne have lost the respect and trust of the New Zealand media. And our guess is that it’s only going to get worse.

The Millennium Institute high performance program is the most obvious activity run by the same two executives, Cameron and Byrne. That too is a failure. For all the trust and money put into the project New Zealand has not won a medal at the Olympic Games; in Sydney, in Athens and in Beijing; twelve years, three Olympics, ten million dollars and not a medal of any color.

Cameron and Byrne have spent their days since the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi talking up the New Zealand result. That too has been vague, suspicious and snide. Here is how Swimwatch described what actually happened. “After all the hype has gone; when the dust of superlatives has settled, the reality is that in the last ten Commonwealth Games New Zealand has performed better on six occasions. This meet ranks seventh in a list of ten.”

Whatever Swimming New Zealand and Cameron and Byrne are doing at the Millennium Institute, it isn’t working. I hope she excuses me for using her name, but it was Mellissa Ingram that first alerted me to the fact that all was not well in the Millennium Pool. I have mentioned on several occasions the time I was with US swimmers at the World Cup meets in Moscow, Stockholm and Berlin. Ingram was on her own at the same meets. She was nothing sort of brilliant; confident, tough and assured. She took on and beat the world’s greatest swimmers. Watching her swim reminded me of the days when I’d watched Walker and Quax run in Europe. I was proud to be a New Zealander and made sure my American swimmers knew it.

The next time I saw Ingram swim was at the 2010 Commonwealth Games trials. I have to say she didn’t look a patch on the athlete I’d seen in Europe. She looked hesitant and swam with nothing like the confidence she had shown a year earlier. I saw her swim again on television in New Delhi. There too her performance was cautious and tentative. And yet a week after the Games she went off on her own and swam in the Singapore World Cup meet. And she beat the world. I watched her swim on the internet and she was back to her aggressive and confident best. I could be wrong but my guess is the pressure of Cameron and SPARC and the Millennium gang is killing her and probably a few of her mates as well. I still think she is the world’s best 200 backstroke swimmer. You want her to win in London? For the love of God, send her there on her own. She knows more about what she’s doing than Cameron and all the Millennium gang put together.

Swimming New Zealand’s head office and the swimming portion of the Millennium Institute are not happy places right now. The time and effort of Swimming New Zealand’s Board would be best applied to fixing these serious issues. Certainly Byrne and Cameron should stay well away from the regions and dreams of more power; of one constitution, one agenda and one set of policies, procedures and rules.

The Sound of Something Moving Past Your Window in the Wind

Monday, November 15th, 2010

By David

One of the benefits of writing for Swimwatch is the emails. Of course there are the bad and ugly ones that indulge in mild character assassination. We normally publish these. Almost always they classify Swimwatch as swimming porn opened once by mistake when it was delivered to their address in a plain brown envelope.

More interesting are the good emails that inform and add to our understanding. Normally we do not publish these emails. They could compromise the identity of the individuals who wrote them. There are some out there who would regard their content as sedition and could well seek to exact revenge.

We received two emails this week from observers at Project Vanguard meetings held in the same week as the Auckland meeting. It seems that, since the Auckland “coming out” ceremony, Swimming New Zealand’s presentation has had a makeover; actually more like major cosmetic surgery. Their presentation has reinvented itself. Club Centric no longer exists. The new model is PSDM; a vehicle not mentioned in Auckland two days earlier. Don’t know what PSDM means? Well it’s “Professional Services Delivery Model”. Several other changes to Cathy Hemsworth’s presentation are clearly attempts to repair areas of weakness that caused embarrassment and lost credibility in Auckland.

For example there is now a full resume of the Swimming New Zealand Board; a big pre-empt on the competency charge. An abundance of formal qualifications and strategic thinkers means we can confidently buy a used car from them. Further they are saying PSDM will eliminate the “revolving door” of volunteer administrators. That is simply not true. No amount of PSDM will eliminate the need for volunteers. Besides, any implied criticism of volunteers is obnoxious.

In a stunning reversal and in just two days, Swimming New Zealand has moved from having no idea what their new organization will look like to launching an established organizational model with job descriptions that promote career opportunities in the world of PSMD. At the Auckland meeting they had no information on what the new organization would cost. In the same two days, Swimming New Zealand has produced a financial model that assures us that all this will cost not one cent more than is being spent now. What do they say? If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Best of all, the new presentation assures us that every region’s identity will be retained. Not every region’s power, just their identity. According to Swimming New Zealand the problem is not that your region is weak. It’s those pesky regions down country that are the problem. It appears Swimming New Zealand think dysfunctional and rural are synonyms. That’s why all we need to do is get behind the greater good; to enter the brave new world of the “Professional Services Delivery Model”. Perhaps we’ll hold off on that used car after all.

Even this week’s negative emails had one positive outcome. They alerted us to shortcomings in the Swimwatch discussion of Project Vanguard. We should explain. The Swimming New Zealand Constitution provides swimming regions with three categories of power; operational, ownership and governance.

Operational refers to the huge volume of swimming related tasks performed by the New Zealand regions. Preparing an annual calendar, organizing swim meets, holding championships, selecting and entering regional teams, maintaining age group and open records, preserving the district’s swimming history, recommending life members, conducting hearings on matters of discipline and so on, are all in this category.

Ownership is similar to operational but refers to the administration tasks associated with managing non-swimming matters; for example banking, minute taking and conducting regular Board Meetings and Annual or Special General Meetings. Most regions have fixed assets that need looking after. In Auckland, for example, care of timing and scoreboard equipment at the West Wave Pool is a significant regional ownership duty.

Governance is completely different. This is the constitutional power awarded to the regions to nominate and elect Swimming New Zealand’s Board; to be the primary members of Swimming New Zealand; to attend and vote at the Swimming New Zealand Annual meeting; to alter the Swimming New Zealand Constitution and to generally exercise oversight of the actions of the Swimming New Zealand Board and its executive. Swimming New Zealand is responsible to its members and, at its most immediate, that’s the regions.

Swimwatch is not a reactionary force of darkness; opposing all change. Generally Swimwatch support and encourage most changes that seek to improve the operational performance of the regions. No one would suggest the administration of swimming in New Zealand has reached a state of nirvana. Shambles like the unfinished database project demonstrate the need for reform in the sport’s operational performance.

Ownership issues tend to be more “legal” in nature and consequently involve more careful reform. However, here too there is scope for the sport to do things better. Good change should be encouraged. If there are better ways for the sport to exercise its ownership responsibilities then they should be welcomed. Certainly Swimwatch would endorse that position.

It is in the specific area of governance that Swimwatch have a problem with Project Vanguard. Swimming New Zealand are using the need for operational and perhaps some ownership reform to overturn the region’s constitutional role in the sport’s governance. SNZ management is improperly linking operational and ownership changes with a push to abolish the region’s governance role. They want out from under the constitutional scrutiny of the regions and are randomly mixing operational and ownership issues in order to achieve their core governance wish. They know most of us support operational reform and will probably let their constitutional change pass in order to get it. That is cynical should not be allowed. The constitutional role of the regions in the governance of swimming is a most important safeguard. It protects the sport from the possibility of a central administration using unfettered powers in ways that are bad for the sport and its members. The regional governance safeguard must be preserved.

Swimwatch support operational reform. However, we are concerned that the present Board and management of Swimming New Zealand want the oversight role of the regions removed. Because they want it removed is reason enough for every region to make sure it stays exactly where it is.