Archive for March, 2013

No New Beginning

Saturday, March 23rd, 2013

By David

Swimming New Zealand is spinning the “new beginning” line for all its worth. A couple of the speakers at the opening of the National Championships referred to the “difficult times” of the past and the exciting prospect of this Championship’s “new beginning”. It is embarrassing how often main stream media outlets perform an advertising function for Swimming New Zealand’s corporate line. I would have thought there was more to good journalism than photocopying a Swimming New Zealand press release. For example Yahoo Sport clearly has a limited view of meaning of investigative journalism. On 15 March Yahoo published word for word the advertising hand-out distributed by Swimming New Zealand. This is what it said.

National Swimming High Performance Director, Luis Villanueva sees the State New Zealand Championships starting in Auckland on Sunday as a new beginning. “The Championships next week, I hope, will be the start of something exceptional.” In the last few months following a whole-of-sport review, Swimming New Zealand has a new Board, its new High Performance Director in Villanueva and new Chief Executive with Australian Christian Renford taking up his post last week. The final key building block is the new National High Performance Coach which Villanueva hopes to finalise next month, with the Spaniard taking up a direct interest on pool deck in the short term with renowned Australian coach Bill Sweetenham contracted as temporary coach.

There is no validity, no merit and no truth in the argument that swimming is experiencing a new beginning because the personnel occupying the roles of High Performance Director, Chief Executive and Head Coach have changed. New actors reading the same script, new clerics preaching the same religion, new management following the same corporate plan will not lead the organization to a new state of swimming grace. New beginnings are the product of new policies – not new people.

The Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, has reshuffled his cabinet several times. New people occupy ministerial positions. But that’s not a new beginning. The government’s core policies stay the same. The sale of Mighty River Power and the introduction of charter schools are still firmly on the agenda. Only when policies significantly change is there a new beginning. When David Lange’s Labour Government assumed power in 1984 there was a new beginning. Rogernomics was introduced, the exchange rate was floated, farming subsidies were abandoned, public assets were sold and New Zealand became nuclear free. In these and a dozen other ways New Zealand changed. Like it or not, there most certainly was a new beginning.

But nothing like that has happened at Swimming New Zealand. At best, Peter Miskimmin, the Prime Minister of New Zealand sport has reshuffled his swimming cabinet. The government (that’s Sport New Zealand) has not changed; the Prime Minister (that’s Peter Miskimmin) is the same; the old policies are still firmly in place. Peter Miskimmin’s policies still steadfastly rule the direction taken by swimming in New Zealand. The idea that there has been a new beginning is pathetic. By suggesting otherwise, Luis Villanueva is treating his constituents with contempt; assuming we are all brain-dead. He would be well advised to stop those sorts of “con-job” claims. His predecessors ran aground on the same integrity issues.

Because there are no new policies. There is no new beginning. This is business as usual. Miskimmin’s Swimming New Zealand is at work pursuing the same old Cameron policies; identical plans and ideas to those that failed this sport for almost two decades. You may not believe that is true. Then how would you explain this. The Millennium Institute still exists. That hasn’t changed. Millennium Institute members turn up at National Championships in their fake uniforms. On the front page of every day’s national program their names are recorded in some sort of ritual roll of honour. 0.2% of Swimming New Zealand’s members get 72% of the organization’s money. That is the same. Every year we give Swimming New Zealand $3.22 million and we get nothing in return. Yes, nothing new there. Swimming New Zealand is still Pelorus House and the Millennium Institute – period. The rest of us don’t count; don’t even exist.

Just look at the publication of the Millennium Institute swimmer’s names on the front pages of each day’s National Championship program. What make their names so special? Why do they get roll of honor mention ahead of New Zealand star swimmers such as, Hayley Palmer, Sophia Batchelor, Nielsen Varoy and Samantha Richter. The message of unearned privilege that the publication of those names sends to New Zealand’s young swimmers is repulsive. It is putrid in the context of the sport’s obligation to nurture well-adjusted, young New Zealanders. It is the reverse of what is needed to produce champions. Laing, Jelley, Lydiard and Allen would have had none of it. To the band of foreigners Miskimmin has employed to run the sport of swimming in New Zealand I can assure you the publication of those names, the presence of that Institute with its fake national uniforms is as anti-everything kiwi as I can imagine.

This is not a new beginning. This isn’t even quite a continuation of past Swimming New Zealand policies. This is the old policies embellished. This is out of the frying plan into the fire. Luis Villanueva only makes himself and the organization looks silly when he paints it as anything else.

Incidentally where is Bill Sweetenham? I haven’t seen him at the National Championships for two days now. Has he abandoned another employment contract? Or has David Lyles come, seen and declined Swimming New Zealand’s offer of employment? If Lyles has any brains he would be well advised to stay in China. Could it be that Swimming New Zealand is without a replacement coach – perhaps Bill is resting up in Australia before extending his “standing-in” coaching role at the Millennium Institute? Either way, it seems like a bit of a tangled web.

Sweetenham’s trip here has been an expensive exercise. Has it worked? Swimming New Zealand, of course, is spinning the success of the National Championships for all it is worth. But, there are features of real concern. The meet is small and has all the atmosphere of a retirement village sitting room on a wet Sunday morning. This report is being written at the end of day three. Fifteen events have been completed. Of these, ten events have been won in times slower than the winner’s personal best time. That’s an appalling ratio. At the prime domestic event of the year Miskimmin’s chosen ones, with their lavish coach, cannot swim as fast as they did years ago. No new beginning there.



World Championships: Episode One

Saturday, March 16th, 2013

By David

Afternoon training had just finished. I was sitting chatting to a friend. To correct those sad readers who believe the author of Swimwatch does not have any friends – you are wrong. My companion is a friend. I hope it’s nothing serious, but he does nervously glance around the pool a lot when we are together. Today’s conversation was the same as many others – what would Swimming New Zealand do next? I was making the point that the behaviour of Sweetenham, Miskimmin, Dr Who and their friends was so fertile with gossip that writing about it could quickly lead even the most loyal reader to question the purpose and motives of the Swimwatch blog. The integrity of a fanatic is always open to question, no matter how just the cause. All I can do is assure you that I am not a fanatic – I just do not like the way Sport New Zealand and Swimming New Zealand (not that there is any difference) run the business of this sport. I think it stinks.

The list of topics available for discussion just now is endless. New Zealand’s best swimmer has retired. A travel plan for the team to the Barcelona World Championships has been published. A list of swimmers who have joined the pathway has been distributed. Sweetenham has “modestly” circulated a memo telling us about the famous people he has met and how wonderful they think he is. There is a base part my character that would love to spend five hundred words discussing Sweetenham’s memo. The document is an insight into his sorry soul. However far more important to the future of swimming is the plan Swimming New Zealand has put together for the team going to the World Championships.

I was told about the plan today. I’m working from memory, but their proposal goes something like this.

  • June 11 Mare Nostrum Barcelona Meet
  • June 15 Mare Nostrum Canet Meet
  • Two weeks altitude training in Sierra Nevada, Spain
  • June/July Paris International Meet
  • Two weeks training camp in Spain
  • July 19 World Championships Barcelona
  • August possible attendance at FINA World Cup events

The whole thing smacks of more money than sense. Now that Miskimmin’s coup d’etat has wrested control of New Zealand swimming, his organization is going to spend whatever it takes to prove they can win a swimming race. Many swimming people are holding Miskimmin’s feet to the fire. He wanted to control the sport. He said he knew best. Well now we will see whether he can deliver. This plan for Barcelona will not do it. Whoever put this jumbled mission together had all the money in the world and decided to spend it all doing everything. What do they say about a camel being a horse designed by a committee? Well this effort is a camel – or as Wikipedia says full of “needless complexity, internal inconsistency, logical flaws, banality, and the lack of a unifying vision.” Of course, if it was Luis Villaneva who designed the camel it should surprise no one that there are shortcomings. He’s Spanish and I suspect has very little experience or appreciation of the special factors involved in travelling from New Zealand to compete in the Northern Hemisphere. Alex Baumann is also new to the Southern Hemisphere. And Bill Sweetenham has always thought – the tougher the better. He’d have probably had the team walking from the airport to Sierra Nevada as some sort of initiative test.

Here is a sample of the shortcomings in this latest Swimming New Zealand masterpiece.

  1. There is not enough racing. The three meets included here are not enough to prepare for a World Championships. In my first book “Swim to the Top” this is how I described the number of meets required. “Always include at least five meets on a European tour. I have seen tours ranging from one meet to 15 but the way these tours work is that it takes two meets for the swimmer to adjust into full racing mode and anything close to PBs is an achievement and a good indication of better things to come. There will also be times when things just don’t go right and a five-meet tour allows for that and still leaves two meets for achieving those PBs. Toni Jeffs toured Europe twice and broke New Zealand records in meets five and six; Anna Simcic broke her world record in meet five; Danyon Loader broke his in meet five; and Phillipa Langrell set her current New Zealand 800 metres record in meet five. Shorter tours would have seen New Zealand missing out on two world records and five current national records. So five is the minimum.” For some reason Swimming New Zealand has left out the Monaco Mare Nostrum meet. I would certainly include that meet which together with the three included in the plan plus the Championships give the swimmers the five meet minimum. Six would be better.
  2. Two weeks of altitude training squashed into the plan a month before the Championships is crazy. It is probably the best example of – “We’ve got the money. What can we spend it on?” It would be possible to debate all night the advantages and disadvantages of two weeks spent swimming at the top of some mountain in Spain. My experience and the literature suggest that any benefit to sea level performances of two weeks at altitude is still most unclear. What is certain is that this high altitude training scheme suffers from the same fatal shortcoming as Miskimmin’s Millennium Program. Like every socialist ideology both programs fail to take into account the differences between individuals. Will Philip Ryan respond to altitude the same as Lauren Boyle? No one knows, but Swimming New Zealand will do it anyway. Swimming New Zealand must know that there are “responders” and “non-responders” to altitude training. That means two things: what works for one swimmer may not work for another. And altitude training may not work at all on some swimmers. It appears to be a genetic predisposition issue. But to the Stalinists that run swimming in New Zealand uniformity is a virtue. Whether you swim 50 meters or 10,000 meters, whether you have tried altitude training before and found it does not work for you – it does not matter. Baumann, Miskimmin, Villaneva and probably Sweetenham say it’s good for you – so off you go. And don’t complain or you won’t go at all. Socialist systems always work that way. And finally it is clear that even at its best altitude training is only icing on the training cake. There are so many more important things to do. Dr. James Smoliga recently published an interesting article in the magazine “Track Coach”. In it he described the fringe nature of altitude training.

Cost-to-benefit ratio of altitude training lies far behind other approaches to improved performance. Namely: improved diet, specialized weight programs, therapeutic massage, range of motion/stretching exercises, and last and most certainly not least – having a quality training program and coach! Even an athlete who does adapt well to altitude training may not experience a net benefit if all these aspects of training aren’t in order.

And so Swimming New Zealand, as we have said one hundred times before; stick to the basics, get your New Zealand house in order before you start wandering off to the homeland of one of your new employees on what could be best described as a tax payer funded junket.

Staying Grounded

Tuesday, March 12th, 2013

By David

The last two Swimwatch articles have mentioned the importance of staying grounded. For years many New Zealand athletes have failed to stay grounded and, as a result, have fallen short of their potential. When I was coaching Toni Jeffs, I used to call it the “New Zealand disease”. Toni was especially vulnerable. The media found the colourful personal life of New Zealand’s fastest swimmer irresistible. It would have been very easy for Toni Jeffs to have reached the conclusion that she was “the bee’s knees”; important way beyond her swimming triumphs. The fact she never did is probably the result of a pretty pragmatic personality combined with her “salt-of-the-earth” parents and a coach who kept alerting her to the dangers of a bloated ego.

Many swimmers in New Zealand today are not so lucky. Full blown cases of the New Zealand disease are everywhere – especially in the generations that have come, seen and failed at swimming in the hallowed halls of Miskimmin’s Millenium Institute. Lauren Boyle appears to be an exception. But then she has had the good fortune to spend four years swimming in an environment where the New Zealand disease would be terminal. That is not to say it is the New Zealand swimmer’s fault. It is just that those responsible for their careers have no idea what they are doing – and that includes both Camerons. From what I’ve seen and heard Sweetenham, Villanueva, Miskimmin, Baumann, the new CEO of Swimming New Zealand and the new Head Coach, either believe or have been ordered to continue the policies that have institutionalized the malady of ego delusion.

So how did New Zealand’s best coaches avoid the New Zealand disease? What did Arthur Lydiard and Arch Jelley do to prevent their genuinely world class athletes getting ideas way above their station in life? How was Toni Jeff’s swimming career different from the privileged coterie of swimmers that have filed through Miskimmin’s North Shore folly? How was Duncan Laing’s man-management so successfully down-to-earth?

Well, I know of all sorts of ways these men and women behaved differently from those responsible for the Aqua Blacks. Unlike Sweetenham none of them flew first class anywhere.  Negotiating that privilege into his UK Employment Contract says all we need to know about Sweetenham’s breeding and motives. Little wonder his charges expect more than they have earned.

And then even if they haven’t climbed Everest, today’s leaders of the Aqua Blacks use tricky wording to imply they were there with Sir Edmund Hillary. Cameron did it all the time. When Sweetenham was appointed to coach the Aqua Blacks the press release said, “In his time as Australian youth coach, Sweetenham played a role in the development of Australian greats Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett.” The average New Zealand reader would understandably read that as “Sweetenham was Thorpe and Hackett’s coach.” I’ve spoken to several observers who believe that is exactly what happened. The truth is from the age of 12, Grant Hackett was coached by Denis Cotterell. For most of his career Thorpe was coached by Doug Frost. Swimming New Zealand regularly implied that the previous Aqua Black’s coach, Mark Regan, was coach of World Champion, Lotte Friis. Regan was the Danish National Coach but was not the personal coach of the Danish super star. Lydiard, Jelley and Laing never felt any need to pad their Resumes. Involvement in top class sport demands intellectual honesty. The evidence suggests that New Zealand’s best swimmers do not have the benefit of that quality in their leaders. Those responsible for the guidance of the Millennium swimmers have taught them to spin their achievements. If you aren’t fast enough, hire a major in English. He or she may be able to find words that turn night into day.

It’s a small point but those fake National uniforms worn by the Millennium swimmers are an insult to every swimmer in New Zealand and to every athlete from any sport who has toiled to earn the real thing. I’ve known and lived with athletes who have spilt blood to wear a national singlet. Millennium imitations defile their memory and cheapen the future for those still to earn the right.

I guess my last point comes down to respect. My personal swimming career involved swimming or coaching in Wairoa, Gisborne, Wellington, Napier, London, Perth, Virgin Islands, Delray Beach and Auckland. To modify Shakespeare just a bit, I have always believed it important to, “scorn not the base degrees from which you did ascend.” Lydiard, Jelley and Laing saw life the same way. As Olympic champions or world record holders their athletes competed in meets in Wairoa, Tauranga, Cromwell, Wanganui, Hastings, Gisborne, Rotorua, Invercargill, Waipukurau, Daninevirke, Taumarunui, Nelson and, of course, Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. I’ve always thought it important to encourage my swimmers to compete around the country; to experience honest, grass roots swimming; sport that is different from the pink socks and white shoes swimming practiced in Auckland.

Swimmers I have coached have held exactly 50 national records. Three of them were set in Waipukurau, Masterton and Pahiatua. This past year or so West Auckland Aquatics swimmers have competed in meets in Morrinsville, Cambridge, Whangerai, Waipukurau, Hastings, Hamilton, Tokoroa, Wellington, Taupo, Auckland  and Papatoetoe.

The most recent, this past weekend, was the Counties/Manukau Championships in Papatoetoe. What a brilliant weekend – warm hospitable people, a lovely outdoor pool, beautiful weather and a huge entry list – for example 20 heats of the 100 breaststroke. Everything that was good and honest, clean and decent about the sport was on show at Papatoetoe this weekend. Halberg, Snell, Jelley, Lydiard, Walker and Quax would have loved it. I know I did and so did the West Auckland Aquatic’s swimmers. Thank you for a first rate weekend of swimming that revived this coach’s flagging spirits.

But you would never see Millennium swimmers or their advisors at Papatoetoe or Tokoroa. They are way too pampered for that. Imagine Sweetenham at Pahiatua. When you demand first class air tickets, you don’t go to swim meets in Pahiatua. And Sweetenham and his charges are all the poorer and less well-grounded as a consequence.

I’ve also heard Auckland commentators express petty criticism of provincial swim meets. One asked, “How was the provincial circus today.” My involvement in swimming has caused me to attend Olympic Games, World Championships, Pan Pacific Games, National Championships in five different countries and 95 World Cup events. Let me tell those in Auckland and those at Miskimmin’s Millennium Institute who do “scorn the base degrees” – swim meets like those in Papatoetoe are no circus. They offer much and it is appreciated. Thank you, Counties/Manukau.

Age Groups – A Matter Of Perspective

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

By David

I got a letter last week. It said:

Dear Mr Wright


Thank you for your application for New Zealand Superannuation. You qualify for this from 03/03/13. Your New Zealand Superannuation is $604.80 a fortnight before tax.

Isn’t that nice of the New Zealand Government – $604.80 every two weeks just for being here? New Zealand; it’s not as big as the USA, or as historic as the UK, or as French as France. But it is a great little place. I’ve lived overseas on a number of occasions; a year in Wisconsin USA, five years in England, four years in Scotland, two years in the Virgin Islands and five years in Florida USA. But New Zealand gives me something none of these places ever could; a sense of ownership responsibility. Along with four million others I own one share in this place. What happens here, matters. How it can be improved, is important.

Which is why Swimwatch exists. Main stream media is restrained in what it can say. Swimwatch is less reticent. Sport in New Zealand is badly managed. For swimming; the direction and policies imposed by Sport New Zealand are misguided and wrong. There is little prospect of change before swimming fails again at the Rio Olympic Games. The boss of Sport New Zealand, Peter Miskimmin, will be responsible for that failure – just as his policies were responsible for the swimming’s poor performance in Athens, Beijing and London. After a fourth failure surely someone will ask him to go.

Miskimmin’s failures are sufficient for me to enjoy the thought that my fortnightly $604.80 comes directly from his personal tax deduction. At least that way some of his misguided efforts are going to a good cause.

At the other end of the age group spectrum the New Zealand Age Group Swimming Championships were held last week. Many aspects of the event are disturbing. I make every effort to talk my young swimmers out of ever going anywhere near the meet. This year I didn’t go to Wellington, but two West Auckland Aquatic’s swimmers did take part. Both made it through to finals. Abigail swam two PBs for fourth and fifth. Jane swam three PBs for three silver medals. So from a parochial Club point of view it wasn’t a bad week.

But the evidence of destruction was as blatant as ever; perhaps worse. Ignoring relays, did you know that, in the 2013 Championship, there were 43 swimmers entered in ten or more events? With finals and relays that means 43 young New Zealanders were being told to swim 24 races in five days. Just how long do coaches and parents think swimmers are going to put up with that abuse? Actually I’m not sure who’s to blame for the anarchy. It is certainly not the swimmers. Is it the parents and coaches who succumb to the temptation of reflected glory that comes to those who raise or coach a multiple age group winner? Or is Swimming New Zealand responsible? It provides the temptation candy. Swimming New Zealand must know the damage their event causes. As a direct consequence of taking part in the national Age Group Championship New Zealand’s best age group swimmers edge a little closer to failure, a little nearer angry retirement. What cigarettes are to cancer, Swimming New Zealand’s Age Group Championships are to swimmer burn-out. Just as the profit motive stimulates Phillip Morris, the lure of entry fee money from the Age Group Nationals is too much for Swimming New Zealand to resist – irrespective of the cost to the sport that is their responsibility.

Perhaps you think all this talk of harm is exaggerated; the meet is a good one, providing an exciting opportunity for swimmers to test themselves against their age group peers. If you are of this persuasion, then consider this.

The USA gave up the notion of age group championships years ago. They realized the importance of being well grounded; of appreciating reality. The title of National Champion was not something to be handed out to 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 or 16 year olds who had only beaten others of their same age. One of my principal complaints with Miskimmin’s Millennium Institute is its stunning propensity to encourage swimmers to have ideas well above their station in life; to be poorly grounded. Age Group Nationals do the same thing. Lydiard never allowed his runners to claim provincial records unless they were also national records. He demanded they remain well grounded. Compare that to the adulation heaped upon multiple age group winners in Wellington. No wonder they don’t last. They have nothing more to achieve.

But, you may ask, if the views expressed here have validity where is the supporting data. Well, consider this. In the 2007 New Zealand Age Group Championships there were 18 swimmers entered in 10 or more events. That’s 25 less than the 43 entered in 10 or more events in 2013. I have no idea why the number of multiple entry swimmers would more than double in five years. It is a frightening statistic though. More importantly, however, of the 18 swimmers entered in more than 10 events in 2007 only 3 are still swimming in the National Open Championships in 2013. Fifteen of New Zealand’s most successful age group swimmers from 2007 have vanished; lost to the sport forever. Consider Ashley Rupapera. In 2007 she was amazing; 14 years old, she entered 13 individual events, swam in 22 races and won four gold medals and two silver medals. I don’t know what Ashley is doing today. However, it certainly does not include elite New Zealand swimming.

But does Swimming New Zealand care? It seems not. The organisation shows no sign of discussing the possibility that their age group policy may be causing harm. Ah, but there is money at stake – lots of lovely money. Swimming New Zealand should care however, especially when the cost of their neglect will most certainly see 40 of the 2013 Ashley Rupaperas disappear by 2018.

And, to finish this story, Swimming New Zealand may be interested in another traveller’s tale. A few years ago Jane Copland at Nice airport in France. She was standing next to Ian Thorpe. You know the one – thirteen world records and five times Olympic Champion. Thorpe asked Jane if she knew two swimmers from New Zealand. Jane said, “No, who are they?” Thorpe told Jane he had swum against the New Zealanders as a young junior swimmer. He came third in his favourite event beaten by the two New Zealanders. So, there you have it. Peter Miskimmin’s Swimming New Zealand has lost Ashley Rupapera and two swimmers better than Ian Thorpe. And age group championships are the common factor.