Renford’s Folly

By David

Here is an example of the way Swimming New Zealand works. Miskimmin, from Sport New Zealand, goes out and hires an Australian from rowing to run Swimming New Zealand. The Australian, his name is Renford, does a tour of New Zealand and announces in his first Radio Sport interview that the standard of New Zealand coaching is in need of serious attention. This is what he said.

One of the central themes that has come out of my Regional tour, I think, it (coaching) is an area where we need to do more work in. It’s an area where we need to put a bit more attention to. If we had the domestic talent that we needed we would have been looking in that (the New Zealand) direction. You need to hunt for the best talent you can get available and if they come from overseas then so be it.

You would be excused for forming the opinion that Renford must be pretty knowledgeable about coaching. After only eight weeks in the country he has evaluated the field and determined that there is not a New Zealand swim coach good enough to coach the national team. You would expect that the certainty of his opinion must be based on some foundation of knowledge. How else could this foreigner dismiss the quality of New Zealand’s coaching population in eight weeks?

And then the facts begin to get in the way of the smoke screen. Renford is Australian. Since 1896 his country has won 7 gold medals per million of its population. The boss of High Performance Sport, Alex Baumann, is Canadian. Since 1896 his country has won 2 gold medals per million of its population. The boss of High Performance swimming is Spanish. Since 1896 his country has won less than 1 gold medal per million of its population. New Zealand comfortably beats them all. Since 1896 we have won 10 gold medals per million of our population. The record of Laing, Lydiard, Jelley and Tonks is proudly “Made in New Zealand”.

I’ve just watched an interview with Noel Donaldson, the Australian that Miskimmin has employed to replace Dick Tonks as coach of New Zealand men’s rowing. I can see why Donaldson got the job. He’s foreign and he has spent ten minutes telling New Zealand that our rowers needed an easier training regime than the Tonks’ program. We hear the same rubbish in swimming all the time – “we train smarter”, yea right.

Renford needs to remember that the person who was in charge of swimming when we got into this mess was not a New Zealander. She was a product of Renford’s precious Australia. We actually did have a good import helping swimming back in those days. He was a pom and his name was Clive Rushton. I wasn’t in New Zealand at the time but, from a distance, it seemed that Cameron and her mates made his life and work impossible.

Did you see that Justin Grace, the New Zealand sprint cycling coach, who gave up coaching here has been snapped up by the French? A hugely patriotic and talented New Zealander just could not tolerate the crap that spewed out of Sport New Zealand any longer. The French have won this one and, in this case, good luck to them.

Miskimmin’s Olympic hockey career demonstrated almost no ability to win a match. I suspect his career in selecting winning sport’s administrators and coaches is going to be equally wanting, equally meagre.

And then Renford confirmed my suspicions. In the same interview, he said this;

By putting the best athletes together they are available to push themselves. We need to make sure the best are surrounded by the best and they can continuously push themselves.

No one with any knowledge of coaching an individual sport would say something as incredibly stupid. Renford’s declaration is so senseless; so devoid of truth that it brings into question his fitness to occupy the position of CEO of Swimming New Zealand. Certainly pursuing that sort of nonsense will condemn another generation of New Zealanders to Olympic failure and bitter disappointment. The last Australian to run elite swimming in New Zealand made similar claims – and look where that got us.

So what’s wrong with Renford’s babble?

Well, quite simply “the best pushing the best” does not work. Good athletes beating each other up day after day is the most certain way I know of killing any prospect of a successful international swimming career. Training for an individual sport like swimming is a very personal exercise. One champion’s steady pace is another champion’s anaerobic gut-buster. Any athlete who bases their preparation on the speed of others is doomed to sporting failure. The thought that the taxpayer’s $1.6 million is being spent encouraging New Zealand’s best swimmers to race each other in the Millennium pool fills me with horror and despair. No wonder no one can win anything at an Olympic Games. They’ve left their best performances back in Auckland. And now we are told, by Renford, that all that pushing, all that competing in practice, is at the command of Swimming New Zealand.

I once coached New Zealand’s two fastest sprinters, Toni Jeffs and Nichola Chellingworth. Training could have easily have been turned into the Renford dream of the “best pushing the best”. I prevented this by stressing the danger of making each training session a battle for supremacy. Both swimmers had to remember that their personal development was the goal. To do that they needed to train, not strain.

When Alison and I lived in London several very fast New Zealand runners came to stay – runners like Ann Audain and Barbara Moore. However Alison and our visitors never trained together. Why? To avoid the very thing Renford has told New Zealand justifies the millions spent by swimming at the Millennium Institute. The result? Ann broke the 5000 meters world record and won gold in the Commonwealth Games, Alison owns a national record that has stood for 34 years and Barbara won a bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games.

However, for readers not inclined to believe my experience, here are some opinions you may find more interesting.

ARCH JELLEY, on the relationship between two world record holders he was coaching; Dick Quax Olympic silver medal and world record for 5000 meters and John Walker Olympic gold medal and one mile world record: “Arch also had to be careful of other runners in the squad. Dick Quax was a very strong runner and capable of big mileage. Arch had to keep Walker away from Quax otherwise Arch believed Quax may have broken Walker .”

RON DELANY, Olympic 1500 meters champion: “I didn’t really need a training partner. I was training to my own standards for my own goals.”

HERB ELLIOTT, Olympic 1500 meters champion and mile and 1500 meter world record holder: “I preferred to train mostly by myself. I found that training with somebody else was a distraction. Training by yourself, you are very conscious of the battle within yourself. You were there for a particular purpose and you stayed better focussed if you were by yourself.”

STEVE CRAM, 1500 meters and the mile world record, won the 1500 meters gold at the World Championships and the 1500 meters silver medal at the Olympic Games: “I didn’t have a training group as such. I was grateful to have a couple of guys who I did my general running with. One of them was a very average club athlete. But the important thing was I knew what I was doing. It was my training and if the lads wanted to join in, that was fine.”

JOHN WALKER, one mile world record, Olympic champion 1500 meters: “Most of my track work was done on my own because the sessions that I did, no one else could do.”

So there you are, five pretty good athletes and a top coach who go out of their way to avoid the very thing this new Australian import to SNZ says we should embrace; says we should spend $1.6 million a year to foster. Renford’s opinion is a folly; dangerous, damaging and destructive, but a pathetic folly most of all.

Before I finish, there may be a few sceptics who notice that my examples come for track and field. I can hear the SNZ dawn chorus already singing, “Ah, but swimming is different.” And that’s true. No swimmer in New Zealand would dare make the Herb Elliott confession that he or she “stayed better focussed if you were by yourself.” Swimming is full of Renford and Miskimmin cheerleaders who would banish any Millennium inmate who described swimming as an individual sport. But, the truth is that short of walking alone to the South Pole, swimming is as individual as it gets. Danyon Loader spent hours in his own lane in Dunedin’s Moana Pool; Dara Torres did 90% of her training on her own; Michael Phelps certainly did not swim in a lane with three other guys his own speed and Amanda Baird has confessed to enjoying training alone. In fact there are plenty of examples of swimmers who have exactly the same thoughts as the runners quoted above. They just don’t dare confess their treachery.

Post Script: Back to the subject of High Performance Sport New Zealand. It must be hugely difficult for anyone to have confidence in the New Zealand High Performance Sport program when the CEO sends his children back to Canada to be in the Canadian High Performance group ahead of the program their father is responsible for here in New Zealand. If New Zealand ’s High Performance program isn’t good enough for the CEO’s children, perhaps we should stay clear as well.