Archive for September, 2017

Thomas Ansorg

Friday, September 29th, 2017

Today was Thomas Ansorg’s last day as the Head Coach of the North Shore Swimming Club. He is retiring to his home on Great Barrier Island. As he was leaving the pool this morning he stopped to say good-bye. It is important swimming in New Zealand recognize his departure and thank him for the quality of his contribution.

Although I don’t know the details of his coaching career the bit I do know makes for impressive reading. He spent 10 years coaching at the Wanderers Club in South Africa before coming to New Zealand in 2002 as Head Coach of North Shore Swimming. Four years later in 2006 he was appointed Swimming New Zealand’s high performance coach. He spent another four years in that position before accepting the Head Coach’s job at North Shore Swimming. He has been Head Coach at the club for seven years until today.  

That career summary does not reflect the quality and uniqueness of his work. Good God, for eight years between 2002 and 2010 he survived with Jan Cameron as his boss. To the best of my knowledge no one else has ever matched that feat. In fact if Thomas hadn’t done it I would have sworn on a stack on bibles that keeping Jan happy for eight years was impossible. However not only did he keep Jan happy he did it in the Swimming New Zealand Millennium environment. That’s about as easy as lighting a fire in a bucket of water. A dozen others have tried and lasted a few months. Thomas did the job well for eight years – bloody unbelievable.

“How did he pull that off?” you may be asking. In my view he did it because of a German quality in his personality. He is tough and he is deadly straight. Most New Zealand coaches try and keep the peace. We don’t lie but we try and find a nice way to say difficult things. Thomas tells it as it is. There is no room for doubt. I think Jan liked that. I certainly have found it a refreshing quality in a New Zealand swimming world full of political clap-trap.

I recall a real problem swimmer in my club. One of my other swimmers described her manner of communication as “text-speak through a five dollar bottle of wine”. Much to my relief she decided she wanted to join the North Shore Club. Thomas knew of her reputation for trouble. He agreed to an interview, asked her the relevant questions and then said that he did not think she was what the club was looking for. I know of very few coaches in New Zealand who would firmly reject an open national swimmer. Most of us would try and make it work and cause unnecessary damage in the process.

If only Thomas had accepted the swimmer. She ended up staying at my club and was nothing but trouble.

In the 15 years Thomas has been involved in New Zealand swimming he has been an Olympic coach at three Games – Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008 and Rio in 2016. He has coached at three World Championships – Montreal in 2005, Melbourne in 2007 and Rome in 2009. And he was Commonwealth Games coach in Melbourne in 2006. He has been the personal coach of 15 New Zealand Olympic Game’s swimmers.

In the years Thomas has been Head Coach at the North Shore Club, the club has dominated New Zealand swimming. At junior, age group and open championships the club has consistently won the national points championships. By any standard his contribution to New Zealand swimming both nationally and internationally has been huge. But for me two things stand out.

Thomas has not always been treated well by Swimming New Zealand. I can recall occasions when he has been accidentally left off team announcements. Before the Rio Olympic Games he was the only domestic club coach of a team member. And yet he was not even invited to the press conference called, in Thomas’ home pool, to announce the team. He told me he didn’t care, but it must have hurt. Even his retirement seems to have been ignored. So far the Swimming New Zealand website has no recognition of his service and no thanks for his efforts.

Forthright straight talk has also been a characteristic of the Thomas international career. It is very easy for good swimmers to get ideas way above their station. I’ve seen and heard Thomas keep his swimmers well grounded. No one became a prima donna when Thomas Ansorg was around.  

Let me finish with a story about how good Thomas was as a coach with a story about the one and only time swimmers coached by me beat his team. It was the 4x50m freestyle at the Auckland Relay Championships. We had a good team – Olympic Gold medallist Rhi Jeffrey, NZ Open Medallist Jessica Marston, NZ Open Gold Medallist Jane Ip and NZ Open Relay Gold Medallist Lara van Egten. Our team swam above themselves and we managed to sneak the win ahead of the Thomas coached North Shore club.

You know when someone is very, very good when the one time you manage to beat them stands out as a highlight in your own career. And that race was a highlight for the four swimmers and their coach.

Thank you Thomas for your coaching career, for your advice and for your friendship even when your Swimming New Zealand bosses must have been warning you about the dangers of talking to that coach from west Auckland. Enjoy Great Barrier Island – you’ve earned it.          


The Devil is in the Detail

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

My previous post discussed the Swimming New Zealand plan to replace the centralized Millennium high performance program with a program based on four Zones; three Zones in the North Island and one in the South Island. The proposed Zone based structure is progress. It recognises that it is the clubs that are responsible for nurturing champions. It offers the real prospect of management that is closer to and more responsive to the clubs.

I would recommend supporting the initiative BUT with one rigid qualification.

There is no point in introducing the Swimming New Zealand Zone plan without a lot more work being done on how the new structure is going to work. Right now Swimming New Zealand has provided us with a new IPhone but no operator’s manual. Without a detailed plan of how the new Zone structure is going to work it will fail just as certainly as the old one failed. The new structure needs a predetermined operating plan.

What we know so far is that the structure proposed by Swimming New Zealand involves “each Zone will have a Hub Coach.” This coach, we are told will be “responsible for collaborating with the coaches and clubs to deliver coach development opportunities, deliver combined squad trainings and other aspects of swimmer support, deliver intense competitions and develop new initiatives to engage our swimming community.” We are also told that the Hub Coach will be employed by the leading region in each Zone based on a memorandum of understanding agreed between all the regions in the Zone. Administration will be carried out by the lead region and all regions will share in the administration and coach costs.

All of that is good but does not get anywhere near the detail required before a plan like this can be approved or introduced. We need to know how this thing is going to work. Planning, that is detailed and specific, needs to be done in advance. The change needs to be properly and thoroughly managed.

Before committing money and swimmers to the new Zone scheme Swimming New Zealand members need to know specific and detailed answers to questions such as these.

  1. Who is going to be employed as a Hub Coach? How much are the Hub Coaches going to be paid? Are they provided with a vehicle?
  2. What is the Hub Coach’s job specification? We need to see a sample contract.
  3. What administration, clerical and travel support is required and what is the cost?
  4. How is a Hub Coach expected to manage the clubs in the Zone? What annual plan does the Hub Coach expect from each club? What reports are expected to compare performance to the plan?
  5. How are clubs and swimmers going to be rewarded for achieving their pre-planned targets?
  6. What combined squad training is proposed and what is its purpose?
  7. How are coaches in the Zone going to be assisted with further education and training?   

It will come as no surprise to hear that I have a view on many of these questions. But whether the way I look at each question becomes what happens does not matter. What does matter is that the questions are answered and agreed before anyone commits the lives of another generation of New Zealand swimmers to the new Zone program. The previous ill-conceived Millennium program resulted in two generations of wasted talent. Swimming must not make the same mistake again.   

Here is how I would answer some of the questions. By necessity my answers are not as thorough as Swimming New Zealand should provide before implementing a Zone based program.    

The recruitment of the four Hub Coaches must be from within New Zealand. For too long Swimming New Zealand has sucked the heart out of New Zealand’s domestic coaches by appointing foreigners as the National Head Coach. It’s about time the body responsible for swimming in New Zealand showed some trust in local coaches. New Zealand coaches do not seem to have done any harm in athletics, rugby and rowing. And before the Millennium era New Zealand coaches did well in swimming too. It’s well past time that New Zealanders were again given responsibility for swimming.

Each Hub Coach should get an annual plan from every club in their Zone. In general terms the plan should provide information of each club’s annual training plans and competitive goals. It should show the training periods planned during the year and the training volume planned for each period. The annual plan should nominate goal times and competitive results. The plan should also rank the clubs swimmers into the following categories.

  1. Those ranked in the world’s top 10 swimmers.
  2. Those ranked between 10 and 50 in the world.
  3. Those ranked between 50 and 100 in the world.
  4. Those not ranked in the top 100 in the world but ranked in the top 10 in NZ.
  5. Those ranked between 10 and 50 in NZ.
  6. Those ranked over 50 in NZ.

It is expected that at least three plans will be required, one for the first three categories, one for categories 4 and 5 and one for category 6.

Known and published financial rewards should be paid to athletes achieving the goals specified in the annual plan. Cash payments to swimmers in the first three categories should be paid by High Performance Sport New Zealand and Swimming New Zealand. Much of this is already covered by Prime Minister’s Scholarships and the like. Cash payments for those ranked in category 4 should be paid by the Zones. Swimmers in categories 5 and 6 should not be eligible for cash payments. No distinction should be made for age – only ranking.    

Money for the first three categories needs to come from High performance Sport New Zealand. We are told High Performance staff are hugely supportive of this Zone initiative. I hope this is not just Millennium coffee shop talk. Their support needs to come in the form of financial investment.

Having access to detailed plans and the offer of financial rewards will give Hub Coaches the authority to influence training and racing throughout their Zone. We all know that training and competition rules are being broken all the time. Swimmers are not doing enough aerobic training. Swimmers are doing too much anaerobic training. Swimmers race too often. And so on it goes. Rules are broken that ensure early retirement and unfulfilled potential. Detailed plans supported by tangible rewards should allow the Hub Coach to monitor and control performance and avoid these errors. The result will be improved international performance.

The devil is in the detail. And so before anyone votes for the Zone proposal the details of how the proposal is going to work should be known and be recorded in writing; a fundamental prerequisite of the Zonal plan.            



The Future of Swimming New Zealand

Monday, September 25th, 2017

This week Swimming New Zealand produced an email titled “Zonal Structure – The Future”. Attached to the email is a report called “Swimming in New Zealand – The Current State of Play”. The email and report discuss structural changes aimed at improving the performance of the organization. About 28 recipients, not including me, were invited to review the document and consider the following questions.

“1) do you generally agree with the facts, figures and issues presented?

2) do you support a move towards reframing the Zonal boundaries as recommended? (Noting there are various possible permutations you may wish to raise)

3) do you have any other feedback or suggestions to make?”

Although my opinion was not asked for I will give it anyway. I feel no embarrassment about doing that. Long before reform became popular Swimwatch was warning Swimming New Zealand of the intrinsic dangers in their so called High Performance Program. Ten years too late the penny has dropped. There is a problem. Reform is required. I should and am deeply grateful that swimming in New Zealand is having a “road to Damascus experience”. I can only hope the conversion from enemy to advocate is as dramatic as it was for Paul the Apostle.  

And so the balance of this post will consider each of the questions. First – “do you generally agree with the facts, figures and issues presented?”

The answer is yes. It is refreshing indeed to read that Swimming New Zealand accepts that their experiment with the centralized delivery of training has not worked. The report does not sugar coat the disaster of the sport’s high performance program. Even the report’s cover photograph of a drowning swimmer’s hand reaching above the water, pleading for help, speaks volumes about the issues being presented. Providing facts and figures that support the presence of a problem is welcome. The report is a far cry from the blind futility with which successive Swimming New Zealand Boards have clung onto a policy that has hurt two generations of New Zealand swimmers.

Back in 2010 the Annual Report said “These changes will ensure our development towards closing the gap on the world’s best. The exciting news that the government is investing significant funding into the expansion of the high performance environment at the Millennium Institute will further strengthen our programme in future years.”

In 2014 the Swimming New Zealand CEO reported that, “The High Performance programme is broadly delivering on its objectives and has the right leadership, programme elements, initiatives and systems in place to be successful.”

The 2015 Annual Report continued to tell us that international success was imminent. The CEO reported that, “We are very fortunate to have such wonderful ambassadors for our sport and New Zealand. I have no doubt that their current and future success will inspire the next generation of swimmers for many years to come.”

And as recently as early 2017 a senior Swimming New Zealand staff member was quoted in the press as saying, ““It has been an outstanding week of results for our young swimmers coming up. The development of the sport is looking very good in New Zealand.”

And it was all a lie; all smoking mirrors; all fake news. With this new report those days appear to have gone. The drunk has acknowledged there is a problem. He is an alcoholic. The half empty bottle of vodka in his desk drawer is not right. Recognition of the problem is an important first step to recovery and maybe redemption.

Question two – “do you support a move towards reframing the Zonal boundaries as recommended? (Noting there are various possible permutations you may wish to raise)”

I imagine my attitude to this question could best be described as ambivalent. I guess it is best to have the Zones as evenly matched as possible. From this point of view the proposed changes to the Zone boundaries are good. My problem is that while I support the Zone structure for managing the delivering of high performance coaching, I struggle with the use of Zones to deliver competition. For management of the sport Zones add value. For competition, I’m not so sure. That’s no to say I see anything wrong with four Zone teams competing against each other. I’m just not sure that, in an individual sport, artificially created Zones will add much. However I would also be delighted to be proven wrong.  

Certainly the boundary changes necessary to produce four relatively even Zones should not occupy too much attention or time. There are far more serious issues to be addressed. My recommendation would be to make the recommended changes quickly and move on to more important matters.         

Question three – “do you have any other feedback or suggestions to make?”

The proposals in this report are mainly structural. It is recommended that the management of high performance swimming change from one central location to four Zone based locations. Each Zone would have a Head Coach responsible for developing the Zone’s coaching structure and performance. The Zone Head Coach would work with club coaches to promote swimming excellence in the Zone.

As far as the recommendations go the proposed Zone structure will have more success than the Millennium centralized model. Four smaller units focusing on local needs clearly have more potential for success than one national monolith. So why then is it necessary to qualify my support with the thought “as far as the recommendations go”?

My concern is that the recommendations do not go far enough. Structural change alone is not enough. How the structure is going to work must be included in the reform. Without that addition there is the very real prospect that the four Zones will be no more effective than the single Millennium model. The last thing swimming needs is four mini-Millenniums; not as big but just as ineffective. Avoiding that possibility depends on rules put in place now; during the reform’s birth.    

The report makes much of what it calls the Waikato “pilot program”. The Zone concept has been of benefit to swimming in the region. It has provided an indication of the better care provided by a local compact Zone management structure. The Waikato experiment is however only a qualified success. The report points to the fact that “six of the current World Championship team were supported in their development from the Aquaknights development hub” as evidence that the Zone concept works. That result is good but is also only partial success. These six swimmers have 2017 world rankings as shown in the table below.

Name Event 2017 World Ranking
Charlotte Webby Open Water 40
Mathew Stanley 200 Free 53
Samuel Perry 50 Free 91
Bradley Ashby 200 IM 25
Helena Gasson 200 IM 46
Bobbi Gichard 100 Back 91

An average ranking of 58th in the world is hardly proof that the Zone structure on its own guarantees competitive success. Swimming in New Zealand can do better than that. It seems that the structure is good but to work well it needs something more.

Perhaps an extreme example illustrates the point I am trying to make. A few years ago Saudi Arabia was desperate for swimming success. The Saudi royal family decided two things were needed – better facilities and a better management structure. The Germans were called in to build three aquatic centers. Lord Sebastian Coe’s management consulting company was employed to restructure the sport. Money was not a problem. The Kingdom ended up with the best swimming pools and management structure that money could buy. And it hasn’t worked. Saudi swimming still comes last in their area championships. That does not mean there is anything wrong with the pools the Germans built or the structure Lord Coe put in place. It does mean the Saudis have no idea how to make what they have bought work.

It’s a bit like putting me behind the wheel of a Formula One Ferrari. The car has potential way beyond the driver’s ability. I could not drive a Ferrari much faster than an old Ford Cortina.

It would be disastrous if the initiative that produced this effort at reforming swimming in New Zealand was wasted because insufficient attention was paid to the rules required to make the new Zone structure work. We do not want to make the Saudi mistake. The report recommends a good path forward but, on its own, it is not enough. The real work is to make sure the Zone Head Coaches and club coaches are working to agreed plans and established procedures. The recommended structure is a good start but, in all seriousness, the plan to put something that works in place is only half done.          



Je Suis Désolé

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

In our last post we told you about events that occurred at the West Wave Pool. Eyad and I were asked to leave the pool because, we were told, the Pool Manager, “felt uncomfortable” with our presence. I wrote a blog expressing my concern and lodged a complaint with the Auckland Council Manager responsible for the city’s pools.

My complaint was well received. I was treated with respect and concern. I was told the circumstances would be investigated. I could expect a reply in twenty-four hours. Today I was called back.

Auckland Council has accepted that the West Wave Pool Manager’s “uncomfortable feelings” were no sufficient reason to ask Eyad and me to leave the pool. That was an error. Eyad and I were welcome at the West Wave Pool. I was asked if the Council could repay the cost of our entry into the pool. Coaching at the pool was restricted to nominated clubs but my presence in general support of Eyad was not a problem. I declined the refund but accepted a free swim next time we visit the pool.

I am more than happy with the resolution. I am most pleased that Eyad has been witness to events seldom seen during his life in the war-torn part of the world he calls home. He has seen an example of a senior bureaucrat not afraid to say, “My people did wrong. I’m here to put it right.” That example is far more important than the Pool Manager’s behaviour. And for that I am deeply grateful.

I am thankful that Eyad has seen that bad things in New Zealand can be addressed. He has seen our country at its worst and at its best. I was asked whether it was possible to take down the original story. I have no editorial control over that sort of thing. I also feel that the lessons that have been learned and the good things that have happened are better understood by keeping the whole story public.

I have agreed to keep the Council advised of Eyad’s progress. He swims first in Whangarei this Sunday.

And so, Auckland Council, on behalf of Eyad and me, thank you.         



Auckland Council Bomb Syrian Refugee

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

Many readers will have heard how Swimming New Zealand decided to terminate the membership of the West Auckland Aquatics club. No one, even at Swimming New Zealand, blamed me for the club’s problems. In fact I voted for the Swimming New Zealand rescue plan. Two committee members decided they did not want the Federation’s help. The club paid dearly for that decision.

I moved on and spent a year coaching swimmers in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah. Three of the swimmers in my Saudi team were refugees from war ravaged Syria. Life is not easy for Syrians in Saudi Arabia. Because of their nationality they are excluded from government swimming pools. They are not allowed to take part in Saudi Federation competitions and are, of course, excluded from national teams. They are not allowed to own property or open a bank account. It is a life of unimaginable deprivation. I was only allowed to include them in my training squad after arguing that their presence would benefit the team’s Saudi nationals.

One of the Syrians, Eyad, was the team’s best swimmer. He swims 50m and 100m freestyle in 23 and 52 seconds. When I left Saudi I made sure he was in good coaching hands. I also kept in touch with his coach offering any help that I could. Because Eyad was unable to compete in Saudi and because of the Syrian travel restrictions that made it impossible for him to compete in most of the world’s countries I agreed to talk to Immigration New Zealand about Eyad visiting New Zealand to compete in the 2017 Winter Short Course Championships.

Immigration New Zealand was very positive and approved a visitor’s visa. No reader can appreciate the gratitude Eyad has for Immigration New Zealand’s generosity. From his world where everyone says no, where powerful countries destroy the place he calls home and where the opportunities we take for granted simply do not exist, someone in New Zealand had said, “Yes, Eyad you can visit and you can swim in the national championships. We will not exclude you simply because your passport says Syria.” On Skype Eyad openly wept as he showed me the New Zealand visitor’s visa in his passport.

And a week ago Eyad arrived in New Zealand. But before he boarded the airplane Saudi authorities demanded to know how a Syrian had obtained a New Zealand visa. Was it a forgery he was asked. I have agreed to look after Eyad while he is in New Zealand and supervise his training. I am not his coach and am not being paid for my assistance. I am only too pleased to help, to maybe address slightly the hurt that had affected most of Eyad’s life. I am delighted to report that the Millennium Pool staff and the Waterhole Club have been wonderful. Eyad has trained in their pools through the first week. Millennium Pool and Waterhole Club – thank you. We have received fantastic support that has made me proud of my country and the generosity of its people and its welcome.

That is until today.

You see this morning we needed to get Eyad’s training done quickly and so instead of driving across to the Millennium Pool we went to the West Wave Pool in Henderson. We paid for a swimmer and a spectator and Eyad got started on his training. I was not involved and so apart from timing four lengths I spent my time reading the Guardian newspaper on my IPhone.

Eyad was close to finishing when someone called the pool “Program Manager” sat down beside me. She demanded that Eyad and I leave the pool and ordered us not to return. I obviously asked why? It has been two years since I last attended the West Wave Pool. The only information I could get was that the Pool Manager, Alex, “felt uncomfortable” with us being in the pool. The Program Manager could not tell us of any event or episode that caused us to be evicted. There was no sin, just an “uncomfortable” Pool Manager. No crime it seems but certainly a conviction and punishment. We packed our bags and left.

I think the thing that annoys me most about the behavior of Alex today has been explaining his decision to a Syrian refugee. Because you see no matter how strong my assurances, as far as Eyad is concerned, his Syrian citizenship has caused yet another foreigner to deny him a chance in life. I am sad that the behavior of a rogue pool manager has besmirched and damaged the reputation of my country and this city as a welcoming and warm place to visit. I am sad that a rogue pool manager did not have the courage or integrity to come to the pool himself, but cowered in his office, while a subordinate was sent to do his dirty work.

Up close and personal it is easy to see why young Syrian men become disaffected and angry. When the behaviour of people like Alex is repeated day after day, week after week, year after year it is not surprising that the occasional victim cracks and lashes out. When the opportunity to progress in life is unreasonably denied, through no personal fault, bitter hurt is understandable. I hoped we were showing Eyad there was a generous side to the world: there are caring and helpful people that take pride in giving their fellow human beings a chance.

Today the West Wave Pool Manager and his Program Manager destroyed that hope. I know that in Eyad’s mind the Russians bombed his family out of their home and today the Auckland Council bombed him out of their pool. Worse they were prepared to lay waste to his swimming dreams. For Eyad dreams are just about all he has left. And even they came under attack today. Both Council employees should be asked to explain how their “uncomfortable feelings” justified that destruction.