Under A Palm Tree

June 26th, 2020

In 2001 Swimming New Zealand appointed Clive Rushton as its first professional Director of Coaching. While he was in New Zealand, he earned my unqualified respect. Intelligent, knowledgeable and blessed with a uniquely British sense of humour, swimming is a better sport for Clive’s time here.

I called Clive the day before I left New Zealand to begin a coaching contract in the US Virgin Islands. Clive’s comment on my new position was to wish me well and add, “Coaching is best done under a palm tree.”

I was reminded of Clive’s thought yesterday when I heard that the Comet Swimming Club in Gisborne is looking for a new Head Coach. That must be New Zealand’s best coaching job. Just consider the benefits.

THE TOWN (Population 36,000)

Okay I’m biased. I come from down that way. But nevertheless, what a place. Beaches to die for. Just consider this list – Okitu Beach, Wainui Beach, Kaitai Beach, Waikanae Beach and Midway Beach. The surf is perfect. The sand light and golden.

The main street, Gladstone Road, has everything a small city needs – good supermarkets, a modern library and all the normal superstores. Not to mention the best fish and chips in the country. But more than that the wonderful smell of summer tar melting on Gladstone Road will stay with you forever.

On the subject of weather, just consider these numbers. During the months of January, February, March, April, November and December Gisborne has good weather with pleasant average temperatures between 20 degrees Celsius and 25 degrees Celsius. The warmest month is January with an average maximum temperature of 24°C. The coldest month is July with an average maximum temperature of 14°C.

 New to the region since my Gisborne days are stunning vineyards and cafes. Without question Gisborne is as good as anything in downtown Auckland.


What can you say about the Comet Swimming Club? Mrs Beth Meade began the club in 1958. The club has only had three long-term coaches, Beth and her son Greg and grandson Andrew. Between them they built a culture of hard work, huge fun and success. Getting that right is not easy. But the Meade family managed it in full measure. Actually, the club reflects its location – a product of semi-rural New Zealand where hard work, equality and honesty are practiced and valued. The culture was so successful that for a few years Comet’s 500 members made it the second biggest club in the country. Only Mt. Eden beat us in those days.

Now Greg has retired,Andrew is studying to be a teacher and the club needs a new head coach. Whoever it turns out to be will inherit a Gisborne institution – a vibrant and caring agency that has done nothing but good for the lovely community it serves.


When I joined Comet, we swam in the old McRae Baths. I’m afraid the pool was in a sorry state. There was a crack in the bottom that let water in from the river during high tides. It was better than swimming in my river at home – but not by much. The pool water still got cloudy when the river was in flood. There was no such thing as heating and so the pool was only open during the summer months. In winter Beth had us swim across the Gisborne Harbour.    

Beth decided the McRae Baths should go and began raising money to build an indoor Olympic Pool. Greg and I thought it would never happen. How many Saturday morning sausages does it take to build an Olympic Pool? Then, one evening Beth got a phone call from a local lawyer. He said a well-known farming family, the Williams family, wanted to make a contribution to Beth’s new pool fund. Could Beth come to his office right way to pick up the money.

Beth asked me to go with her. The lawyer began by saying how much they respected the work Beth was doing. Mr. Williams wanted to help and was thinking of donating 100 to the cause. Beth thanked Mr. Williams for his donation but I could tell she was bitterly disappointed. The lawyer obviously picked up Beth’s disappointment.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I meant $100,000.” With other fundraising, Beth had hit the mark. That is how Comet covered the 50m Pool which looks out over Midway Beach.

In one meeting Comet went from having the worst pool in New Zealand to having the best.


Comet has a culture of success. I remember one Hawkes Bay/Poverty Bay Championships where Comet accumulated more points than all the other clubs combined.

Comet has also had its share of superstars. Greg was a New Zealand junior medley champion. Emily Thomas still holds a couple of Open New Zealand backstroke records and swam in the Commonwealth Games. Laura Quilter also represented New Zealand at the Commonwealth Games. Success in a club like Comet, with its pool, its tradition, and its history, I’m certain will continue.

And so, if you are a good coach, looking for a new challenge and want to work for the best club in New Zealand, send Comet your details. The lady to contact is Rochelle Somerton and her email is comet.rochelle@gmail.com . But if all I have said does not convince you – remember this – Gisborne also has its fair share of palm trees.

Have A Honey Sandwich, Jane

November 1st, 2019


I have mentioned many times the debt I owe Arthur Lydiard and Arch Jelley. Oh, yes I spent four years earning a USA Swimming International Level Five coaching certificate but that was two grains of sand on the beach of knowledge provided by Arthur and Arch. In fact I would argue that the most influential AA in my life is not the Automobile Association. The education provided by Arthur and Arch was given willingly, thoughtfully and without a hint of wanting something in return.

I have two favourite Arthur stories. Both involve the help he gave me during Jane’s swimming career. Both involve the demanding subtly, natural to Arthur Lydiard. No one needed sport’s psychology help when Arthur was around. Here is what happened.

Jane and I were staying in Arthur’s home during the Auckland Short Course Swimming Championships. Jane was getting ready to go back to the pool for afternoon finals. Arthur was in his kitchen and thought Jane should have something to eat.

“Would you like a honey sandwich?” he asked. Arthur had a passion about good honey sandwiches. He had buckets of honey shipped up from Molesworth Station in the South Island of New Zealand. He swore by its fresh cold South Island air quality.

“No thank you.” Jane replied. As Arthur fussed about the kitchen I could tell he wasn’t happy with Jane’s reply.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t like a honey sandwich Jane?” he asked.

“No thank you, I’m fine.” came her reply. There was more activity in the kitchen. Then Arthur appeared in the dining area where Jane was sitting.

“Jane, here is a honey sandwich,” he said and held out a blockbuster of Molesworth Station’s best.

“Thank you Arthur,” Jane said and quietly began eating her honey sandwich.

That’s the way it was with Arthur. Strong-willed, kind and determined to see that athletes did what he thought was in their best interests. Someone said to me once that Arthur said hello like it was an order. He asked if you wanted a honey sandwich the same way.

Jane and I were staying in Arthur’s home on another occasion. I think it might have been for the Auckland Long Course Swimming Championships following the honey story. Jane had done well. On the last day of the meet she was already the Auckland Champion in all three of her favourite breaststroke events. To give her something to do I entered her in the 100 freestyle on the final day.

Jane wasn’t bad at freestyle. But was not in the class, we agreed, to win her age group event. That was going to go to a very good Auckland swimmer, at the time, called Caroline Collard. Caroline was coached by Jan Cameron. I was impressed with Caroline’s swimming. I thought Jan saw her as New Zealand’s next Toni Jeffs and, at the time, I thought that might just be true.

Sure enough the heats went as expected. Caroline was fastest, someone was second and Jane swam a PB to place third for the evening finals.

Back at Arthur’s place for lunch, Arthur asked, “How did you get on?”

“Really well. I’m third for the final.” Jane replied.

“That’s good,” Arthur said and went about his afternoon business. Then just as we were about to leave for the finals Arthur said, “I think I might come and watch the finals tonight,” I could see Jane was full of wonder and questions. Arthur was coming to watch her swim. But why was it the 100 freestyle where at best she would be second to Caroline? He should have watched her win the 200 breaststroke the night before.

As we drove across Auckland towards the Henderson Pool Arthur turned to Jane and said in his unique demanding subtle kindness way, “I think you can win that race tonight, Jane,”

I could see Jane’s eyes, as big as saucers. Clearly she was thinking Arthur did not appreciate the gulf that existed between her and Auckland’s Caroline Collard. I was thinking the same thing. Then Arthur fiddled about in his small carry-bag and handed Jane a large “Rocky Road” chocolate bar. “Have this,” he said, “This will win you the 100 freestyle. And remember too, no one has done the distance work you have done. Turn with everyone at 50 meters and no one will live with you on the way home.”

The way Arthur said that stuff was so incredibly positive, even I was beginning to think, perhaps, just, maybe. In the back seat I could see Jane munching on her “Rocky Road” clearly absorbed in the idea that Arthur thought she could win the whole thing. All she needed to do was turn alongside everybody at halfway and the second length was hers. After all, Arthur was right, no one else had done the conditioning miles. No one else had swum 100×100 every Saturday morning or 2×3000 on Thursday afternoons or 100 kilometres for ten weeks straight. Perhaps, just, maybe.

That night, in the 100 freestyle final, Jane turned first equal at half way. The second 50 was no contest. Jane got ahead and never looked like being caught. That race was the greatness of Lydiard on full display. A “Rocky Road” chocolate bar and miles of swimming around the Waitakeres in preparation and another athlete achieved their potential. That was Arthur’s magic.

Watching two gifted people, Jane and Arthur, at work that night was a privilege I will never forget.

I’ve Got Hospitals Sussed

October 30th, 2019


I’m becoming a bit of an expert on Auckland hospitals. I’ve done time in Auckland Hospital, North Shore Hospital, Waitakere Hospital and, as an outpatient only, Green Lane Hospital. And I think I’ve got the average hospital stay sussed. Each visit is divided into two portions. First there is the admittance and repair and second the consolidation and release.

To be fair the first portion is not all that pleasant. You’re usually not feeling the best and a hundred dedicated people are devoted to fixing whatever has gone wrong. Life is busier than Queens Street on Christmas Eve. Each day moves from breakfast, to blood test, to weight, to blood pressure, to sugar levels, to oxygen absorption, to morning tea, to ECG, to specialist rounds, to time for a wash, to blood pressure and sugar levels again, to lunch, to a visit to the surgical team, to can “I clean your room”, to another blood pressure and sugar test, to another visit from the consultant, to dinner, to a dressing on that wound and ends at 3.00am with the days final blood pressure and sugar test. The Longest Day movie has nothing on the first part of a hospital stay.

When you just want to do nothing the first portion of a hospital visit involves an activity level unmatched anywhere in the civilized world. It’s difficult but I don’t mind the organised chaos. I’m not well and an army of skilled and caring people are doing their friendly best to fix the problem. Occasionally I irrationally ask myself whether the cure is worse than the disease. But that disappears when another friendly nurse appears asking, “Hello Mr Wright, how are we feeling?”

You have to give credit to the army of people devoted to keeping you busy all day. Without exception they are positive, up-beat, caring and polite. Their days must be pretty busy too, looking after dozens of people like me. But it never shows. From surgeon to cleaner – training and skill are different but their generous concern is remarkably similar. I know I could not keep it up day after day, year after year. But these guys in Auckland hospitals are made of sterner stuff.

A remarkable example is the team that looks after vascular surgery at North Shore Hospital. If you ever need anyone to care for your pipes this group of plumbers are the people to contact. Good people doing skilled things is always a pleasure to observe. Whether it is Michael Phelps swimming a 400IM, or John Walker running 1500 meters or a North Shore vascular surgeon drilling out an artery there is a common quality. Some people, it seems, are born to do difficult stuff easily. Just visit the North Shore vascular surgery. You’ll see what I mean.

Eventually all the activity begins to work. You begin to get better. And so begins the second portion of your stay – consolidation and release. Now make the most of this period. It won’t last long. Veteran nurses like North Shore’s Margo, Kathryn, Hannah and Sarah know when you are ready to go. Getting back on the horse is important. And they are going to make sure that is what happens. But for a couple of days things are going to be good.

I’ve got used to the routine, I’m feeling better, the view out my window is stunning, I order breakfast, lunch and dinner and have it delivered. I’ve stayed at worse hotels that Auckland’s hospitals. For as long as you can get away with it, this part of the journey is like a well-run health spa. Some people say they hate being in hospital but for these few days there is no truth in that. Full service, twenty four hours a day, spectacular care, what is there not to like? And don’t believe the stories you hear about hospital food. Of course it’s basic – this is not Sails Restaurant, but it is good wholesome stuff.

And I always remember, these journeys are provided by my caring country free of charge. Compared to Donald Trump and his capitalist health care we are indeed in a fortunate place.

So thank you again – North Shore, Waitakere and Auckland – you have fixed me up again and I’m on my way, the better for it.

But before I go Nurse Margo tells me her son is interested in a career as a pilot. I wish him well. He may even learn at my old training airport, Palmerston North. Lifting an airplane off the ground and heading out over Auckland Harbour takes a pile of beating; even better perhaps than the last couple of days in his mum’s hospital.

It Took Jacinda To Get Me Into Pyjamas

October 28th, 2019

What I put on or take off to go to bed is not something to discuss on Swimwatch. Swimwatch is about sport. My night time uniform falls outside the description of sport. Or at least it should. What happens in my or anyone else’s bedroom is better filed in the drawer named “Private”.

However something so significant happened this week that normal good manners may need to be compromised. I have told you about the operation I had on my arm that required a visit to Auckland Hospital. Sadly they found I also needed a second procedure at North Shore Hospital. When I’m done with all this I plan to start a tourist guide business visiting Auckland medical facilities.

It is off the subject but in the two weeks I have been in two Auckland Hospitals you would not believe the stunning views. Some rich Remuera toffs would pay millions to look out at the scenes I’ve had in the past two weeks. In Auckland Hospital my window looked over the Hauraki Gulf out to Rangitoto Island. Small boats snapped at the ankles of huge container vessels. Cruise ships full of Americas slid into port, credit cards poised to boost Queen Street shops. I could only hope Uncle Sam’s finest were unaware that Sky Tower fumes could well damage the benefits of that expensive deep-sea air.

In North Shore Hospital my window looked out at Lake Pupuke. For readers unaware of Lake Pupuke – I was until this week – it is a most attractive sight. Wikipedia tells me it “is a heart-shaped freshwater lake occupying a volcanic crater (or maar) between the suburbs of Takapuna and Milford on the North Shore of Auckland, New Zealand. Separated from the sea by less than 200 m at one point, it has a circumference of about 4.5 km and reaches a depth of 57 meters.

Aquatic recreation of every sort seems to go on there. Sailboats, canoeing, rowing, those guys who incredibly paddle surfboards standing up and one lone swimmer. I’ve seen them all this week. In fact the physical activity gave me an idea. At 4.5 kilometres around perhaps Alison could do her Monday run around the lake. And at 57 meters deep perhaps Eyad could do his Waitakeres swim for this week as four laps across and back. Generously I offered to sit at my hospital window and time them both. I was certain that Arch Jelley and Arthur Lydiard would think the idea had considerable merit. Sadly wives and young people are not what they used to be. Both declined my princely offer. One retreated to the comfort of the Millennium Pool to swim a set of 10x500s while the other ran 5 kilometres in 33.38 minutes on a treadmill in our local gym. Things are not what they were in my day.

But back to my night-time attire. Since I was twelve years old my eight hours in bed have been spent in either togs (swim suits for non-New Zealanders) and a t-shirt (but only in winter) or a pair of Jockeys (underpants) and a t-shirt. Freedom is what I called the uniform. No masses of cloth and buttons to get tangled up in the sheets. No additional heat to sweat through the night. For sixty years togs, underpants and a t-shirt have served me well.

But this week, North Shore Hospital changed all that. No, they said, my underpants and t-shirt would not do. Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister, required pyjamas in her hospitals. So here I am in a light blue top and trouser suit bottoms number. The designer label is cool. It is underlined in a soft pastel green. Along with iconic names like Burberry, Valentino, Off-White, Givenchy, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and Prada I have a pair of labeled “Hospital Property” pyjamas. In fact the label is so famous it appears 56 times on the top and about 70 times on the trousers. I can understand that. We don’t want people running away with state sponsored pjs.

So thank you Jacinda. The pjs are great and (seriously this time) the medical care is first class. Now back to my window. Let’s see what’s happening on Lake Pupuke.

One More Look At The National Health Service

October 23rd, 2019

This week I spent another three days as a guest of the National Health Service (NHS). I won’t bore you with details of what and how, except to say Swimming New Zealand (SNZ), in the view of health professionals, is responsible for the what and the how. More of that in the coming months.

What I do want to discuss is something way more positive. New Zealand is a most fortunate country. Why? Because of the standard of its health service. The reason for my visit was to have a problem with an artery and vein in my arm addressed. The procedure involved going into Auckland Hospital on Monday, having the operation on Tuesday and being discharged on Wednesday. The operation is not huge; certainly no heart/lung transplant. But it is more serious than having a mole removed. Until very recently it always involved a general anaesthetic. Today that is still usually the case, but not always. Evidently advances in ultrasound scanning have meant that for selected patients the nerves of just the arm can be selectively blocked and the operation conducted as a local anaesthetic procedure.

Two types of the procedure are available AVF and AVG. The more recent AVF is made by connecting a vein, most often in a patient’s arm, to a nearby artery. In contrast, the AVG uses an artificial device, a plastic tube, to make the artery-vein connection. In the USA 25% of operations still involve the older and less efficient AVG procedure. In New Zealand, what I had done this week and what is always done in New Zealand is the new AVF operation. Additionally, in the USA, the average annual cost for creating and maintaining an AVF is, an incredible, $US60,000. That’s 93,000 downtown Auckland dollars.

Just consider that fact for a moment. I walked into Auckland Hospital on Monday. I had the most modern procedure under local anaesthetic on Tuesday and walked out on Wednesday at no direct cost. In Florida I’d be searching for $NZ93,000 before I was allowed in any hospital door. And even then there is a 25% chance I’d have to accept the old plastic tube treatment. We are indeed a lucky, caring and generous nation.

But it does not stop there. Everyone always says this, but it does not make it any less true. The staff in New Zealand hospitals are bloody incredible. From the cleaners, to the porters, to the nurse who checks your blood pressure at two in the morning, to the theatre nurses and the surgeons; without exception they are kind, they are caring and they are courteous. I don’t know how they do it day after day – but they do.

But more than that they innovate. I was pleased enough that my operation only involved a local anesthetic. As I was being prepared in the operating theatre the anesthetist asked if I’d like to watch the operation on TV. “Of course,” I said. Seconds later a wide screen TV was found and for an hour I lay and watched two incredibly skilled people cut me open, fix me up and sew me back together. Bloody amazing. The detail is stunning. Tiny little blood vessels and nerves are manipulated and repaired. The skill is beyond belief. There is a surprising lack of blood. The commentary explaining what’s happening to a medical novice is first class. It’s an hour of riveting TV with no ad-breaks.

Even when a major fire broke out within view of the theatre windows I’m delighted to report that the two surgeons appeared to be far more interested in my arm than the drama outside. And so thank-you National Health Service. Thank-you for looking after me again. As Mohammed Ali once said, “You done splendid.”

I have found that most trips to a hospital have their lighter moments. Not every patient is as lucky as me. For some their procedure involves a general anaesthetic. The chap in the bed next to mine was recovering from a “general”. He was still very confused.

He asked his nurse, “Where am I?”

“In Ward 71,” she replied.

“Where is that?” he asked.

“In Auckland Hospital,” she patiently explained.

 “Where is that?” he said again.

Calm and without any sarcasm whatsoever the nurse gently replied, “In Auckland.”