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Swimming New Zealand battles to stay afloat in a crowded pool

by ZwemZa on August 13th, 2017
 Backstroker Corey Main is a rising star of New Zealand swimming. (Supplied)


Backstroker Corey Main is a rising star of New Zealand swimming. (Supplied)

Swimming New Zealand’s current goal may be closer to keeping its head above water than a place on the podium.

The sport has three major problems – a lack of star performers, a lack of funding and intense competition for sporting talent.

The retirement of the country’s only top echelon swimmer, Lauren Boyle, last week has magnified two of those woes, but Swimming NZ chief executive Steve Johns said the organisation can’t solely focus on the performance “shop window” of the sport.

Danyon Loader has three of New Zealand's seven Olympic swimming medals.

Danyon Loader has three of New Zealand’s seven Olympic swimming medals.REUTERS

“Some people often forget that the mandate of Swimming New Zealand is everything from grass roots – beginners’ swimming – right through to high performance swimming,” Johns said.

“Often the HP bit becomes the shop window – and certainly the bit as an organisation we get judged on. It’s an area where we put a significant amount of time and investment into, but there’s the other part of our business which is about growing swimming and getting more people into swimming, making sure our clubs are more capable and able to attract more people.”

Johns said swimming could be classed “as a traditional sport – it’s been around for a long long time and it’s probably still being delivered today the same way as it was 50 or 60 years ago – join a club, get into training, be a competitive swimmer and see where that competitive pathway takes you.

“But like so many of the other traditional sports in NZ, we’re faced with all of these new sports coming into NZ. When I was a kid in the summertime where I came from, you sorta had a choice of swimming, surf-lifesaving or cricket and that was it. These days the younger generation have the access to play so many more different sports.

“They look at swimming and they go ‘jeepers, I’ve got four early mornings a week for training then all weekend at a swimming carnival’. Whereas if I go and play 3×3 basketball, it’s a short little game, or if I sit at home there’s all the options with the internet.

“It’s becoming harder and harder to build that base, which is a big focus for us. The more people we get coming in at the base, the more opportunity we get of another Lauren Boyle at the top.”

Johns said where Swimming NZ directs its focus is a balancing act.

“They’re two very very different things. Our High Performance team has a very narrow focus – it’s all about taking the best swimmers in New Zealand, giving them the best programmes and services, take them away to international meets and hopefully getting some podium finishes.

“The other part of the business has a very broad focus. We put as much attention on both of them, it’s just that the High Performance bit is quite black and white.”

Johns said building the business from the ground up has its structural difficulties.

“We’re trying to build the size of swimming clubs but then we’re faced with, particularly in the major metropolitan areas, increased demands for water space.

“A lot of our big clubs in Auckland and Wellington can’t really take any more people because they’re at capacity in terms of the water space they have available. So we’re not like a green fields sport where there are pieces of grass all over the city – there’s only a very limited number of swimming pools.

“Having a strategy to get out there and aggressively grow the number of people coming into our sport has its challenges because a lot of the clubs are saying ‘we can’t take any more people’. We need more water space and of course there’s the whole issue around the cost of water space.”

Finance is a concern for Swimming NZ – its High Performance Sport New Zealand yearly funding was cut from $1.3 million to about $900,000 for 2017 after no Kiwi swimmers made an A final at the 2016 Olympic Games.

That’s already led to the organisation’s high performance development athlete coach, Gary Hurring, and high performance coaching director, Donna Bouzaid, having their roles disestablished.

Despite that, Johns said “we have a very good relationship with High Performance Sport NZ”.

“They understand that swimming, like tennis and golf, are truly global sports. At the recent world champs, there were 173 nations competing.”

Johns was philosophical of the HPSNZ funding model that places an emphasis on world-class results for funding, but can leave organisations struggling to reach the top with reduced financial backing.

“There’s some good logic in that [policy] … but if you get a funding cut, it’s going to make it even harder to achieve results in the next cycle.

“In my time at Tennis New Zealand, I was fully open in saying that while I understand that High Performance Sport NZ has a funding policy they must work within, I think one of the difficult things is that you’re not really comparing apples with apples across the different sports. Some of the sports that are funded significantly well might have 20 nations competing at the top level.

“It’s hard to have one policy but in saying that, I can see how they’d be justified in saying how hard it would be having one funding policy for one sport and one for another.”

An injury that meant Boyle wasn’t at her best last year ensured results were disappointing in Rio, but the expectation on New Zealand swimmers is probably always too high given history. The country has just five Olympic medals – one of which came over a century ago – with Danyon Loader being our only world-class swimming superstar.

With the retirement of Boyle and fellow veteran Glenn Snyders, 22-year-old backstroker Corey Main is left as NZ’s best-performed swimmer. He made the final of the 100m backstroke at the recent world champs and the Florida-based former Aucklander is still improving.

Johns knows that a world-class performer – or more – in the shop window would draw much-wanted attention.

“In terms of profile, the more Laurens we can have, the more chance we’ve got to battle in the media columns, on tv and radio, with other sports,” he said.

“Then hopefully with the young kids they might think ‘that swimming sport looks pretty good, I might hop into that’.”

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