Independent Reviews Suggest Major Reform to Broken Swimming Australia

PHOENIX, Arizona, February 19. TWO independent reviews of the way Swimming Australia was run in the months leading up to and during the 2012 Olympics were released today, suggesting major and immediate changes to the organization.

The Independent Swimming Review, delivered to the Australian Sports Commission, and the Bluestone Edge Review, commissioned by Swimming Australia, examined the aspects of the culture and leadership of swimming that most affected performance in London and could continue to hamper the country's swimming stature in the future. While both reviews were conducted separately and focus on different aspects of the organization, it is interesting to note that both recommended overwhelming reform to bring swimming back to the high status it has enjoyed for decades, but lost for the most part last year.

Swimming Australia called for these reviews almost immediately after the conclusion of the swimming competition in London, where athletes won 10 medals, only one of which was gold, its worst Olympic performance in decades.

The Bluestone Review, submitted to Swimming Australia on January 30 but made public today, based its findings on interviews with athletes and coaches on the national team and shone its spotlight on the conduct of the swimmers, coaches and other leaders at the Olympics. While the review panel praised the concept of athletes and coaches using individualized training plans to optimize performance, it also believed team bonding suffered greatly in London. Many of the first-time Olympians told the panel they felt unguided by the veterans, and were left to their own devices to find structure in the training camps and at the Olympics, while the more established athletes relied instantly on routines that were not shared with others.

The media was a heavy target of the Bluestone Review, calling out the press on putting high expectations on the swimmers before the Olympics. Though the coaches and Swimming Australia executives also were criticized for not doing their part to “dampen the expectations,” the media throng that followed the Australian team's every move in London was blasted for creating “more public thirst for spectacular entertainment that was then keenly unquenched” by the subpar performances in the pool by the team's more visible athletes.

With the high expectations of many gold medals placed on the swim team by the media — and in some way, by the team leaders — the panel noted there was no alternate plan for dealing with the emotional lows many swimmers felt when races were not going as planned, particularly in the early days of the meet. The review noted that veteran swimmers attempted to boost morale, but it was much too late to recover and perform well. Having a sports psychologist on the staff, the review finds, could have been a big help to the athletes.

Despite the win by the Australian women in the 400 free relay and a bounty of medals by Alicia Coutts, the team was not performing up to the standards they set at their trials earlier in the year, and as a result, many swimmers began to make compromises in regards to their swims. A personal best was fine, even if it didn't bring them a medal.

The disjointed nature of the way the leadership handled negative issues within the team before and during the Olympics was the overriding message the Bluestone Edge panel seemed to convey in their review. The lack of sustained and cohesive leadership is what led many swimmers to not know who to talk to about personal or team-related issues, and what led to a feeling of a class system within the Australian Olympic team.

Among the dozens of recommendations suggested in the Bluestone Edge review is a plan to execute “rigorous social media and other media policies.” Though the review does not specify what those policies should be, it would appear that Swimming Australia is already implementing that suggestion. During the BHP Aquatic Super Series competition and the subsequent national team training camp, athletes were not allowed to use social media during official team functions, such as meetings and team dinners. National team head coach Leigh Nugent said the move had already created a stronger bond among the team members.

In terms of creating a better team community, the review panel suggested “innovative, realistic and well-planned” strategies to help the athletes know each other before a major competition, and to implement these strategies well in advance of the competition.

The final recommendation of the panel was in the area of leadership, stressing that the most popular athletes on the team are not always the best at leading the team. “In no small measure, leadership involves the ability to inspire and influence others,” the panel wrote. To this end, the review suggested grassroots programs to teach athletes, coaches and executives the essence of leadership through collaboration and experience.

The Independent Swimming Review took its analysis deeper into the Swimming Australia organization, suggesting wide-sweeping changes that trickled down from the board of directors to the developmental level.

Two major suggestions among its 35 recommendations included the hiring of a high performance director and the creation of the High Performance Committee within the existing board of directors structure. The high performance director will work as the direct link to the Swimming Australia CEO and the head of the high performance department. Leigh Nugent's position as national team head coach remains, with the review tasking Swimming Australia to provide Nugent with more structure to adequately lead the wet side of elite swimming in Australia, and removing much of the repetitive and burdensome responsibilities he had leading up to the Olympics.

The High Performance Committee will, to quote the review, “improve oversight of the High Performance Program and accountability for its performance.” People not directly involved with Swimming Australia are advised to be a part of this committee.

Another key element of the review was the way Swimming Australia identified talent at the age-group level. Instead of focusing only on the top national and state junior championships, the review suggested that coaches keep an eye on all levels of competition to find future talent.

The Independent Swimming Review agreed with the Bluestone Edge Review in that the elite athletes need a better system of becoming a more cohesive group, which is likely to translate into better performance. A suggestion of inducting the younger athletes into the national team family by recognizing the history of the team was brought up, using successful techniques used in cricket and sailing in Australia. Another thing the Independent Swimming Review and the Bluestone Edge Review have similar opinions is in regard to the presence of a sports psychologist at major competitions, something that had been the norm for years but was not in place at the London Olympics.

In the wake of the public release of the reviews, Swimming Australia President Barclay Nettlefold told the newspaper The Australian that a special Integrity Commission is being formed to look deeper into the allegations of wrongdoing during the pre-Olympics training camp. Members of the men's 400 free relay have been singled out for pranking teammates late at night and ingesting a forbidden medication as part of a hazing ritual. Any guilty person could lose national team funding and a place on a future national team, according to the article.

Nettlefold said results of the Integrity Commission are expected in 30 days.

Full text of Independent Swimming Review

Full text of Bluestone Edge Review

Full text of Australian article