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Triathlon: Doubts remain over move

Mikayla Nielsen. Photo / Rotorua Daily Post
Mikayla Nielsen. Photo / Rotorua Daily Post

The decision's been made but the debate continues over triathlete-coach relationships being affected by the sport's move to a centralised base in Cambridge this year.

A number of the 14 high performance squad athletes work with coaches outside those contracted to Triathlon New Zealand. Three (Andrea Hewitt, Kate McIlroy and Ryan Sissons) enjoy more independence because they're deemed to have proven track records. The other 11 - labelled 'podium development' and 'development' athletes - risk missing crucial taxpayer funding if they opt to work solely with personal coaches outside the TriNZ high performance programme.

Despite $6.155 million in government backing across the last Olympic campaign, TriNZ failed to secure a medal in London. That prompted triathlon's administrators to establish a centralised base, as heavy-medalled sports like rowing and cycling have done.

Stephen Sheldrake spent several years working for TriNZ but was not appointed in the recent coaching restructure. He coaches 2011 junior world champion Mikayla Nielsen who is one of six athletes identified as 'podium development' until the next Games.

Sheldrake was one of several independent coaches approached by the Herald on Sunday and the only one prepared to speak on the record. Others who mentor athletes in the restructured programme are also believed to be wary of the revamp. Sheldrake says the idea of passing athletes to another band of coaches, after they have developed under a previous coach, has flaws.

"A few coaches are unhappy because they've done the ground work with athletes and want to continue doing so. For instance, I've worked with Mikayla and developed a good relationship; I can see a place for an athlete needing a choice.

"It is a transitional period and Cambridge is seen as the be-all and end-all. However, I understand why TriNZ want it to be about as much contact as possible between coach and athlete [in a centralised programme]. Also, coaches often have families and other full-time jobs so it's hard to totally devote to athletes.

"I certainly hope a three-way relationship can somehow be created [with Mikayla] but that probably won't suit my coaching style. It might end up being an athlete's call to have a personal coach, but they risk a funding bypass."

Graeme Maw began as TriNZ high performance director in December. He says the centralised programme shouldn't be treated in black-and-white terms.

"The athletes will not be based at the high performance centre 365 days a year. It's really just a means to get them expert coaching for a concentrated period of time. I'm a little quizzical as to why there is still a debate on centralisation. It has been flagged as 'required' from the past two Olympic reviews. It's not a new idea. I understand people adapt in different ways to change but this is intended to be about what's best for athletes rather than coaches.

"We have to believe those invited to the HP programme will have a better chance of winning Olympic medals, like the clusters of expertise surrounding New Zealand's rowers and cyclists. When you see [Olympic champion] Alistair Brownlee running 10,000m in 28m 32s on the track at Stanford last week, you've got to ask where in New Zealand - even in an individual discipline - is the coaching to get athletes to that level?

"To help athletes do that we need to pool our resources - which are considerably less than Britain's as an example of economy of scale - and take responsibility for what we get funded for. That's why we're recruiting science, coaching and therapy expertise from around the world."

- Herald on Sunday

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