Swim supremo Jan Cameron

By Michele Hewitson

Jan Cameron sits at her side of the desk in her small office overlooking the pool at the Millennium centre. I sit on the other side, on a most uncomfortable chair which is so close to the desk that I bang my knees.

She completely ignores the whimpering coming from the other side of her desk. But the look on her face suggests that what she would like to say is: "Stop that. Another 100 laps of the pool for you, madam."

Cameron is impervious to complainers. Of course she is: she's the very successful coach of the New Zealand swimming team and you don't train champions by indulging wimps.

I take out a notebook and a pen and she takes up her pen and adjusts the blank sheet of paper she already has organised in front of her. How odd. Is she going to take notes? Write down any questions she finds particularly stupid? Mark my performance?

She would, you feel after not very long with her, be capable of all of the above. She is a coach and she used to be a PE teacher, and we all know what strict types they are.

So the pen at the ready is disconcerting. But for the moment I am more distracted by her quite long, bright red fingernails and I don't really know how to ask about them.

There is no particular reason she should not have bright red fingernails. Except that she does not, in her all black track coaching ensemble and short, practical coach's haircut, look particularly girly. And long red fingernails are particularly girly. She could, for all I know, get around at home in floaty pink frocks, but somehow I doubt it.

There is, in the end, only one way: "I'm intrigued by your fingernails. Because, aah, you're not really very girly, are you?"

I leave this until right at the end, as we're leaving, because she gives me a fair few looks during our hour together which plainly say, "I think you're a bit of a twit but I'm too polite to say so." So she can't be quite as outspoken as people say.

The twittiest thing I asked her was whether she ever got in the pool with her swimmers. "No," she says, incredulously. "These are senior swimmers, highly tuned athletes. It's like saying 'do you jump in the car with Michael Schumacher"'

I had only asked because I'm taken aback when she tells me she never swims in pools anymore, ever. This seems odd. She was a champion swimmer, a highly tuned athlete, who won silver at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 and two silvers and a bronze at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Jamaica.

She might, having started competitive swimming at the age of 13, be over a daily dousing in chlorine. But she still talks about swimming with such joy.

"You know, I love swimming. I love the water. I think you're either a water person or you're not."

What she loves about it is "the feel, the freedom of moving through the water. I think that's a thing that is innate. Some people have that, they really love water and I'm a Pisces."

So she still swims, just not in pools. She likes the sea. "I don't like cold water much. I like water to be warm and clear, and clean white sand, yeah, all of that. But I've done my time in the swimming pool and I'm quite happy with what I did."

Cameron is, of course, the swimming coach who has, single-handedly many say, made NZ swimming if not golden again, then nice and silvery.

Those were her kids in the pool at Melbourne winning medals, then breaking records in the pool in China at the world champs, then at home in Christchurch at the national champs breaking more records.

She has her eye on gold: at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. And if sheer single-mindedness has anything to do with it, you imagine she may well achieve that goal.

After not very long with Cameron you find yourself thinking in coach talk, hence the above sentence. It is catching. So much so that after an hour with Cameron I could draw you a diagram setting out exactly how the swimming programme works.

This is what Cameron is doing with her piece of paper. She's drawing boxes and circles within boxes and arrows to show how children move through the programme and how boxes and circles and arrows equal goals and strategies and choices. It's a coach thing. She does it all the time: "Sadly."

Cameron likes forensic science novels - of course she does, all that detail and a good result at the end - and historical novels.

"I'm quite into Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar at the moment, from the point of view of leadership and campaigns. Yeah, the great generals of the world."

This is the stuff she's reading on the holiday she's now on. She says she's good at relaxing but "I wouldn't like to think I wasn't learning. You can chill and learn."

And, presumably, chill and draw diagrams setting out campaigns.

She doesn't do false modesty. If you put it to her that she's the strength of NZ swimming she says, "I think that's a true statement. I think that you have to have a leader, a driver, and I can accept that mantle, I'm happy to. But one leader does not make a programme. You need generals, you need an army, you need a lot of things and I'm very fortunate to have that support."

What everyone says about her is that she's tough as boots. She takes that as a compliment.

"I do. I think it means uncompromising and that means that if you set a task that you complete it without compromise."

She would much rather talk about goals and strategies than talk about herself. And because she is so, well, uncompromising, it can be a battle of Alexandrine proportions to get her to stop doing her damn diagrams and talk about her family, say. She tells me she grew up in Sydney, the oldest of three, with two rugby-mad brothers. "You know, a very well-grounded family. If you wanted to do something you should go after it. No compromises; no excuses."

Then she says, "So, now back to these people [her swimmers]."

So it feels quite daring to say "No, I haven't finished talking about you yet." In the way that it would feel daring to say to a PE teacher, "No, I'm not going to run around the playing field eight more times."

She denies being bossy. "Aah, I don't think bossy would be the term I'd use. I don't think people enjoy being bossed or told what to do. I think it's more enjoyable for a pathway to be outlined and to know you have a partner to help you through that pathway." I think she is a bit bossy. See how deftly she got us back to goals and pathways and partners.

And about those fingernails. She got them done especially for the champs in China. But she does like to do girly things, like going for manicures with the girls on the swim team.

She is, she says, big on cuddles. A swimmer gets the same cuddle, win or lose. The cuddles are the same, but they mean two different things: "One is comfort; the other is joy."

She is nowhere near as scary as her straight-talking, tough Aussie sheila image might imply. I still can't quite see her in floaty pink numbers.

But with Jan Cameron, who manages to be both tough lady and comfort cuddler, you never know.

 

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