Academy Southland could be incubator for NZ's top young talent
OPINION: On a bluebird Southland day thousands of people stood in Invercargill's streets to celebrate our Olympic success.
Seven Olympians in total, a gold medal to Nathan Cohen and bronze for Storm Uru.
Earlier this month, Paralympic tandem cyclists Phillipa Gray and Laura Thompson rode their way to gold, silver and bronze in London.
It has, by any measure, been a very successful time.
But what's being done to ensure that sporting glow does not fade away?
As it turns out, plenty.
Academy Southland began in 2005 as a pilot project run from Dunedin.
Jason McKenzie became involved in 2006 and began running the programme in 2007.
Olympians Eddie Dawkins and Natalie Wiegersma and cyclist Tom Scully were involved in the early years, along with Paralympic thrower Jess Hamill, but the programme has also produced seven Commonwealth Games representatives, and an Olympic youth champion.
During the past eight years, 23 athletes have gone on to become "carded", that is supported at an elite level, by their own sports and several have succeeded at junior world championship level.
In recent successes, cricketer Jacob Scully has earned a Volts contract for this summer and golfer Vaughan McCall will represent New Zealand at the Eisenhower Trophy.
The Southland academy is based on the services run by Sport New Zealand and High Performance Sport New Zealand, which replaced Sparc, but is designed to support young athletes who have not yet come under the wing of their own sports.
Southland riders at the junior world track championships in Invercargill were able to access key areas like strength and conditioning, nutrition, mental skills and support that their New Zealand team-mates could only get by paying for it themselves.
Each year about a dozen athletes start the two-year programme, and there is also a scholarship programme for those athletes who receive only partial funding from their sports.
You could argue that our best and brightest athletes would succeed anyway, but don't argue it with McKenzie.
"In general, most sports do not have a regional-based support network of providers, just quality sport-specific coaches," he says.
"We provide the support services for the athletes and coaches from specialists that are very well trained in their discipline areas.
"Often, coaches do try to cover off these areas and do so well, but many don't have the time or knowledge across these specific areas."
Academy Southland now has McKenzie, strength and conditioning coach Simon Jones and dietician Aimee Burns in part-time roles.
The academy receives $36,000 annually from the Community Trust of Southland, $15,000 from the ILT Foundation and support from national sports organisations and Sport Southland.
The money is spent on services for athletes, including workshops and individual consultations in strength and conditioning, nutrition, mental skills, athlete life, physiotherapy, podiatry, among other things.
That's what we have now.
Since last December, a group of like-minded Southlanders involved in sport - people like McKenzie, Mike Piper, Richard Hoskin, Keith Brown and Sid Cumming - have been investigating how the academy could be developed.
The plan is to pull together some funding for an independent review that would guide the way forward.
They are wary of pushing the wrong buttons because a similar scheme two years ago failed to gain the support of community funders because it was seen as being too focused on high- performance athletes.
The group were keen not to pre-empt what the academy might look like in the future, but there are some suggestions. It should be based at Surrey Park; that seems to be a no-brainer. They would like to see fulltime roles established in the fields of conditioning and nutrition.
Beyond that, the investment shouldn't be astronomical.
A hot and cold recovery room can be as simple as two spa pools, one plugged in, the other not. At the moment athletes share gym facilities with the public, a situation that is not ideal for anyone. Any gym facility would not need to be packed with hi-tech, expensive equipment and it wouldn't compete against any commercial ventures.
Money is obviously the biggest issue here. The community trust baulked at the idea of committing more money to a "Centre of Excellence" in 2010, particularly because no sports were willing to contribute financially.
When I met some of the people behind this latest initiative, they were realistic about the enthusiasm they will encounter from oversubscribed community funders.
There are sponsorship opportunities, however, and even potential revenue streams, including providing services for visiting sports team.
As I've written in this column before, Southland has the opportunity to avoid becoming another provincial sporting backwater, and could instead be a leader in the industry.
It could become an incubator for top young sporting talent - not just in the south, but drawing in athletes from throughout the country.
That wonderful feeling we experienced listening to our Olympic heroes talking about how proud they were to be Southlanders from the balcony of the Civic Theatre need not be a once-in-a-generation thing.
- © Fairfax NZ News