Overseas born coaches drive chase for sailing & diving gold
In the equal-trade of world sports where, like most industries, it is a global market, Sailing and Diving head coaches Victor Kovalenko and Hui Tong, are Australia’s gain and the Ukraine and China’s loss. While much has been made of the ‘brain drain’ away from Australian sport, these two overseas-born coaches have settled here and transformed their sports into gold-medal winners. They list the restructure of their sporting bodies as a key to their success and have strong views on what’s needed to build their sports and Australian sporting prestige.
Mr Kovalenko shuns his ‘medal maker’ moniker and insists he merely influenced Australian sailing with his ‘big vision preparation’. “To be the winner you need three things: time, a good system, and money. I brought the system to Australia, and after that it is a matter of the time and money invested,” Mr Kovalenko said. “Sailing is a multi-medal sport, we have the system in place and sailing has won 9 Olympic medals.”
Mr Tong agreed a good system was critical to coaching success. “I was also heavily involved in the complete restructure of Diving Australia, and pushed to implement high performance selection criteria for the junior, national development and national squad,” he said. “It was also my duty to establish a high performance training outline for the squads. I also utilise technology and sports science and sports medicine to enhance athletes’ performance.”
Mr Tong rated Australia as mid- to high-level in world diving. “We are stronger in women's tower events, weaker in men's events – Matthew Mitcham is an exception,” he said. “In order to get on top of the world in diving, Australia needs more male divers, more national talent development squads and more access to the training facilities.”
The coaches agreed there was a brain drain away from sports the world over.
Mr Tong said the brain drain affected Australia’s powerhouse sports of swimming and cycling: “On the other hand, I think we are getting the top coaches from other countries for our aerial sports such as Gymnastic, Diving, Trampoline, Aerial Ski.” Mr Kovalenko believed if Australia wanted to restore shine to its image as one of the world’s top sporting nations, it had to stem the flow of amateur athletes to professional ranks – and other countries.
And we all had a role to play – embracing new sports with the enthusiasm of the time-honoured favourites, giving more respect, recognition and positive press to amateur athletes and their coaches striving to be the best in the world, and paying them more. “The brain drain is a normal tendency in modern sport, we have to be ready for this. And the best way is recognition – of country. It’s not always money. “We have to support more of our top athletes, to keep them on track, to protect them from professional sport, to stay in Olympic sport and not move to other countries.
“We have migration in any sport, for example soccer where they pay more to one coach - one million more and he’s moving to another place. “But in Olympic sport we’re not talking about millions – this is about recognition – and sometimes this is money, sometimes it is an article in the newspaper.” And while winning Olympic medals could bring untold recognition, more coverage of World Cups and other international competitions in the non-Olympic years, would help keep interest and pride alive.
Despite being born in other countries the coaches felt no conflicting loyalties. For Ukraine-born Mr Kovalenko, it was love at first sight of Australia when he visited Brisbane in 1991. He became an Australian citizen in 2003 and drives his motorboat proudly under an Australian flag. “I realise this is the best country in the world. Not because of the nation, but because of its people, very special people,” Mr Kovalenko said. “Australia offered me unique opportunities to develop as a coach, as a professional in sport, as a mentor, as a teacher, as a person. I really appreciate this and I am proud to be Australian.” Mr Tong said he chose to coach for Australia because he saw potential in Australia diving and the opportunity to expand and develop his coaching career.
Retired diving gold medalist Chantelle Newbery is grateful for his contribution. “Without his influence or support, I don’t believe I would have won my Olympic gold medal in 2004,” Ms Newbery said. “I believe when he came to Australia he took our sport to another level. He provided strong and professional leadership and worked with all the AIS athletes equally. He was the type of coach that if he walked into a room, he inspired you to perform. As an athlete, I always wanted to impress him.”
Australian Sailing Team 470 racer Mathew Belcher was similar in his praise of Mr Kovalenko, describing him as ‘the biggest influence on my sailing career’. “He’s such an inspirational man, to keep us campaigning for 12 years to the level that we have, and with the time and commitment that we’ve given, is phenomenal,” Belcher said. “Victor has been able to keep us hungry for more success and keep pushing ourselves not so much in sailing but in our personal lives and he’s been able to guide us to where we want to go and reach our goals and dreams,” he said.
The coaches said the ASC and AIS were critical to their sports. Mr Tong said: “The ASC/Australia Diving Association is a well structured and well managed professional organization. Personally I can feel the trust and strong support from the management team”. “The AIS Diving program, located in Brisbane which is one of the best training facility in the world. Athletes have good access to the sports science and sports medicine when they need them.” Mr Kovalenko said: “Most important is the experience we have to build the system now – the Sports Commission and the AIS they realise now where we are and with their support we are moving so far.”