Profile of HPSNZ Chief Executive Alex Baumann

The new Chief Executive of High Performance Sport New Zealand believes in winning.

That’s hardly a surprise. Alex Baumann was one of Canada’s greatest swimmers, winning gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in both the 200 metre and 400m individual medley races in world record times. He also won five gold medals and two silver medals at the 1982 and 1986 Commonwealth Games.

Baumann certainly knows all about the stresses of performing at the highest levels of sporting excellence. "I’ve always believed in continuous improvement – that you always need to strive to be the best."

Since being a top athlete himself, he has gone on to coach others and get involved in top sports administration. His experience as a swimmer has only helped that, he says. "It gives me a sense of what is required to be the best in the world."

He notes that world class athletes don’t necessarily make great coaches, or great administrators, but going through the system has given him a lot of knowledge and experience.

"I believe in creating that culture of focusing on excellence and often that means making hard decisions that some people may not like. But I’ve always believed you can’t be scared of making difficult decisions because you may offend someone. If you believe in really focusing on excellence and aspiring to be the best in the world you have to do that."

And he certainly knows what it takes. He was twice named World Male Swimmer of the Year, in 1981 and 1984, and is a member of the Canadian Sports and Canadian Amateur Sports Hall of Fame. Canada has also honoured him with the Order of Ontario, an Honorary Doctorate (PhD) in Physical Education from Laurentian University, and by making him an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Baumann, 47, was the Chief Executive Officer of Own the Podium, Canada’s high performance sport programme, before bringing his family to New Zealand where he takes up his new role on January 31, 2012.

High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) has been formed through a merger of the New Zealand Academy of Sport and Sport and Recreation New Zealand's High Performance Unit. It will develop high performance athletes with an annual spend of $60 million and will further develop world-class training facilities in partnerships with the private sector.

Baumann was born in Prague and moved to Canada with his family as a child. He is married to an Australian and spent 15 years living there, during which time he was the Executive Director for the Queensland Academy of Sport and Chief Executive Officer of Queensland Swimming. He returned to Canada five years ago to work with that country’s high performance athletes and achieved great results, both with Canadian athletes and in raising funding for high performance sport.

The move Down Under allows Mr Baumann, along with his Australian-born wife Tracy and their two children, to be closer to extended family. He recently had a second bout with cancer, which forced him to undergo surgery of the prostate.

"One of the reasons I’m looking forward to moving is that my wife will be closer to her family. You have to put family first at times. My health is fine now; it’s not an issue any more. They caught it early. But it did make me re-adjust my priorities a bit," he says.

"The other reason is this job is quite attractive because I think the new structure is right. All the High Performance components will be under the one roof and there is the opportunity to be as streamlined as possible with minimal duplication."

He has a lot of respect for New Zealand’s sporting achievement and wants to ensure our athletes have the best opportunity for success at the next Olympic Games in London next year and then in Rio four years later.

"We will be planning for post 2012, making sure we retain the best people and recruit the best people. Coaching would be the number one priority. I’ve always believed that if you have the best coaches in the world then you have a much better chance of success."

He learnt that lesson through his own experience with his swimming coach Dr Jeno Tihanyi.

"I never thought that I could make the Olympics or break world records until a year before I actually did that. It was coaching that made the difference. My coach had a tremendous influence," he says. "We’d always break it up and we’d never go for gold medals necessarily or world records but it was always about planning each race and having a strategy. The world records weren’t the focus – it was the process not the outcome."

He first got a taste for competitive swimming when he was just nine years old. Now his own kids are teenagers and getting their own taste for it. One of his children was swimming at last year’s Pan American Games in Mexico.

"I try to keep out of it," he laughs. "It’s a different environment from the one I swam in. I had a very authoritarian coach. But now you need to empower athletes to want to do it themselves, otherwise they’re not going to do it. You still have to have those high aspirations and high goals. You won’t always reach them but I think it’s important to try to do that."

Participating for the sake of it is too "politically correct" for him, says Baumann. While it may not always be about winning, it is always about doing your best.

"I really think you can’t shy away from trying to improve and trying to do your best and that sometimes comes out as winning. Ultimately if you don’t strive to do your best then there’s a problem."

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See also the media release Canadian swimming great to lead High Performance Sport New Zealand