Nine minutes with AIMS Games boss Vicki Semple
With more than 11,000 student athletes descending on Tauranga in the midst of a measles outbreak, and in the middle of day-long downpour, you could forgive Vicki Semple for being a bit flustered.
This woman is in charge of a sports event that now rivals the Olympic Games for its sheer number of competitors (the 2016 Rio Games had 11,303 athletes). And she's been there since the very start, 16 years ago.
When LockerRoom calls to request a quick chat, you could probably forgive her for not viewing the requisition of a chunk of her precious time with obvious glee.
But Semple sounds delighted that we’ve called, makes herself available immediately, provides clear directions straight to her location at Blake Park, instructs a security guard to free up a carpark (as otherwise there wouldn’t be one for miles) and usher us into the venue.
She’s mid-way through an email when we turn up, but quickly fires it off and asks how the AIMS Games experience is going for the futsal team I coach. When I mention that a gastro bug has wiped out two of my players that morning, she motions to a large box filled with hand sanitiser dispensers.
Vicki Semple appears to be the world’s most organised woman – but she’s clearly busy.
LockerRoom: So you’ve been involved in AIMS Games right from the start. Tell me about that.
Vicki Semple: This is the 16th AIMS games and I have been involved from the start. Dame Susan Devoy employed me at Sport BOP at the beginning of 2004. On my very first day I arrived and she said ‘Your first job is to go to a meeting at Tauranga Intermediate. A couple of school principals have come up with an idea for a sports event for intermediate-aged kids and they’d like a representative from Sport BOP to go along’. And that was me. Lucky, lucky me. I’ve been involved right from the start, and it is pretty awesome.
LR: So at that first meeting, what was the idea on the table?
VS: They just wanted to have an inter-school event where kids could celebrate sport, win medals, and get lots and lots of kids together. Who doesn’t love a good sports tournament? You know yourself, your favourite memories are representing your school with your friends. That was pretty much the vision.
LR: So going back to year one, how did you pull it together – and what sports were involved?
VS: Technology back then wasn’t what it is now, so we basically faxed and mailed schools. We had four sporting codes – football, netball, hockey and cross country. We had 17 schools (this year we have 369) and 750 kids. This year there are over 11,000 – so we have definitely come a long way. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think the AIMS Games would grow to this level.
LR: Even 750 kids in year one is quite an undertaking?
VS: We were absolutely delighted with that. And we have continued to grow. Every year we have got bigger and bigger and bigger. But, to be honest, growth in numbers isn’t actually our goal. Our goal is to make sure we are always on our A-game, always moving with the times. Making sure we are introducing new sports that the kids are into. Making sure the tournament runs really well. Growth numbers aren’t our key driver.
LR: Growth also make things more difficult as well, surely? Looking at the scale of the event now when you are delivering so many sports (23), how does it work?
VS: We have got an awesome team. It takes a lot of people to run an event like this. Because we’ve been running it for 16 years now we have got really good systems in place. Those systems have grown with the event. This year we have introduced an app so we can send out messages about, say, a delay in tennis and everyone gets the message. We can send our warnings about car accidents saying ‘if you are running late for the game, ring your code coordinator’.
We’ve got a great registration system – so when we had the measles issue this year we already had everyone’s medical details. We could tell you straight away which kids weren’t immunised. We could communicate that to the schools, we could communicate with the parents around the warnings to do with measles and symptoms.
LR: And has measles been an issue?
VS: No. Nothing. But we have systems in place. The games will go on. We are communicating hourly and daily with District Health. We have absolutely followed the professionals' guidelines to the letter of the law to make sure we are doing the right thing.
LR: You said earlier you’ve got a big team delivering this event. Just how big is it?
VS: We’ve got 23 codes, six trustees, we’ve got a huge number of contractors. We’ve got port-a-loos, marquees, recycling, the app, live streaming contractors, cameramen, St John, physiotherapists. We’ve got great partnerships with lots of the national sporting organisations; we’ve got NetballSmart warm-ups, Fit4Football warm-ups, and NZ Rugby are here doing RugbySmart. So we are really educating kids as well. So our team is absolutely enormous!
LR: Can you put a number on it?
VS: I wouldn’t even like to guess.
LR: I’d imagine with an event like this planning for the next year starts the day this one finishes?
VS: Planning starts Monday. We’ll debrief and then I’ll be booking all my venues on Monday. We set our dates two years in advance so we can give everyone a heads-up.
LR: It is already so massive. Tauranga is literally heaving. Can this thing get much bigger?
VS: You tell me. Every year I think we have probably reached capacity, but each year more and more people want to come. More people hear about it. We've got live streaming channels now, we’ve got great media, we’ve got really good social media, Instagram and Facebook. We’ve always covered media for adults and supporters but we haven’t really thought about the kids too much with our marketing and media. This year we have got [Instagram marketing specialists] Ace The Gram on board doing stuff on Instagram and it is absolutely going crazy. Yesterday, for example, we had 50,000 views on our live stream. So people at home can watch their kids play. We are super proud of that.
LR: So who ‘owns’ AIMS Games?
VS: We’ve got six trustees – the four principals from Western Bay of Plenty Intermediates – Otumoetai, Te Puke, Tauranga and Mt Maunganui. (Semple is an old girl of Otumoetai Intermediate). Then we have the CEO of Sport BOP and a mayoral representative. So we are a not-for-profit trust. A lot of people with the measles issue were saying ‘You are only doing this [not cancelling] because it is a money-making thing'. I can tell you right now the AIMS Games makes zero money. It costs a lot of money to run an event of this size and scale. Our partners and sponsors are just sensational.
LR: Aside from the measles issue, have you have any other challenges?
VS: The weather! Look, of course we are going to have issues, but because we have been doing this for 16 years and we have great systems, we can sort those out pretty quickly.
LR: Last one – describe your typical day when you’re running an event like this?
VS: My first message this morning was around 4am – so that was the start of the day. By the time we get all the results in and work out plans for the next day, the end of the day can be 11pm or midnight. We’ve got a plan, but the plan moves and changes, which is fun.
LR: Sounds busy. We’d better let you get back to it. Thanks for giving us a bit of your time.
VS: No worries.