The Age, July 1996

Perkins goes into legend

By Richard Hinds


Perkins swims to victory in AtlantaCan Kieren Do It? read the headline. And in the pool in Atlanta, with all Australia watching, Kieren Perkins answered: Can he what.

Kieren Perkins leapt out of the pool, raised his arms and flashed his game-show host smile. He climbed into the grandstand with the confidence of Sir Edmund Hillary and hugged his girlfriend like a Latin lover.

He said he was speechless, then used thousands of eloquent, precisely chosen words to express his deepest emotions. He thanked each of his sponsors individually, and calmly dissected the race. He is the consummate champion.

Susie O'Neill is so shy her chin sometimes seems to be attached to her sternum; so introverted that she had to promise herself to show some emotion if she ever won an Olympic gold medal.

Her first thought when they played the national anthem was ``Can I sing all the words?'' And, after they raised the flag, she tiptoed into the grandstand to hug her brother, sort of hoping no one would notice.

They are both fair, both from Queensland and have chlorine in their veins. Other than that, you could hardly imagine two more different personalities than Perkins and O'Neill.

Yet, henceforth, their names will be forever linked as the stars of one of the most famous nights in Australian Olympic history.

The greatest day in Australian swimming since 1956, the year celebrated as the landmark in the sport, but which has dogged ever since those who have tried to emulate the feats performed there.

Perkins called it ``the double quinella''. First and second to O'Neill and Petria Thomas in the 200 metres butterfly, first and second to Perkins and Daniel Kowalski in the 1500 freestyle. And a bronze medal in the men's 4 x 100 medley relay for good measure.

Suddenly, the caged area around the warm-up pool that had for six days been the scene of disappointment and recrimination for the Australian swim team witnessed tears of a different kind: tears of happiness and celebration and relief.

They streamed down the face of John Carew, Perkins' veteran coach, who had kept a nasty little secret since Thursday, when his star had almost missed qualifying for the 1500 metres final. Carew knew that Perkins' diaphragm had been restricted during the heat and that he swam in unbearable pain. Since then, there had been physiotherapy, words of encouragement and crossed fingers. But would Perkins be all right on the night? For once even the coach did not know.

All he knew was that if Perkins was unaffected during the early part of the race and went out hard, he would win. ``I knew he'd won it after the first 200, I knew they wouldn't get past him,'' said Carew.

There was never a doubt. Perkins was two-and-a-half lengths clear when they turned after 200 metres, leaving Kowalski, the fastest qualifier, to fight an epic duel with Englishman Graeme Smith for the silver medal.

There were tears also in the eyes of Australian swimmers Elli Overton and Hayley Lewis. Overton, a big puppyish redhead, wrapped O'Neill in a huge embrace. Lewis clung on to Perkins and sobbed.

Both had endured the most agonising week for an Australian swim team in recent memory, but suddenly their personal disappointment was forgotten. ``He's just such a great champion,'' said Lewis. "Everyone in Australia should get up in the morning and kiss the ground he walks on. He is the greatest swimmer in history and the greatest person as well. Australia is very lucky to have him.''

Soon it seemed the only dry eyes in the house were the ones behind the golden goggles. After forcing herself to celebrate, O'Neill was soon composed. Perkins spoke of emotion and excitement, but did it in the same controlled, clinical way that has made him, in Carew's eyes, the greatest distance swimmer of all time.

The title was bestowed in Barcelona, when he won a gold medal, and again in Victoria, Canada, when he broke the world record to win at the Commonwealth Games. But what had been missing from this great athlete's story was adversity.

Then, out of nowhere, it came in spades. A disaster at the national trials, where Perkins failed to qualify for the 400 metres and narrowly made his main event.

For two weeks after those trials, an iron deficiency made Perkins so lethargic he could not train. And then, just when things seemed back on track, came the pain of Thursday's heat when he lost seconds to his competitors on the turns that made his body shudder.

That does not mean he still can't be a champion; that he cannot block out all those distractions and for 14 minutes and 56.4 seconds show the world that he is still the best.

Perkins said he brainwashed himself into thinking he could - and would - win.

``I visualised exactly what was going to happen tonight, '' he said. ``It's hard to explain, but when you are focused, you almost have no thought. Sitting behind the blocks I was 100 per cent focused and I didn't have a single thing in my mind. I got in there, I knew what I had to do and it was just a matter of letting my instincts take over.''

Perkins has had support from home. So many letters and faxes that he has asked Australia Post to send them back home in a box so he can reply later. But he did this for himself. ``I have faith in my hands,'' he said. ``And everyone else who loves me just has to watch.''

It sounds easy. It used to be easy. But four years after the carefree brilliance of Barcelona, Perkins this time swam with the fear of failure. If the disappointment of the national championships was not fresh enough in his mind, scraping into the final by two one-hundredths of a second was a sharp dig in the ribs.

``Tonight is the hardest race I've ever had; it's been the toughest preparation,'' he said. ``At Barcelona, I just got in there and did it, there was no real thought behind it. I was just an 18-year-old who knew how to swim fast. (Tonight) I knew what could go wrong, I knew what could go right; it was a lot harder mentally.''

Kowalski was beaten, but won his own personal war with Smith. He had moved to Melbourne from Brisbane to avoid the constant comparisons with Perkins, but bowed to his rival this time.

``I did my best, I'm happy with what I've done but he swam like a champion,'' he said.