The Sun Herald, July 28 1996

Perkins finds his heart of gold

By Patrick Smith


WHEN you think Kieren Perkins, don't think technique. Don't think arms, six-beat kicks, body fat, aerobic fitness. Think head. Think heart.

Perkins' swim today was one of the most fearless in Olympic history. He won not because he is a great swimmer but because he is a great champion.

He did not win because he is in peak condition and swimming superbly. He isn't. He nearly sunk in the heats on Friday morning. The life guard was on his feet. Perkins got into the final only because he didn't cut his finger nails.

The world record holder won his second Olympic gold medal because he has a spirit and toughness that never waver. Not even if you threw a nuclear bomb at them. Not even Greg Norman lobbing could stop him.

The 22-year-old barely made it to Atlanta. He dog paddled into second place in the 1500 national titles and Olympic trials.

He fell into the team. We were told he was suffering everything from a low iron count to mad cow disease. Everybody had explanations but nobody had answers.

His form since has been just as lousy.

We don't know the true extent of Perkins' problems but we can sense they were horrific by his reaction when he touched the wall. He punched the air so hard Mike Tyson would have buckled.

He got straight out of the pool and pumped his arms in the air. For a step or two he strutted. He was a warrior who had made a killing. It was almost primal. It was as though he had faced a mortal enemy and conquered. The dinosaur lost.

He walked straight to lane four and shook the hand of Australian teammate Daniel Kowalski, who had won his own private battle with Great Britain's Graeme Smith to win silver. They hugged, then Perkins jumped over partitions and photographers to hug and kiss his girlfriend.

It is this reaction that tells you Perkins overcame demons bigger than the most astute of Australians had dared believe confronted him. He won with his head, not with his body. He won because he refused to lose. There were swimmers in that pool in much better form but were a lap behind him in self- belief and courage.

This week the Australian officials said Perkins was swimming slick times in training but his heat swim only underlined people's worst fears.

He had turned into the Titanic of the Australian swim team. Even Don Talbot struggled to sound optimistic about his chances in the final. Others felt he needed floaties.

It was inconceivable that, by now, he must not have had self-doubts eating at his confidence; picking at his heart and head. The experts had given him away. He was swimming in lane eight, the learn-to-swim lane.

Yet his performance today was brave and tingling. On instructions from his coach John Carew, Perkins went out to burn off the opposition.

Think of the courage that took. Turtles beat him in his heat where he had led but been left flailing in agony 500m from the finish.

He was told to swim the first 200 in 1.52. He took 1.53. OK, so he isn't a calculator but he focuses like a microscope.

He had his opposition struggling but he did in his heat as well. Everyone waited for him to crack. To slow down.

But he didn't stop. Not at 700 metres where he had a four second lead; not at the 900 metres where he had a six-second lead. By the 1100 metres he was nine seconds in front.

Carew was right. The opposition was bobbing in his wake.