The Sydney Morning Herald, December 6, 1996
The doubts, glory and future: 1,500m-race superfish tells all
By MICHAEL COWLEY
Neil Armstrong's moon walk in 1969 ... John F. Kennedy being felled by an assassin's bullet in Dallas in 1963 ... in terms of historical importance it could never rank with two of the world's biggest news stories.
But Kieren Perkins's swim in the 1,500m final in Atlanta has the significant ingredients to compare favourably.
Like 1963, and 1969, everyone seems to remember where they were on July 27, 1996, and just as the Melbourne Cup does, the Perkins swim also stopped a nation.
"It's amazing when I meet people now they can tell me exactly where they were," Perkins says. "I have even had people tell me they were on flights with Australian pilots making announcements over the intercom: "If you want to hear Kieren Perkins's race, switch to channel 8, we have it running now.' It really was amazing, the response. It really makes you feel proud to be an Australian and that I have got that sort of support within my country."
In an absorbing one-hour special to be screened tomorrow night, Perkins and his coach, John Carew, speak exclusively about the drama and pressure leading up to the Atlanta Olympics, the race, the feelings after the gold medal-winning performance, inside the mind of the amazing swimmer, and the inevitability that Perkins will swim in Sydney in 2000.
The history of Perkins's lead-up to that memorable July day has been well documented, from almost missing Australian team selection at the Olympic trials, to scraping into the 1,500m final by just 0.23s. Some suspected that at the age of 22, Perkins was finished.
"After the heat swim I went down to see what had happened," Carew said. "Kieren told me he couldn't breathe, was getting pains down his side, and couldn't make his turns properly. [Australian head coach] Don Talbot came down and asked me what was wrong. I said "Don't worry, Don, he says he'll win anyway. He hasn't shaved down yet'.
Even Perkins admitted that at times in the 24 hours before the final, the doubts began to nag at him. "With the amount of beatings my confidence had taken in the previous few months, it was impossible to put it out of my mind," Perkins said.
"Those thoughts nag at you, so it's difficult to throw caution to the wind. You start to think, "What if I haven't got the stamina over the last 500m?'
"Three hours before the race I started to think too much, and doing that allowed uncertainty to creep into my thoughts. I had to switch off, and did."
Perkins and silver medalist Daniel Kowalski talk viewers through the event, each explaining what went right and wrong, and that feeling standing on the blocks before the starter's gun.
"[Late in the race] I thought, "This can't be right'," Perkins said. ""There has to be someone out there [in front of him] that I haven't seen'.
"When I hit the wall it was a huge relief after everything that had gone on. The emotion on the pool deck was really a build-up of everything that had happened over the last 18 months, of the negativity, and the way the media treated the whole event. They had completely written me off, thought that I was a has-been, all the doubts and the knocking that I had had. I guess it just built up to that one moment when it was all over and it was like "Huh, up you all, I did it'."
Kowalski's coach, Bill Nelson, contributes his admiration for Perkins: "You've got to admire the guy. The Olympics are all about belief. Forget about times, it comes down to a person who has the belief.
"If you can stand on the blocks and really believe you are going to win, 99 times out of 100, you will."
Perkins also speaks of his inner drive and motivation which has taken him to two Olympic gold medals, and of his pursuit of a third in Sydney.
"I set myself a goal to go to three Olympics and win three gold medals," he said. "It would have been very easy for me to retire after the Games, to go away with two Olympic gold medals, to have really proven myself internationally. To say, "Well I have done it, thank you very much and good night'.
"But it's Sydney, it's your home country. It's not just Sydney's Olympics, it's Australia's Olympics and as an athlete it is just impossible to walk away from knowing that it's there.
"I could go there and come last by a million miles, but just to be a part of it would be the ultimate, would be the real crowning glory in a career. Because of that it's unavoidable I think. It would be a nightmare to not go, and wake up at 30 years of age and think 'gee, I wonder how I would have gone?' I couldn't live with that, it'd drive me insane."
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