The Sydney Moning Herald, March 15, 1994

Perkins: A big fish in a big pond, and loving every minute of it

By Peter Fitzsimons

The curious thing about someone like Kieren Perkins is that of the 10 billion or so humans who ever lived, he's the absolute best there ever was at that one thing. From the time when a few disgruntled travellers on Noah's Ark decided to make a break for it and swim for a nearby island, to at least last night when this paper went to press, no-one has ever swum 1500m faster than he has. At his fastest, Perkins covers 1500m in, in...hang on...tell 'em Kieren: "14 minutes 43.48 seconds."

That he knows the figure so readily down to the last hundredth of a second is normal for someone in his line of endeavour.

Breaking world records with gargantuan effort, then setting out to break them again, is what he does with his time. It is what has made him famous, will make him wealthy, and the number, let's look at it again - 14:43.48 - is the star by which he steers much of his life.

"To get down to 14 minutes 30 seconds- that is the goal," Perkins says. "Breaking 15 minutes was the big thing, but we've done that and it's now time to move onto the next thing."

Driving his sleek sports car with the smoothness of cream, Perkins is this morning making a trek from the Channel 10 studios nestled in the green hills of Brisbane (where he works one day a week as a TV sports reporter), down to the city proper.

In person, he is surprisingly slight in build and a tad taller than he seems in the water. The most curious thing about him though, is that despite spending something like 6 hours a day, 6 days a week, hovering just below the point of total exhaustion churning up and down a pool (what sort of nutter would choose that as a way of life anyway?), he has somehow emerged as an affable and interesting bloke.

"I know it looks weird to choose a lifestyle which, to some, looks like putting your head in a bucket of water half of the time," he says with a laugh, "but the thing is I really enjoy it.

"I liken it to driving - you're watching the road, you know what you're doing, but at the same time your mind will be turning over a hundred different things. That's another reason this Channel 10 job is so good for me - it means I'm out and about, meeting people, working, and not just losing myself entirely in swimming, which can be a problem for young swimmers particularly."

That said, the training is still cripplingly constant and long. By 9 o'clock this morning he'd racked up 7 kilometres. This afternoon, he'll rack up another seven. How on earth can he bleeding well do that, week in, week out, all month, all year, for all his FLAMING LIFE?

"I have days, sure, when it's raining, I'm tired, and I wake up and I don't want to do it, and I say to myself, 'No, no, no, I'm not getting up!'," he says. "But when that happens I just go on auto-pilot, not thinking about it, just doing it."

And his auto-pilot, after all, has an extremely precise regimen to follow.

"The alarm goes off at 5:17 a.m. and I know I have to be up and out of bed at 5:22. That gives me 2 minutes to doze and 3 minutes to think about getting up but still enjoy being under the covers," Perkins says. "When I'm up, it takes me exactly 10 minutes to do my stuff, get dressed, have my drink, and be in the car ready to go by about 5:32, and then another 10 minutes to get to the pool."

This schedule gets him to his pool at 5:43, a full 2 minutes before the gates open at 5:45, and it is this gap which provides what he claims are his best 2 minutes of the day. Sitting quietly in his car in the soft early morning light, he thinks about things.

"All sorts of things. I love those 2 minutes. It's just very quiet, very...reflective, and I think about what I've got ahead of me. It's a settling thing."

Then through the gates, towel down, 15 minutes of stretching, and into the pool and away. On and on and on and on and on.

Did he never wonder, in the quiet watch of the night, at the philosophical base of what he is doing, wonder what, at the end of the day, is the point of pushing himself like that to make a record that will inevitably be broken by someone else anyway?

"No. I don't think about it like that," he says. "Unfortunately, thought is one of the biggest problems with trying to be an athlete, because you end up thinking too much and come up with reasons not to do it.

"The way I approach it is like that Nike ad - 'Just do it!' -that's my favourite slogan, because it's the way you achieve your goals."

Little of Perkins' singleminded, almost obsessional, drive to achieve his goals appears to have come directly from his parents. Or at least they never pushed him anywhere he didn't want to go. He only began swimming earnestly as a nine-year-old after he ran through a plate glass door in his home. The gashes over his body required 87 stitches, and time spent in the pool was deemed the best way to rehabilitate a particularly badly hurt leg.

"And I loved it and stayed with it," he says. "Mum and Dad were happy that I'd found a sport I loved because they thought sport was good for a child, but they never pushed me to train hard. They never had high expectations of what I would achieve. They always said, 'If you've done your best you can be happy', and it's never changed. I always wanted to do the best I could and I was lucky enough for my best to be the best."

Brr. Brr. Brr.

And that'll be your mobile phone, Kieren.

It's his father. Can he hand him over for a chat?

Sure. So is it true, Mr Perkins, that you and your wife never pushed Kieren?

"Absolutely true. In many ways we were dead set against it, and worried that he was pushing himself too hard. In fact, we still worry that he pushes himself too hard."

Fair enough.

The sports car momentarily stops beside road workmen doing some heavy leaning on their shovels. One of them though, suddenly catches sight of Perkins and digs his mate in the ribs, nodding in our direction. The gesture is soon repeated down the line, until, by the time Perkins nudges the accelerator and we start purring forward, all 15 of them are standing as a kind of solemn, silent, sentinel, shovels in hand, standing up straight, watching us pass.

Perkins appears oblivious to it all - as if he has long ago ceased to notice that people notice him - and lets the 150 or so horses under the bonnet have their head. Motoring now, hugging the corners and accelerating out of them on this beautiful Brisbane day. So how does he feel about being famous? Does he like it?

"Yes and no," he says. "'Yes' to everything, except for the 'no' part and that is the constant attention which can be wearing.

"Although I would like some anonymity, I know I won't get it. And I know because of who I am and what I do, I shouldn't really expect it either. It comes with the territory."

What also comes with the territory, at least, is the potential to earn a lot of money thorough sponsorship, endorsements and so forth. Perkins make no apology for the money he earns this way.

"I want to go on for another 7 years and that means a long time where I'll concentrating on swimming and not on career, so it's important to me that I achieve a certain financial security from what I'm doing now."

Luckily, sponsors are falling from the skies for him, sprouting in his garden, popping up through bathroom drains and slipping under the door.

"It's going well," he says.

The business at hand though, is the Commonwealth trials in Brisbane this week. He expects to do well and secure his place, but he knows his 1500m world record will not fall.

"There was a time where - because I was getting older, getting stronger, getting smarter and more experienced in racing - my times would get automatically better every time I got in the pool and I would expect that.

"Now I've come to the realisation that I can't just go faster every time I get in the pool, it's just impossible."

Instead what he plans to do is choose his moments. The next serious assault he'll make on his 1500m world record will be at the Commonwealth Games in Canada later this year.

"I feel good about it," he says, "confident and..."

And hold it. Unfortunately, I've got to get out at the next stop. All up, what has he learnt about this race that he has devoted so much of his life to being the best in?

"What I've learnt is that the 1500 is all about relaxation and rhythm. Picking up a rhythm and keeping your stroke in line and in tune. Making immediate adjustments to your stroke if ever it falters.

"That's one of those things that I hope will improve for me more as I get older - to be able to stay with the perfect rhythm and be able to correct it more quickly if I stray."

And there's my destination now. Thanks for the lift. You seem a particularly happy man, Kieren...?

"I am a very happy man," he replies simply. "I enjoy it all. I'm living life to the fullest, and I'm probably one of the few people who can say I do what I love for a living and I love what I do."

 

Of course, 6 months later, Kieren Perkins broke the 400, 800 and 1500m world records in the space of 3 weeks. All 3 still stand.

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