By Wayne Smith, The Daily Telegraph
Magnificent theatre is being enacted at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Centre, all of it directed at an audience of one.
As in in any play, there are, of necessity, supporting actors. The roles are somewhat stereotyped- the gruff but warm-hearted coach, played by John Carew; the dark-eyed supportive training partner, with Hayley Lewis featuring here in a fascinating cameo role; and then those names which scroll through the credits in something of a blur- head coach Don Talbot, physiotherapist Roger Fitzgerald, and the anything-but-nutty professor, Bob Treffene.
There is, of course, the star of the show, a young man with matinee idol looks and a look of destiny in his eyes. His name is Kieren Perkins.
And then there is the audience of one- a sensitive, essentially shy fellow known as Daniel Kowalski.
Kowalski may not be aware of it, but virtually every action of Perkins on the stage of the Olympic swimming venue over the past week has been aimed at him. When Perkins walks into the centre, shoulders squared, a smile ever upon his face, he projects an unmistakable message to his audience. "Look at me, I can't be ruffled."
When Perkins stands on the blocks and trades jokes over his shoulder at Lewis, he is a picture of nonchalance.
And when he adjusts his goggles, gazes sternly down the lane and launches himself into the pool, clawing at the water with the oh-so-familiar stroke and turning in training times which have all the supporting actors gasping, he looks utterly unstoppable- the complete swimming machine.
Oftentimes the brilliance of his performance is wasted on his audience. Kowalski may have immersed himself in his own training or perhaps wilfully he will have looked away. But there will be times when he cannot stop himself from glancing across the lane. That's when the Perkins aura reaches out and grabs him.
This is intimidation at its most subtle yet most effective. No casual observer would even begin to detect it. But make no mistake, a mind game of Olympic proportions is being waged within the confines of the Georgia Tech pool.
This is what the battle for the Olympic 1500m freestyle title has come down to, a ferocious contest of wills between 2 Australians.
Not since Britons Sebastian Coe and Steve Ervett eyed each other off before the 1980 Moscow Olympics has there been such a showdown between two countrymen in a Games setting.
It cannot truly be said that Kowalski is attempting to impose his will on Perkins. He is not that kind of person. There is enormous courage and resolve within this 21-year-old Victorian, but it is inner strength he possesses.
His determination and drive are not projected outwards.
Yet as long as his own citadel is intact, he remains invulnerable.
Perkins has that citadel under siege. There is nothing untoward or unsportsmanlike about what he is doing. He is not like the Russian Alexandre Popov mounting the starting blocks and turning his body at 45 degrees to stare down American Gary Hall Jr before the start of the 100m freestyle.
He is not an Amy Van Dyken of the USA, shouting, stretching, spitting, yawning, yelling, dancing, prancing in the ready room, seeking weaker wills to demoralise and devour.
Perkins simply is being himself. But when he knows he is ready- and the trick now is determining whether he actually is ready or simply bluffing with an Oscar-winning performance- he is the very embodiment of Nature's irresistible force.
The word filtering out from the Australian team is that Kowalski's training times have been every bit as impressive as Perkins'. But there is nothing showy about his sets. He does them inconspicuously, then departs.
Perkins' sets, however, cannot be missed. He is, physically, a much bigger man than Kowalski. When he cranks himself up to full speed, he generates an enormous wave behind him and enormous expectation in front of him, where Carew stands waiting, stopwatch in hand.
Carew has done wonders grooving this stroke, a 1990's version of the one which powered Murray Rose to his many victories, the final refinement of the one which he also taught Rosemary Milgate and Steve Holland.
It's a tricky one to learn, because it demands complete relaxation of the muscles down one side of the body while those on the other are flexed and straining. Left brain, right brain. Ying and yang. Thank heavens Carew at least understand how to make it work.
Kowalski's stroke isn't quite so involved, quite so susceptible to misfiring the way Perkins' did at the Olympic trials in Sydney in April. It is classically simple, but in the opinion of Talbot, extremely efficient.
There are other physical qualities to be factored in as well, like the fact that Perkins has a maximum heart rate of 181, while Kowalski's is 197.
They are both endurance athletes of the highest order, but there is no denying Perkins has been blessed with a physiology which is truly extraordinary.
Then throw in a few imponderables,like their respective Olympic programs.
Kowalski is taking on in Atlanta precisely the program Perkins tackled 4 years ago in Barcelona- 200, 400, 1500m freestyle and 4x200 freestyle relay. It sounds exhausting and it is, although at least this time the swimming program is spread over 7 days rather than 6.
What's more, Kowalski has an amazing capacity to back up. Onlookers were amazed last year when a mere 45 min after defeating Perkins in the 800, he came withing a whisker of defeating Danyon Loader in the 200m. The more racing Daniel gets, the more he appears to thrive on it.
Perkins, by contrast, has only one individual event on his Atlanta dance card, the 1500m on July 26. His training and taper have been focused to that day, Carew focusing all his vast experience to delivering his athlete to the blocks ready to race.
The problem is that Perkins takes time to build into a meet. He has the heats of the 4x200 relay tomorrow morning to help him blow away the cobwebs but he really needs to qualify for the final to allow him to complete the engine tune.
Speaking of imponderables, there is the trickiest one of all-desire. In the opinion of German Jorg Hoffmann, the last man to defeat Perkins in a major international competition over 1500m, Perkins is the stronger swimmer but Kowalski has the stronger motivation.
Certainly Kowalski has every reason to desperately want this title. For the past 5 years, he has struggled to claw his way through the traffic of Australian 1500m champions. He has finally overtaken Glen Houseman but unless he takes this race, he will remain forever in Perkins' shadow.
Theoretically, having won 1 Olympic gold medal, Perkins should be less hungry for a second. But it does not work like that with the 22-year-old Queenslander.
He is obsessed with carving out for himself a unique place in swimming history. As long ago as August 1991, he spoke in the small Canadian university town of Lethbridge of his dream of winning 3 consecutive golds in the 1500m.
He has one already. He needs a second to fuel his motivation over the 4 years leading to the Sydney Olympics.
And so a new stage has been set.
The mystery gives way to the drama.
This time hundreds of millions will be watching.
[Of course Kieren won...]
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