Long live The King
We will not forget you - thanks for the memories Kieren

The Sun-Herald

24/09/00

By GARY LINNELL

Kieren, just a word before you go? We've been doing a little housework. You know, dusting, tidying up a bit.

The old Australian trophy cabinet has started groaning under the weight of the past week or so. Seems a day hasn't gone by since these Olympics begun when one local athlete or another hasn't become a living legend, a sporting great or...


Well, you know the cliches better than most.

But as we've been sorting through the clutter, we've come across a few items that, quite frankly, can never be thrown out of the way to make room for something new.

We'd just like to let you know that we haven't forgotten them.

 

"You only have to know one thing. Kieren changed everything."

 


How could we? The first is a gold medal and it bears the words "Barcelona 1992, Men's 1500m freestyle." Can you believe we'd almost forgotten about it? It seems so long ago. There were people in the crowd still wearing acid wash jeans and big hair. There was even a Labor government in power back at home.

You were just a kid then, barely old enough to drive a car. Incredibly, for all the work you did just to get there - those endless kilometres spent churning through chlorine while your friends were allowed to be teenagers - you still had the gangly body of a growing boy.

But up there on Montjuc Hill in Barcelona, where it got so hot in the afternoon sun it seemed the pool water was close to bubbling, you blew away Jorg Hoffmann and Glen Houseman like an old pro.

No-one had really expected it, even though you had given us a warning two years before during the Commonwealth games in Auckland where you won silver.

You were only 18 when you arrived in Spain, after all, and distance swimmers aren't supposed to hit their peak till their early 20s. But that swim changed everything, didn't it?

For a start, our medal haul in Barcelona was hardly anything to write home about. But it was a trigger for a rapid change of fourtune for Australia in the pool. The 80's had been pretty much a wasteland; our stocks had never seemed as low. For a nation that had grown up at the beach or swimming hole, it was hard to take.

Didn't we cling to you when you got home. Suddenly, the politicians decided here was an opportunity too good to pass up. Spend a little money on the sport and the returns might outweigh the cost.

For you it must have been suffocating.

Everyone wanted a piece of you: the media, the advertisers, the mob in Canberra.

Perhaps that's why you withdrew a little, kept a piece of yourself back.

We all came to know that smiling face full of sparkling teeth - next to millions of heifers, dairy companies considered you their most valuable asset - but you never really opened up in public.

Everyone kept asking the same question. Who is Kieren Perkins?

You never felt the need to answer. Instead, a new generation of swimmers had seen everything they needed to know. After Barcelona, the pools were full. Swimming was cool again. There was a nine-year-old kid called Ian sitting at home in Sydney's western suburbs. He already boasted a decent thong size and was pretty impressed with you.

Then it seemed to fade. As Atlanta approached, you became sick, were injured, and your times fell away. We all shrugged.

In the heats, you looked sluggish and burnt out and were lucky to even make the final, squeaking in by just two hundredths of a second. In the outside lane, you were on your own. And that's the way you finished. All alone, another gold medal.

It was an amazing day. A bomb would go off in Centennial Park in Atlanta within a few hours of that swim. Back home, a man called Ivan Milat was about to be sentenced to prison for a series of unspeakable murders.

But it was those 30 laps that everyone would still remember. Who could have thought that watching a man swim on his own for a quarter of an hour could so transfix a nation?

It was one of those defining moments that transcended sport, that gave everyone, even the most hardened cynics, a strange, goose-bumpy feeling. Australian swimming had recovered fully. Just a few months ago, as he put the finishing touches on the Australian team's campaign, head swimming coach Don Talbot was completing an interview in a Melbourne hotel.

Kieren waves to the adoring crowd after getting out of the pool, 1500m freestyle 2000 Olympic TrialsAs he got up and walked towards the lift to take him back to a room full of charts and statistics, he was asked about you.

Just who is Kieren Perkins?

Talbot scratched his head before shrugging.

Yes, he admitted, Kieren Perkins was a very private individual. And he didn't really know him that well either. But did it really matter? "I don't think it's that important," Talbot said. "You only have to know one thing. Kieren changed everything."

And so you did. But you still had a little bit left last night, didn't you, one more big finish. Thanks. You can go now. You can leave that third Olympic 1500m medal with us, along with the rest of the memories.

They won't be going anywhere.

 

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