By Wayne Smith
 THE young woman's hand was trembling with sheer nervous excitement as she held out a piece of paper for Kieren Perkins to autograph.

Perkins took it, signed his name for what seemed like the millionth time since he returned from Barcelona and handed it back. Instantly, the demure admirer was transformed into a shrieking pop fan. "I got it! I got it!'' she yelled as she elbowed her way back through the tightly-packed crowd at the Melbourne Central Shopping Centre to show her crumpled prize to her envious friends.

Perkins looked up at the grinning security guards who were doing their best to protect him and rolled his eyes in disbelief and embarrassment.

He hadn't known precisely what would be the public's reaction to his gold medal and world record in the Olympic 1500m freestyle, but hysterical adulation on a scale not seen since the Beatles' Australian tour of 1964 clearly had never come into his reckoning.

"There are all these girls screaming that they love me and want to marry me and I just smile back at them because I just don't know how else to handle it,'' said a still-bewildered Perkins a few days later.

"It is all so weird. I expected a big reception when I came home from the Olympics but I also figured there were 12 Australian gold medallists (counting the team events) and that the attention would be spread around us fairly evenly.

"But it just hasn't happened that way. For some reason I have been singled out. The Oarsome Foursome pay out on me all the time because I always get the loudest cheer whenever we make public appearances together. I thought I would be able to get back at them in Melbourne but even there, in their home town, it was the same.''

Perkins scoffed at the Beatlemania references, sounding - just for once - like the 18-year-old he actually is as he snorted "Get out of here!''
Then, turning an interesting shade of crimson, he refuted suggestions that, in the best traditions of that long-ago Beatles tour, girls have been throwing their underwear at him. "I might have autographed a bra,'' was all he would concede.

It is not just sports enthusiasts who have been throwing themselves at him. Politicians have been falling over themselves to be photographed with him, federal Sports Minister Ros Kelly taking it to such an extreme that Sydney columnist Jeff Wells earlier this week lampooned her with the title of "Minister for Standing Next to Kieren Perkins''.

Handling all this nonsensical hysteria is not what Perkins has been trained to do. His training, in fact, has been very specific, targeted at preparing him for one solitary, lonely task - to swim 1500m faster than anyone else in history.

Yet somewhere, somehow, Perkins has acquired the skills to ride out a rocket launch to super-stardom that has been so spectacular it is a wonder he has not blacked-out from a build-up of G-forces.

His unassuming composure under pressure, his maturity and his fixed sense of his own identity have astonished all those who have come into contact with him in the whirlwind seven weeks since he won in Barcelona.

Graeme Hannan, vice-president of the International Management Group which has been handling Perkins' affairs for the past year, admits he has never encountered an athlete so young who is, in his words, "so together''.

"Lisa Curry-Kenny was a couple of years older than Kieren when she really came under the public microscope, Robert de Castella a few years older again,'' Hannan said. "They are the only athletes I've ever seen who handle themselves in public with Kieren's assurance.''

ABC radio personality Jan Taylor, who interviewed him on air recently, was similarly taken with Perkins' self-assurance.

"I can't think of anybody I have ever interviewed who was so comfortable with himself,'' Taylor said.

"He has the maturity of someone in his late 20s or early 30s and I wasn't sure if I was interviewing him or vice versa. He knows who he is and what he has done but he is not "on himself'.

"What I also found interesting was the affect he has on people. We get everyone into the ABC studios, from the Prime Minister down, and workers here get fairly blase about big names.

"But when Kieren came in, people came from everywhere just to catch a glimpse of him. Call it what you like, personality, charisma . . . he's got it. I found myself really liking him. He is going to go a long way.''

Ah, precisely. But in which direction?

Perkins currently is enrolled as an arts student at the University of Queensland, majoring in human movements. "It's a subject that really interests me, something I find fun to study, a hobby almost,'' Perkins said. "I am definitely going to continue with those subjects.''

Yet the chances of him ever pursuing a career in physiotherapy or a related field are virtually zero and the time is fast approaching when he will need to decide where his future does lie and to start planning accordingly.

His father and chief adviser, Kevin Perkins, is well aware that some serious long-term thinking cannot be deferred for much longer, but he is waiting until Kieren returns from a vacation in Hawaii with his girlfriend before calling a meeting of Team Perkins.

"The first order of business is for Kieren to sit down with his coach John Carew so the two of them can map out when he gets back into the water and which meets he will target,'' Mr Perkins said.

"Kieren's swimming career is the core. Everything else fits in around it, but we need to work out with him where he wants to go in the future. For starters, that will impact on what subjects he enrols in at university next year.''

Carew, who has been Perkins' pooldeck mentor for the past decade, clearly believes his young champion is headed not just for fame but fortune as well and should prepare himself accordingly.

"I would have thought he would have been better off taking a business or commerce course,'' said the veteran coach. "But he also has enough acumen to get into sport on television. He certainly has the gift of the gab.''

Perkins himself is leaning strongly towards a career in television.

"I honestly don't know what I'll do when I finish my swimming career. If I was a betting man and was punting on what I'll be doing in another 10-15 years, my guess is that I'd have a regular spot on a television show.''

Not, he hastens to add, on one of the teen soapies which have approached him to make guest appearances, but instead on a sport or news program.

"I guess I'll have to look at what Home and Away have in mind but I'm no actor. I think I would cringe with embarrassment if I had to appear as myself in one of those shows.''

Two television networks, Seven and Ten, already are negotiating with IMG for Perkins' services - an extraordinary situation considering his age. Hannan, who is handling the deal, said there was little doubt Perkins would take up one of the offers - "the one which places least demands on his time, remembering that once he gets back into training he'll be spending about eight hours a day at the pool''.

Perkins is keen to sample what life is like at the other end of an interviewer's microphone. "It's good that I'm getting these offers to see how it's done. It will give me an insight into the business and it's best I find out now whether I'm any good at it.''

Channel 7 newsreader Gary Wilkinson, who worked closely with him during and after the Barcelona Games, has few doubts about how good Perkins would be. "Kieren is good-looking, which doesn't hurt in this business, and is very relaxed. Some people have to work for years to look relaxed on air and still they fall short of where he is at present,'' Wilkinson said.

"But his biggest assets are his easy smile and the fact that he is so extraordinarily articulate. On the surface, he's a natural - and there are plenty of ex-sporting people in television whose credentials don't come anywhere near his.''

It is a measure of how well Perkins handles himself behind a microphone that he has been invited to address the National Press Club in Canberra - again, a singular honor for a teenager.

Sallyanne Atkinson, a consummate media performer in her own right, believes Perkins could spend a considerable number of his post-swimming years in Canberra if he ever elected to enter politics.

"I think he has all the right instincts for politics,'' said the former Brisbane lord mayor, now the Liberal candidate for the federal seat of Rankin. "He thinks on his feet and he seems to come out with statements which encapsulate what people are thinking and feeling.''

Any "Perkins-for-PM'' campaign would face a formidable early hurdle, however - an extremely reluctant candidate.

"I have no ambitions to be in Parliament and politics is not something that interests me,'' said Perkins, who cast the first vote of his life in a state election just before leaving for Hawaii.

"I don't have any political leanings. I guess you could describe me as a swinging voter.''

Whichever career card Perkins pulls from the pack, the general consensus is that he will play it with spectacular success.

Few Australian sportsmen have ever reached the pinnacle of their careers with their reputations so spotlessly untainted and enjoying popularity which transcends all barriers of age and sex.

Women love him - as they repeatedly keep telling him - men admire him and every parent wants their daughter to bring home a young man just like him.

Sir Donald Bradman, Murray Rose and Australia II helmsman John Bertrand might once have basked in that same rosy glow of uncritical national adulation, but rarely do Australians allow their poppies to grow so tall.

Perkinsmania has claimed three victims, however - his family members.

Father Kevin, mother Gloria and 17-year-old brother Jarred lost more than their domestic tranquility when Kieren stopped the Bernat Picornell Pool clock at 14min 43.48sec on the evening of July 31. They lost their identity.

Kevin Perkins is no longer Kevin Perkins, information resources manager for Mack Trucks (Australia). He is now "Kieren's father''.

Gloria is no longer a nutrition lecturer for Weight Watchers. She now answers to the name "Kieren's mother''.

Jarred has ceased to be a final year student at Brisbane Boys College who so excels in woodworking that some of his teachers have lodged requests for him to make the odd piece of furniture. He now is known simply as "Kieren's brother''.

"It's now a standard joke in our household, how none of us has an identity any more,'' Mr Perkins said. "Ever since Kieren won his first state age title (the 14 years 400m freestyle), we all have just been dragged along by events.''

There have, of course, been some material benefits for the family which have flowed from Perkins' triumphs, and Jarred, who has just started driving lessons, is closely eyeing off one of them which sit in the driveway.
It is one of the three cars -or is it four? - which Big Brother has won and Kieren has let it be known he has no objections to Jarred claiming it as his own.

But mostly what the family has derived from Perkins is a tremendous feeling of pride. "Funnily enough, we are prouder about the feedback we are getting on how he is conducting himself than from what he has achieved in the pool,'' said Mr Perkins.
"I guess there is an element of selfishness in that. It tells Gloria and I that we have done something right as parents.''

That Perkins has been able to keep his head through all that has happened this year is testimony not only to his upbringing but to his determination to keep his inner gyroscope on the level.

He knows he is well on the way to becoming a millionaire, but he is also conscious of the lesson provided by another famous IMG client, Greg Norman, who lost his golfing edge when he took on too many money-making outside commitments.

He is happy enough to consider a proposal of a match race early next year against Evgueni Sadovyi, the Russian who pipped him for the gold and the world record in the 400m freestyle in Barcelona, but will agree to swim it only if it fits into the build-up Carew is planning for the Pan Pac meet in Kobe next August.

He is conscious, too, of the need to constantly keep recalling what went into the making of that 14.43.48 swim.

"It's a memory thing. I have to make myself remember how I felt, how sore and tired I was when I came home from training, every muscle aching. I've got to remember how hard it was.''

Nor is he allowing himself to forget how fickle is fame, particularly in the land of the Tall Poppy Cutters. "I guess for the moment I'm the most marketable thing in town, but if the Brisbane Broncos win the Sydney rugby league grand final, that will change. Not that I care. I'm cheering for them!''

Most of all, he is conscious of remaining himself.

"It was very strange when I came home. Even some people I had known for a long time went completely over the top but thankfully a couple of my closest friends said nothing more than "Hey congratulations. So then, what's new?''

"It was what I needed, to just pick up where I left off.

"These last few weeks have been unforgettable and a little intoxicating. I have had to keep telling myself not to drink too deeply.''