Of all the stunning performances in Barcelona's Bernat Picornell Pool, only one brought the crowd of 10,000 to its feet to roar its applause through the progress of a race. As 18-year-old Kieren Perkins churned towards the most emphatic victory of the meet, his pace was being intoned via a loudspeaker, and it was clear before the halfway mark that he was on his way to a 1500m world record. For the last few 100m, with Perkins maintaining the kind of blistering pace that ensured that this was a race for the history books, the whole stadium was up and cheering. Even Perkins was impressed by the ruckus."It really helped me," he said later."It was just so loud. It sounded like half of them were Aussies, they were making that much noise." One of the reasons Australians were doing that was that they sensed, then progressively knew, that finally a swimming gold medal was soon to be delivered. Unfortunately, until Perkins' victory, the Aussie team had won no gold in the pool.
At the 1992 Olympic Trials in April, Kieren Perkins had broken the 400m and 1500m world records. He had broken the 800m world record earlier that year. Going into the Barcelona 1992 Olympics, Kieren was ranked number one in the world in the 200, 400 and 1500m freestyle. 18-year-old Perkins was the most sought-after swimmer at the Olympics, by not just the Australian but the world media. (One group of Japanese journalists dragged him onto a bus and almost drove away with him!) It was predicted he would dominate swimming in the 90's in a similar fashion to Mark Spitz in the 70's. He was under more pressure than probably any Australian swimmer ever, as the Australian public saw him as the only genuine Australian gold medal hope, in any sport. Anything less than gold in world record time would be considered a failure...
However, for the first time for a while, things did not go well for Kieren. He competed in the 200m heats, but shocked the Australian team when he didn't make the final. Then in the 4x200m relay, Kieren and the rest of the team were disqualified.
Next was the 400m freestyle. As world record holder, Kieren was the favourite. He qualified fastest for the final. The Australian swimming team cheer squad arranged themselves with a sign:KIEREN PERKINS WALKS ON WATER.
The young Australian was in a dilemma. It was his first ever Olympic final and he was understandably nervous, and inexperienced at the 400m event. Should he take it out as hard as he could or should he make sure he saved some for later?
Kieren chose the 50/50 approach. He swam a brilliant race, slicing 1.3 seconds off his own world record. Unfortunately it wasn't enough to win gold. Russian Evgeny Sadovyi had swum 0.16 second faster.
Perkins congratulated Sadovyi, and was full of praise. "It was an amazing race. I'm proud to have been a part of it."
"He's a good swimmer. A nice guy," said Perkins generously. If he's disappointed he hides it.
The last day was Kieren's best event, the 1500m freestyle. The pressure was really on for this one - it was up to Perkins to keep the Australian swimming team afloat.
Up against Perkins was fellow Australian Glen Houseman (who had broken the world record in 1989) and the German army sergeant, Jorg Hoffmann.
Hoffmann had beaten the young Perkins over 1500m in the 1991 world championships by only 0.22 seconds in world record time, Perkins also swimming 4.5 sec under the previous world record. (Hoffmann has since admitted he was on steroids.) During warmups Hoffmann had deliberately collided with Perkins, and after the race had flipped his middle finger to the Australian crowd. Perkins attempted to congratulate him, but Hoffman just sneered "I am world champion" and walked away.
In Barcelona, Hoffmann made it known that he believed his main competition to be Houseman.
And Perkins' view?
"I didn't give a second thought to Hoffman," he said afterwards. "I just went for it."
Kieren qualified fastest for the final with a 15:02.75 heat swim, lapping most of the competitors in his heat. Things were on track for the final.
With the weight of a nation on his shoulders (Australia was yet to win gold in the pool), this was the race of Kieren's life.
It is supposed to be the big showdown between Perkins and Hoffman. But really it is less a race than an exhibition of swimming supremacy. Perkins leads from the start. With 26 laps still to go the poolside announcer is talking world records. Perkins is 4 seconds ahead of the rest after 6 laps; six seconds ahead after 12; more than 8 seconds clear after 18, with Houseman ahead of Hoffman and swimming smoothly in 2nd place. Perkins can hear the noise of everyone cheering as he swims the last lap, but he has no idea of his time:14min 43.48 seconds. He has sliced just under 5 seconds off his old world record. Houseman touched 12 sec after him, Hoffman 19 sec after.
"Magnificent," says Australian swimming team manager Terry Buck. "Incredible," says former record holder Vladimir Salnikov. "I feel very relieved," says Perkins.
Afterwards, relaxed and articulate as he faced the international media, he talked about the pressure.
"It was unbelievable. Sometimes it got so bad I wanted to hide. If I didn't win gold, I didn't want to go home." And the pain: "It wasn't so bad. When a race is going well like that, it's okay. It's when you're behind, or fighting to hold on, that you really hurt."
Hoffman, the villain of Perth, proved this time to be gracious in defeat, congratulating the Australians, conceding that Perkins' performance was"out of reach for me", and stated "He's an alien. I can't compete with him."
Perkins was the only male swimmer who entered the meet a world record holder to leave with their record still intact.
Perkins emerged from those Olympics with the image his country wants for itself: clean-cut and unbeatable.
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