Kieren Perkins is undoubtably the greatest distance swimmer in history! He has broken 12 world records over 400, 800 and 1500m freestyle, and is the first person in history to hold Olympic, World, Commonwealth and Pan Pacific titles simultaneously for the same event. In addition he held the records for all of these. Olympic Gold medallist in the 1500m freestyle in 1992 and 1996, in 2000 Kieren became the most dominant man in Olympic history in a swimming event, winning the silver in the 1500m whilst going out still holding the world, Olympic, Commonwealth and Australian records for the 1500 and 800m. Widely regarded as Australia's greatest ever male Olympian, Kieren has revolutionised swimming in Australia, entered his nation's psyche and become the stuff of legend.
A Shattering Beginning
You might think that Kieren Perkins was one of those people who could swim perfectly when they were 2 years old. This is very far from the case. He didn't actually start swimming properly until he was eight years old.
Kieren didn't like swimming much and hated putting his face in the water. He never wanted to become a famous swimmer and instead aspired to become a jockey, even though he was the tallest kid in his class.
"I had this great aversion to putting my head in the water, you know, face down, and the coach used to walk along the edge of the pool with a broom and sort of pushing my head under as we were going along, and they weren't pleasant memories I have to say. And it got to the point where we'd learn with these big foam kickboards and every few weeks we'd progress along and he'd break it in half, so you'd have a little bit less kickboard to float with, until it got to the point where I had, like, an inch square piece of foam. But I wouldn't go near the water if I didn't have that piece of foam in my hand."
One day when Kieren was 8 he was chasing his younger brother Jared through the house. Kieren was unable to stop and he smashed right through a door, which was made of plate glass. The impact was so huge his neighbours thought there had been an explosion.
Kieren was rushed off to hospital, where they attempted to patch him up with 87 stitches. The glass had severed his left calf muscle, nearly severed an artery, and the doctors were afraid they would have to amputate his leg. At one stage they thought he would never walk again.
However eventually he was discharged from hospital, but he couldn't walk at all, not even with crutches. The doctors recommended swimming as a way of healing his leg. His parents had to carry him to the pool of his coach, John Carew.
Kieren spent 3 months on a kicking board trying to strengthen his legs. At the end of this time he could walk again. Luckily he made a full recovery and all that's left of his shattering experience is a big scar on his left leg.
Kieren kept up his swimming. He got better but didn't show that much talent till he was 13. He always just wanted to do the best he could possibly do. This can be illustrated by the fact that when Kieren was about 10 he'd just come last in this race by a couple of metres. He jumped out of the pool and rushed up to the stands with this big smile on his face and all he said to his parents was "Is that my best time? Did I do my best time?" :)
Young Kieren was intensely nervous before major races, sometimes almost to the point of being physically sick. "When I was young I used to sit down before a race feeling sick and looking as though someone was coming to take me away." Kieren usually ended up 4th or 5th over 100 and 200m freestyle races, however he was not upset, unlike the 2nd and 3rd placegetters who often threw their caps on the ground in disgust.
Kieren was a hopeless sprinter, it was reasonably obvious he had about as much fast-twitch muscle fibre as a snail. When he was 13 he couldn't break 30 seconds for 50m. When Kieren was 13, Jenny McMahon (who would later go to the Commonwealth Games) would beat him over 100m.
Luckily, when Kieren was 13 his coach introduced him to distance swimming and when he was 14 he won the State 400m title in 4:09, beating Grant Hackett's brother Craig :) When he was 15 he won the National 400m and 1500m age titles (the 1500m in 15:39.17.) That was when he decided to make swimming his profession. He swam about 80km a week before and after school.
Kieren's first overseas swimming trip came when he was 15 as he toured Europe and swam against such great swimmers as Giorgio Lamberti. Kieren's parents were surprised when told that he had a good chance of making the Australian Commonwealth Games team.
Kieren first came to national notice at the Australian Championships of December 1989, where he swam 15:19 in the 1500m freestyle to finish behind Glen Houseman (who broke the world record) and make the Commonwealth Games team. Australian head coach Don Talbot was impressed. "It may well be he is the boy to keep Houseman honest during the 1990's." Soon he would be more impressed. At the January 1990 Commonwealth Games, Kieren's coach predicted that Kieren would break 15min for the 1500m, a feat only Houseman and the great Vladimir Salnikov had achieved. No-one would believe it, but sure enough, 16-year-old Kieren swam 14:58.08 to become only the 3rd person in history to break 15min, and he is still the youngest to ever do so. This gave him the silver medal, less than 4 sec behind Houseman. Houseman would never again beat Perkins in a major international competition.
Not content with being the world's number 2 distance swimmer, in October 1990 at the Australian Championships, Kieren turned the tables on Houseman and beat him. All that was needed now was the world record - that looked feasible at the upcoming world championships in January 1991.
At the world championships, Kieren met the tall, powerfully built, former East German Jörg Hoffman. Told Perkins and Houseman had both broken 15min at trials, Hoffman suggested the times had been fabricated. Then during warmups Hoffman deliberately collided with Perkins. At 17, Kieren was the youngest competitor in the 1500m final. He fought a fascinating dual with Hoffman at below world record pace. They were stroke for stroke the entire way, but the more experienced Hoffman out turned Perkins and won in 14:50.36, Perkins 14:50.58. Both had shattered the previous world record by more than 4.5 seconds. Kieren tried to congratulate him, but Jorg gave him the finger and sneered "I am world champion." After the race, Kieren refused to eat for 3 days. But in 1997, Hoffman admitted he had been under the effects of steroids, and if it wasn't for that, Kieren would have won the world title and record.
Kieren put it behind him and focused on the August 1991 Pan Pacs. He won the 400m and a silver in the 4x200m relay. Now he was getting to his serious events - with an eye to breaking the 800m freestyle world record. Kieren of course won the 800m race, but missed the world record by just 0.04 sec, heartbreakingly similar to his world championships nightmare. But 2 days later, Kieren smashed the world record at the 800m mark of the 1500m race. Surprised by the crowd which cheered his feat, Kieren stopped in his tracks, smiled and waved at the crowd, and then continued on his way to win the 1500m in 14:59.
At this meet, Kieren also unveiled a glimpse of his masterplan for the rest of his career, revealing his dream of winning 3 consecutive Olympic golds in the 1500m freestyle - no man has ever won 3 consecutive golds in the same swimming event, and Perkins would later become only the 2nd person to ever win 2 consecutive Olympic titles in the 1500m. Kieren's dream seemed impossible, however as his career unfolded it would become much less so.
In February 1992, Kieren smashed the 1500m freestyle short course world record by more than 5 sec and lapping all his opposition including Houseman and Kowalski, even though he has always hated short course swimming. 2 weeks later, Kieren swam the 800m at a low key meet. The pool was poorly designed, slow, shallow, and actually 50.05m long, but Kieren shattered the 800m world record anyway, even though he had swum 800.8m! He had also beaten rival Houseman by 30 sec. Earlier that night Kieren had also won the 200m. Kieren's swims were even more incredible as he was in the middle of heavy training and not tapered.
What could Kieren do when he was tapered and rested? The world got a glimpse at the April 1992 Olympic Trials. First of all Kieren won his warm up event, the 200m freestyle. Then he smashed the 400m world record even though his training was focused exclusively on the 1500m, every split ahead of world record pace. 48 hours later Kieren finally shattered Hoffman's 1500m world record to swim 14:48.40 and become the first swimmer to swim in the 14:40's, remaining the only until 1999. Kieren won by 40m. "I'm not that happy with the time," Perkins said. "I could have gone faster if I had not taken it out so hard." Kieren's coach predicted he would go at least 5 seconds faster at the Olympics.
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