Kieren Perkins Biography (page 10)

Going the Distance

Kieren's victory was a defining moment in Australian sport. It is still the single most watched Australian television event EVER, even though it was shown at 10am on a Saturday morning. Kieren (even though he still denies it) had transcended being just a great swimmer and took the rare next step of becoming the stuff of legend. Kieren was only the 2nd person in 100 years to win back-to-back titles in the 1500.

Kieren took the rest of the year off after his physically and emotionally draining Atlanta triumph. He could have easily retired and made many millions on the legendary status he had gained from his Atlanta victory, however in January 1997 he risked everything and jumped back in the pool, on a mission to win his 3rd consecutive Olympic gold medal in the one swimming event- something no man had achieved. Some good performances at minor international meets in the USA were heartening, but Kieren did not contest the Pan Pac trials, instead he got married.

The World Championship trials were held in October 1997 - little more than a week after the birth of Kieren's baby daughter, Georgia. Kieren was preoccupied and underprepared, he did not have a good race. To add insult to injury his swimming cap gradually came off throughout the race. Kieren finished behind Grant Hackett (who did not break 15min) and Daniel Kowalski in the 1500m and so did not make the world championship team. "I don't know why everyone liked Kieren so much, but I'm for me!" sneered Hackett when interviewed post-race.

Later that week a startling admission rocked the swimming world - Jorg Hoffman admitted he had been on steroids, and so obviously would not have beaten Kieren by 0.22 sec at the 1991 world championships if he had not been on the drugs. While Hoffman said "It's nonsense I robbed him of his victory... I'm not sorry and I don't think I should apologise to anybody,"  a forgiving Perkins did not ask for his gold medal back.

"I suppose I'd have some right to feel cheated, but the only thing that upsets me is that it tarnishes what was truly a great race. Because it was so long ago now, I really think it's something in the past and should be left alone... I think it's wrong for people who have lived their lives in a free country to criticise an athlete who lived under that sort of pressure of Communist rule."

Kieren went home to prepare for the Commonwealth Games Trials of April 1998. He was getting back to his best when the week of the trials he got sick, however he still qualified for the 1500m at the Commonwealth Games.

Made it!

But for the next 6 weeks Perkins, an asthmatic, was unable to train properly because of his asthma. Just before he reached the point of no return he recovered fully, and a month before the Commonwealth Games was setting scorching 800m times in the shortcourse pool, and beating Ian Thorpe. Perhaps finally he could show Grant Hackett what he could really do.

But it wasn't to be. A week later, Kieren got sick again, confining him to bed for the next 2 weeks. He recovered in time to fly out, but his preparation was badly disrupted.

A great honour for Kieren occurred at the Commonwealth Games - he was chosen as the Australian flag bearer at the opening ceremony. Kieren was terribly surprised at being given this honour, although nobody else was. When Kieren was called to be told the news, he thought he must be getting into trouble!

"To be honest I'm still stunned," he said at the press conference. "I didn't even think I was in with a chance."

The week of the Games, Kieren got sick again. It only caused him to miss 2 training sessions, but it completely destroyed any hope of winning gold. Kieren swam a gutsy race to snare bronze in 15:03.00, just touched out by Ryk Neethling for silver.

Kieren did not give up - He went home to train for the 1999 Pan Pacs. But come the Pan Pac Trials in March, Perkins again performed below par. He was confused and at a loss to explain his performance, a shattered Perkins facing the media with all the appearance of a plane crash survivour :'(. However he made the Pan Pac team for the 400 and 1500m freestyle. His problem was later found to be a mistimed taper.

Some segments of the media took on a rather nasty slant, branding him a 'loser', writing such lovely articles as 'Kieren:Give up now' and claiming he could be beaten even by 'Ethiopian dog-paddlers.' Perkins continued with his quest. But how many confidence batterings can a swimmer take?

Kieren desperately hoped to revive his confidence with a sub-15min swim for the 1500 at Pan Pacs. All his training pointed to at least a low 14:50's time. But fate was cruel, and the week of the meet Kieren got sick and lost 2.5kg in 3 days. He recovered slightly and contested the 400m - however this was too much for him and caused a relapse. Kieren contested the 1500m heats with the aim of withdrawing from the finals. His time qualified him for the final, however under Pan Pac rules since 2 Australians qualified faster he was not eligible for the final, not that it mattered. Kieren's coach said later he felt team management should have withdrawn Kieren from the meet entirely, and he most definitely should not have swum the 400m.

The world media was absolutely sure this was the final death of Kieren Perkins. However - amid serious concerns that his immune system may have been damaged by years of hard training - Kieren never lost sight of his dream of winning his 3rd consecutive Olympic gold.

But not everybody had given up on Kieren Perkins (including Kieren himself.) Though perhaps Grant Hackett may not have understood it, Kieren Perkins had become ingrained on his nation's psyche. He had sparked the revival of the Australian swimming team to a world power, revolutionised distance and middle distance swimming, and lifted swimming in Australia to the heights of a major sport. Whole Olympic teams had been built around his greatness. In the words of Daniel Kowalski: "I think you look at any successful team, like the Chicago Bulls. Without Michael Jordan the Chicago Bulls are not as good. That's the kind of person Kieren is. Without him the Australian team is not as good. He has that aura about him. He does incredible things and that brings out the best in everyone."

Kieren's resurgence began at the U.S. Open Championships of December 1999, where despite his usual terrible luck he swam 15:07 untapered, just 4.5 seconds behind Hackett. Hackett was momentarily scared - he hadn't had anyone swim near him for a while, certainly not a vaguely healthy Perkins. Kieren backed it up with great performances at the QLD State Championships and the World Cup in Sydney. A month out from the Olympic trials he swam his fastest 400m race in 4 years, faster than he swam it at the 1996 Olympic Trials. Perhaps now his determination, courage and persistence would finally be rewarded...



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1998 Commonwealth Games



Kieren at Olympic TrialsDuring the Olympic trials Kieren had to deal with the usual indignity of the media claiming it was likely he may not make the Olympic team. The 1500m at the 2000 Olympic Trials was perhaps the strangest Perkins and Hackett had raced together. But it was notable for another reason. The largest crowd ever to watch an Australian swimming event - 12500 - had turned out to watch. Perkins' approach appeared to be to sit near Hackett's feet, where he remained for much of the race, and hope Hackett was swimming a fast time.

With a few hundred left to go, as one the entire crowd were on their feet screaming "Kieren! Kieren! Kieren!" even though Grant Hackett was clearly ahead. As Kieren reached the wall and made his 3rd Olympic team, there was no doubting who was still the King.

Kieren was touched and humbled by the crowd (who gave him by far the most cheers before, during and after the race.)

"I could hear a lot of noise. I didn't know what the noise was about. To find out that it was me they were chanting for, it's just humbling," he said.

"I wasn't winning the race and I had the support of the crowd. That's something that no-one can ever take from me and it's probably one of the most special achievements of my career."

Next Page: Sydney 2000>>