As seen on The 7:30 Report, ABC Network, 24 May 2000
The interviewer, KERRY O'BRIEN: There will be many local heroes drawing the crowds at the Sydney Olympics in September -- Cathy Freeman, Ian Thorpe, Susie O'Neill and many, many others.
But few other events will have the capacity to stop the nation like the 1,500m swimming freestyle.
And it won't be just because current world champion Grant Hackett is favoured to deliver yet another gold medal for Australia.
It will be primarily because of the presence, for his third straight Olympics, of Kieren Perkins.
Because of the extraordinary way he won his second gold for the event at Atlanta in '96, while struggling to find form and from the worst lane in the pool, Perkins has been elevated to icon status.
Now 26, married with two children, Perkins has just qualified for the team at the selection trials last Saturday and can now focus on his last big moment in a fabulous swimming career.
I caught up with Kieren Perkins at a Queensland University gym in Brisbane today, just before another 8km training swim.
Firstly, Kieren, why do you think the 1500 captures the public's imagination so much?
I've seen it compared with the Melbourne Cup, an Ashes cricket test and even winning the Davis Cup.
KIEREN PERKINS: I think just Australia's built up such a tradition in the 1500.
And I think, too, Aussies always like the tough races. They like to go for the underdog and the bloke that is really under the hammer for a long period of time. When you think of something like the Melbourne Cup, it's a long race, they like to see the change and the fight for the win and that sort of thing.
KERRY O'BRIEN: You always seemed confident about the Olympic trials, that you were going to make it through. But it must be a great relief, nonetheless, to have that out of the way and be able to focus on that one thing, the Olympic final in Sydney?
KIEREN PERKINS: Relief is the word. It really is. It's been a very hard time for me. To have got through it, to know that I'm on the team and I've now got that chance for the Olympics, it is a relief.
KERRY O'BRIEN: You obviously shrugged off your early concerns about the fast skin swimsuits. Did it really make that much difference or any difference?
KIEREN PERKINS: That's one of those questions that there probably isn't really an answer for, you know? I personally am still against them. I still don't think it's good for the sport, but at the same time it's part of swimming now and it's not an area I'm going to get left behind in just because of my view.
And the suit -- I think it helps, I like wearing it and it does feel good. But there's a lot of people out there as well who think that it doesn't do anything for them and they don't like it.
At the end of the day, in probably 10 years time, we'll all decide it was just psychological and we were all getting upset over nothing, but at the moment I think there is an advantage.
KERRY O'BRIEN: It must be slightly unnerving for all of you as swimmers to think that even between now and the Games it's entirely possible that one of the manufacturers will come up with something that is genuinely better and does give genuine added advantage and for one reason or another you might not have access to it.
KIEREN PERKINS: That's the reason I personally am against them being introduced into the sport because there aren't really any clear guidelines.
The rules are really open to a large amount of interpretation and, as you say, there's no reason why we won't turn up to the Olympic Games and the team from Uzbekistan has got suits that really do make a huge difference and they blow everybody away.
KERRY O'BRIEN: How hard has it been for you gearing up not just for the trials but for these Games, compared to Atlanta, which must have been hard enough?
KIEREN PERKINS: Atlanta was hard enough.
And you ask yourself the question, "Didn't I learn the first time? Why am I still coming back for more?" [grins]
KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, you won, you won.
KIEREN PERKINS: I did win. [grins more] So it must have been alright. But it has been very hard. It's not an easy thing.
But at the end of the day, I guess if it was easy, it wouldn't be worth doing.
KERRY O'BRIEN: You've since revealed that your strategy in '96 was to hit the front early and basically try and bluff the others out of the race -- particularly Kowalski. Now, it worked in Atlanta, but do you really think you'd get away with that strategy again?
KIEREN PERKINS: No, I think that Grant's probably got me covered over the first few hundred, anyway. He has got quite incredible speed and there's no chance that I'd be able to run the same sort of tactics as I did in Atlanta.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Can you see any chinks in Grant Hackett's rather formidable armour?
KIEREN PERKINS: [grins widely] Maybe.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But you're not going to tell me, are you?
KIEREN PERKINS: [still smiling] No, it's not something I'd like to reveal.
KERRY O'BRIEN: You've got the experience, you've got the icon status. Are you tempted to play with his mind, to try to psych him out?
KIEREN PERKINS: Not really. It's not something -- even though it might look like it, it's not something that I've ever really done as an athlete. I've always tried to let what happens in the pool happen and not get involved in any of the psychological games that can happen outside of the pool.
KERRY O'BRIEN: I know that in the 1500, in such a big event, that the outcome may well be dictated far more by strategy than racing against the clock. But it's true, isn't it, that you'll probably have to swim faster than you have in the last five or six years if you're going to beat Hackett.
KIEREN PERKINS: Oh, yeah. Most definitely. It will take a very fast swim and you're right in saying that it is tactical and the strategy will play a huge part because I think everybody is so focused on winning.World records and times like that are probably more bonuses than actual goals in a race like an Olympic final. It's all about getting to the wall first.
KERRY O'BRIEN: So somewhere between now and then you've got to lift yourself by 10, 15, possibly, you know, 20 seconds?
KIEREN PERKINS: Mmm. That's true.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Do you feel you have that in you?
KIEREN PERKINS: [smile] I do. It sounds daunting, but, at the same time, I really feel that the way my preparation's been going over probably the last six months, and fingers crossed, as long as I can keep that momentum going and keep things running on a good straight course, then I've got that sort of time in me and hopefully a little bit more.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Given the way you won in Atlanta when nobody really expected you to, that alone must be a hurdle psychologically for Grant Hackett. It seemed to me watching you swim on Saturday that you finished quite respectably close behind him.
That must be niggling at him a little bit?
KIEREN PERKINS: I would think so. Grant sort of has made comments in the press about how he felt in the race and I guess he's made the statement that I was maybe a little bit too close to him. But he is the form swimmer. I think that you'd have to say that watching a race like Saturday night he had things covered.
KERRY O'BRIEN: I think probably one of the most fascinating questions for all of us is what it is about the mind of a champion, the spirit of a champion, that can lift him or her to somehow pull that extra amazing bit out that gets them across the line when all the odds seem to be against them. Have you thought about that?
KIEREN PERKINS: I have.
I've sat down and wondered what it was in Atlanta that sort of enabled me to pull out of the swim that I did and where you sort of find the differences between the heat and the final and where it comes from.
I don't have the answer, but I know that it's mental.
KERRY O'BRIEN: It's a pity -- you'd be able to bottle it.
KIEREN PERKINS: [grinning] That's exactly right, and I wouldn't have to worry about what will happen in Sydney, either.
But it is a mental thing.
It's an approach.
It's a feeling, it's the way you get in there and do it, the belief that you have in yourself and, you know, I guess that really at the end of the day, when you think about an Olympic final, there's eight people from the world who are competing in that one race and they're, you know, the best of the best of the best of the best. It's a pretty small percentage of the world's population fighting it out over that one event. And it's sort of hard to believe that one of those eight could be that much more physically advanced than the other seven.
So, you know, there's got to be something, some ingredient, some little thing that makes the difference. And it's in the mind. What it is is the big question, but I'm certain that's where it comes from.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Is it true, as I've read, that you were only 15 when you determined that you were going to go after three Olympic 1500m gold medals?
KERRY O'BRIEN: [laughs] Young and naive -- didn't know what I was talking about then, did I?
KERRY O'BRIEN: But you see, the nature of the way you won the second time, I would think most Australians would agree, has already promoted you to legendary status. I don't know whether that takes any pressure off you or not.
KIEREN PERKINS: It would be nice.
And no, it doesn't. Because at the end of the day I'm doing this for me, you know? I want to win that third gold medal for me so that I can say that I've done it.
KERRY O'BRIEN: By the same token, if you go there, you swim the best possible swim you can pull out on the day, you come close but you don't quite make it -- surely you're not going to walk away disappointed?
[Kieren is trying to think what to say]
You are, aren't you?
KIEREN PERKINS: Initially, yes, you know. Initially, I think that it's impossible to say that I wouldn't be. Nobody puts themselves through this to come second.
It really is that dramatic an event in your life that, you know, the pressure that you put yourself and your family under, you don't do it to be happy with second best.
But I guess because it is my last throw of the dice and because I know that when the time comes I will have given it everything that I have, and when the dust settles, I know I'll be satisfied that I gave it my best shot and I did everything I possibly could to give myself the opportunity to do it.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Kieren Perkins, thanks for talking with us.
KIEREN PERKINS: [smiles] It's a pleasure. Thank you.
Interview from Aug 1999 - Olympic Trials Photos - Latest Perkins News