It had been "a hard road", admitted Kieren Perkins. Four years of illness and bad luck resulting in confidence-denting swims. Four years of being told that he would likely not even make the Olympic team, that he would probably never break 15 minutes again, that he should retire. But Kieren never forgot his vow to swim the 1500m freestyle at the Sydney 2000 Olympics and here he was, to fulfill his destiny.
The biggest picture of Kieren you'll ever see is projected onto the stadium during the Opening Ceremony

Kieren went into the Olympics with the 3rd fastest time of the year of 15:01.14, an impressive time but still not under the magic 15-minute barrier. The 2nd fastest time was by Erik Vendt with the new American record of 14:59. There were quite a few swimmers which could be seen as medal chances, and some felt Perkins could be knocked off the podium entirely. Kieren was the only surviving medallist from 1996 - the silver and bronze medallists had failed to qualify.

Kieren vowed to enjoy his home country's Olympics as much as he could - and did, describing it as "a magic carpet ride." He was able to attend his first ever Olympic opening ceremony (as at the previous 2 Olympics he had to swim on the first day.) At the Opening Ceremony Perkins' legendary status in Australia's psyche was demonstrated by an image the size of a football field of him winning in Atlanta being projected onto the stadium during the song 'Heroes Live Forever.'

In the 1500m heats as the swimmers were introduced the 18000 strong sellout crowd gave Kieren a rousing reception, as loud as when Ian Thorpe had broken a world record earlier that week. Throughout most of the race the entire crowd kept up a deafening chant of 'KIE-REN! KIE-REN! KIE-REN!'

Kieren dives in for the most impressive 1500m heat swim of all time

Kieren tried not to get excited - but couldn't help it. 18000 people screaming his - and only his - name. He had soon left medal chance Igor Chevensky and the other swimmers far in his wake. Kieren attempted to look at the scoreboard several times during his race, but could not catch sight of it.

Ecstaic Kieren after his 14:58.34 heat swimOf course, Kieren was on track for a world class time - faster than the best times of all competitors at the Olympics except for himself and Hackett. Having not broken 15 minutes since the Atlanta Olympics, Kieren swam 14:58.34 - in his heat.

The crowd went ballistic. Perkins was ecstatic. He punched the air then waved to his adoring crowd - who gave him a standing ovation and cheered as if he had won an Olympic gold medal. They cheered every time he reappeared, even though the competitors for the next heat were being announced.

At his press conference (the first after a heat swim in memory) Kieren said he couldn't believe how fast he had been going, it had seemed so easy. He also revealed the doubts he'd suffered over the past 4 years - that even the day before he'd been afraid he might not make the Olympic final, that 6 months ago he feared he would never break 15 minutes again. He also admitted the negative effects such a fast heat swim could have in a race as gruelling as the 1500m. "A swim like that gives me confidence, but it could also wipe me out, you know?"

But whatever happened the next day, Kieren could go out having proved he was not a spent force, that he had been able to swim excellent times right to the end of his career.

Naturally Kieren was by far the fastest qualifier for the final - in fact it was the fastest heat swim in the entire history of the event. But had it been too fast?

 

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