Olympic Trials Background


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?" :)

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. When Kieren was 13, Jenny McMahon (who would later go to the Commonwealth Games) would beat him over 100m.

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. 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 Commowealth Games team.

Climbing the rankings

Kieren first came to national notice at the Australian Championships of December 1989, where he swam 15:19 in the 1500mKieren (far right) gets silver in the 1500m at the 1990 Commonwealth Games at age 16, and becomes the 3rd person to break 15 min.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 Hoffman 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.

Smashing the Records

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. Perkins' 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 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.

Olympic Gold

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.

Kieren had broken the 400, 800 and 1500m freestyle world records 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.

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.

Kieren Perkins (on your left) and Glen Houseman show off their respective gold and silver medals at the 1992 Olympics

"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.

Gearing up

Kieren was awarded the prestigious Young Australian of the Year award  and the Order of Australia Medal for his many feats (as well as many other honours). After the Olympics Kieren took a 3 month break from swimming. There was some talk he would quit the gruelling 1500m to concentrate on the 200 and 400m, which he would no doubt have been exceptional at. But soon Kieren was back in the water and back to his pet distance events.

Ealy in 1993, Kieren entered the shortcourse Grand Prix events. "I find it hard to settle into my rhythm in short pools and I'm still not 100% fit," he warned. He then proceeded to smash his 1500m shortcouse world record by almost 10 sec. 10 days later he smashed the 800m shortcouse world record by 4 seconds en-route to winning the 1500m race. Kieren may have gone even faster if he had not wasted time by looking up at the scoreboard several times during the race. After 800 he stopped, looked at the clock, and performed a majestic porpoise-like victory roll before going on to win in 14:49.18. The record still stands as the oldest men's shortcourse record in the book.

In August 1993, Kieren won the 400, 800 and 1500m freestyle at the Pan Pacs. In September he was an extremely vital part of the winning Sydney 2000 Olympic bid. As the bid committee chairman said, "Daylight came second to Kieren Perkins."

 Early in 1994, at the Commonwealth trials, Kieren was surprisingly beaten into 2nd in the 200, 400 and 1500m freestyle by Daniel Kowalski. There was some talk he had lost his magic touch, but Kieren was merely gearing up for his biggest year yet.

Superstar Superfish

The Commonwealth Games and World Championships in 1994 were the most successful period of Kieren's career to date. He broke 3 world records in 16 days, and won 6 major titles. In the 1500m event he held every major title and record, including Olympic, World, Commonwealth and Pan Pacific, and is the only person to ever hold all 4 titles for the same event.

Kieren began his world record breaking spree at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada.

Winning a Commonwealth Games gold medal is no easy task. But Kieren Perkins can do it with his eyes shut.

Kieren's first event was the 200m freestyle, a race he uses only to warm up for the longer distances. He took the lead, but was closely followed by New Zealanders Trent Bray and Danyon Loader.  Kieren put his head down and closed his eyes.

"I touched the wall and had absolutely no idea where I was. For a fleeting moment when I did open my eyes I was worried. I just thought, which hand?"

Kieren chose the right hand, and collected Commonwealth gold #1 in Games record time.

Next day was the 4x200m freestyle relay. Kieren swam the final leg, zooming past Danyon Loader to grab gold for the Australian team. Again, it was a Games record.

Now Kieren was getting to his serious events. He swam a brilliant race in the 400m, below world record pace. Kieren was tantalisingly close, but missed the world mark by just 0.77 seconds. Kieren was surprised - he hadn't known he was going that fast! The world record would have to wait 2 weeks.

On the last day of the meet it was Kieren's best event, the 1500m freestyle, and as world record holder, he was firm favourite for the gold. Kieren woke up that morning, and he felt fantastic!

"I woke up that morning and I thought, I want to break a world record, and I want to break a 1500m world record."

However Kieren's training was being honed for the World Championships in 2 weeks time. Nonetheless, Kieren and his coach John Carew decided 10min before the race that Kieren would break the 800m world record, then slow down and just swim to win.

The spectators were about to witness one of the most exciting swims of all time. Even before 25m was swum Perkins was almost ½ a bodylength ahead.

By the 100m mark he already had a 1½ second lead. He went through 400m in 3:50.37- almost 4 seconds ahead of his rivals, and faster than Daniel Kowalski had won the bronze in the 400 earlier that week. He went through 800m in a new world record of 7:46.00, slicing 0.6 seconds of his previous world record. He was now almost 8 seconds ahead of 2nd placed Daniel Kowalski.

If Kieren had listened to his coach, he would have slowed down after 800m. But Kieren did not slow down, instead he swam faster.

"I thought 'oh, I'll get in trouble if I don't slow down a bit', and I wrestled with it for 25m and then just kept going, much to Mr Carew's dismay. I just couldn't help it..."

By 1000m he was almost 10 seconds in front of Daniel Kowalski and on track for another world record.

Kieren kept going, and having lapped the swimmers in lanes 1, 7 and 8, won by 25m in a new world record of 14:41.66, almost 2 seconds faster than his old world record and 12 seconds faster than 2nd placed Daniel Kowalski (who became the 3rd fastest man ever over the distance).  Kieren was the first person in 45 years to break 2 world records in the one swim.

Kieren waited until everyone else finally finished, then got out to the standing ovations and guards of honour befitting a swimming legend. However first he sheepishly made his way over to face the wrath of his coach.

"What did you do that for?" asked his coach, to which Kieren replied "I felt good, so I broke the 1500 record as well." Kieren's coach could not exactly make him write out 'I must not break world records' 1500 times, so it was left at that :) That night, Kieren was so excited he could not sleep.

Having just broken 2 world records in about 7 minutes, Kieren left the Commonwealth Games after winning every race he'd entered- in a new World or Games record- and becoming the only person to win the 200-400-1500 triple at one Commonwealth Games, and turned his attention to the World Championships in Rome 2 weeks later.

On Top of the World

The original plan had been for Kieren to break the 1500m world record in Rome in a time of about 14:38. However, since he'd broken the world record at the Commonwealth Games, it took the team physiotherapist 1 week to get Kieren back in shape, and his coach wasn't able to give him enough work before the World Championships.

Despite being sick, Kieren wasn't finished with breaking world records yet. The 400m world record had been taken from him by Evgeny Sadovyi at the 1992 Olympics, and Kieren was a man on a mission to get it back.

He exploded into the lead, and by 100m was a bodylength in front. By 200m, the margin was 2 bodylengths. Daniel Kowalski, looking up at Kieren way ahead, feared he was swimming badly until he looked back and saw the other 6 finalists were all in a line with him.

Kieren won by 5 seconds in a time of 3:43.80, 1.2 seconds faster than the old world record. He won by the largest margin in world championships history.

Even Kieren was taken aback, gasping "I was in awe of myself!"

Onlookers were amazed. Kieren had transformed the somewhat slow 400m event into a cruel sprint - and this from a 1500m swimmer! Who knows what he might have done to it if he had not trained specifically for the 1500m instead.

Perkins had obliterated the fastest 400m field ever assembled, and as 4th-placed Daniel Kowalski later said "But he also demoralised the whole field, and it was in a world championships final."

Kieren after his 400m world record at the 1994 World Championships

By now Kieren was tired out and the plan of a 14:30's swim abandoned. He got sicker, but nothing was going to deny him 1500m world championships gold.

Kieren won gold again in 14:50.52, a championship record and faster than anyone else had ever gone.

This made him the first swimmer in history to hold Olympic, World, Commonwealth and Pan Pacific titles simultaneously for the same event. In addition he held the world record, and Olympic, Commonwealth and Pan Pacific championship records over the distance.

Not surprisingly, Kieren Perkins won the FINA Prize for exceptional achievements for 1994, and was the US Swimming World Swimmer of the Year.

There is no doubt that Kieren is capable of bettering his formidable world records. Not only did he break the 1500m exhausted after breaking the 800m world record, but also broke it 2 weeks before his taper scheduled.

At the 1995 Pan Pacs Kieren warned he was not at full fitness. In the 400m he surprisingly failed to make the final due to a rule that only 2 swimmers from each country could swim the final - but in the B final clocked a time that would have given him the bronze medal. In the 800m he was just touched out to silver by Daniel Kowalski. But in the 1500m, he again won gold convincingly.

Olympic Nightmare

A year out from the 1996 Olympics, Kieren Perkins' gold medal seemed the most certain Australian performance in Atlanta. 9 months later a gold for Perkins looked doubtful to say the least.

The Olympic trials were a disaster for Kieren Perkins. In the 200m he failed to even qualify for the final. In the B final he finished 7th. In the 400m (in which he was world record holder) he was beaten into 3rd place by the formerly unheard of Malcom Allen, and didn't make the team in that event.

Minutes after the race, a disconsolate Perkins said: "It is a difficult situation. It's not something I am accustomed to. The past six or seven years, I have always been in control. This time, I am not. It's scary, it's worrying. But this time I am not going to lie down and die. The Olympics was tough but this time I had a lot of doubt in my mind. Glen and Daniel were racing well and I had to prove myself. The lack of control I had made the pressure very difficult and I think it's showing."

When asked if he was motivated, Perkins answered: "Not right now. There is no reason, no excuse. I am capable of winning these events. I want to win and I expected to make the team in the 400 and 1,500m and it isn't happening."

Australia began to predict a humiliating defeat in his Olympic title event, the 1500m. Come the night of the final, Kieren attempted to lead from the start the way he had won many golds in the past. However, in the end he was caught and overtaken by the Atlanta gold medal favourite Daniel Kowalski. "I thought, this is terrible, I've got nothing left." But Kieren had beaten Barcelona silver medallist Glen Houseman, finished second, and made the Olympic team. Kieren had 3 months to become a gold medal contender again.

Consequent tests revealed Kieren had an iron imbalance and virus. "It's not looking good, we are running out of time here," said Perkins.

"I'm sure that once I overcome this problem my training and performances will be back to where they should be and I'm looking forward to being as close as possible to my best when I defend my 1,500 metres title."

For 2 weeks after the trials Kieren was so lethargic he could not train. Well before the trials Australian sports commentators had been questioning Perkins's motivation and recent comments from Kieren did little to quell the speculation.

"Throughout my swimming career I've always wished I had a fast forward button so that I could just hit that button and get to the end of it," he said. "I wish it was all over."

Unfortunately it looked more and more like Kieren's wish would soon be granted. Kieren lost most of his pre-Atlanta races with gold medal favourite Kowalski.

Kieren's poor health was eventually determined to be from a potentially fatal liver complaint. However the world was not told this until after the Olympics.

Kieren's health improved, and despite a shoulder injury, a few weeks out from the Games Kieren's confidence was returning. We were told he was swimming fast times in training.

Then came the Olympics themselves. Kieren swam the heats of the 4x200m relay, but his performance was shocking. The selectors did not bother to include him in the final.

The public and media began to doubt Kieren still more. 1500 gold favourite Daniel Kowalski was featured in a Ford cars ad, proclaiming "Second is not an option". Kieren was no longer regarded as a medal chance of any colour.

Kieren was forced to watch a race he held the world record in  - the 400m - from the stands, being won in a time nearly 6sec outside his world record. Kieren could not bear to watch the closing stages of the race and went to the back of the stand and looked out over the city. One of the coaches, Laurie Lawrence, thought he was going to jump off.

Then came the 1500m heats, which only underlined everyone's worst fears. Kieren started out okay, but by the 800m mark he was clearly struggling. He fell back in the field quickly, and was overtaken by 4 other swimmers. He managed to claw his way past German Steffe Zessner and come 4th in 15:21.42. Zessner did 15:21.65. If Kieren hadn't beaten Zessner he wouldn't have made the final.

 Kieren to hang around on the pool deck for a few minutes to see if he'd qualified. Luckily he swam the 8th fastest time, and so was the slowest qualifier for the final.

"It was far too close for comfort," he said. "That was a hard swim."

Kieren's coach asked him what was wrong and Kieren said he couldn't breathe, got pains down his side, and couldn't make his turns properly. However the world was not told this until after the final next day.

The next day headlines such as KIEREN SINKS graced the front of Australian newspapers. Once "The Superfish", now Kieren was dubbed by the media "The Titanic of the Australian swim team". Kieren had swum 40 seconds outside his best time. Pretty much no one thought he'd win gold. A comeback of this magnitude was deemed impossible. Rather, most people thought he would come a painful and embarrassing last...

A Legend's Comeback

The eyes of a nation were fixed on Kieren Perkins and Daniel Kowalski for the 1500m final. It was the most watched TV show in Australia ever. The majority were predicting a Kowalski gold. Media placings for Kieren ranged from bronze to last. The feelings of the commentators were also with Kowalski, with them saying of him "he is just 15 min away from shining in the spotlight brightly, the spotlight Perkins has held for so long...Perkins was one of the greatest swimmers in the world- before tonight..."

However Perkins was about to prove he was still the greatest swimmer in the world, and also a great champion.

Kieren dived into lane 8 (the worst competitor's lane) and took the lead- the way he had won many races in the past. He finished the first hundred in 55.30. Perkins was 1½ lengths clear of Kowalski when they turned for 200. Kowalski began to think less about chasing Kieren and more about racing 3rd placed Graeme Smith.

By 500m, Perkins was 2 lengths in front, with Kowalski in clear 2nd place. By 700m, he was 3 lengths in front of Kowalski. At the 800m mark- the place where he faded badly in the heats- Kieren went through in 7:53.85, 4½ seconds in front of Kowalski, and showed no signs of slowing down.

At 1000m, Kieren had a five length lead, with 3rd placed Smith edging to within a length of Kowalski. By 1100m Kieren's gold was obvious but Kowalski's silver wasn't as he was overtaken by Graeme Smith. At 1300m Kieren was 7 lengths clear, a distance he maintained for the rest of the race.

Kieren won in 14:56.40- 6 seconds and 7 lengths ahead of Kowalski, who just touched out Smith for the silver. "That has got to be the hardest thing I've ever done in my life" said Kieren when he got out of the pool.

"I was prepared to put everything on the line, " Perkins said. "It was gold or nothing as far as I was concerned, and if that meant dying a very painful death at the 1000m mark, then so be it."

"Words can't describe the feelings. It was difficult winning the gold the first time in 1992, but winning again was a thousand times harder. It's a great feeling that I did it. I went over it a thousand times in my head. I convinced myself I was going to get up and win it."

"I kept imagining myself touching the wall first. I visualized exactly what would happen tonight. Sitting behind the starting blocks I was 100% focused. I knew exactly what was required from me and what I had to do. It was just a matter of letting my instinct take over."

``Tonight is the hardest race I've ever had; it's been the toughest preparation,'' he said. ``At Barcelona, I just got in there and did it, there was no real thought behind it. I was just an 18-year-old who knew how to swim fast. (Tonight) I knew what could go wrong, I knew what could go right; it was a lot harder mentally.''

"I've done a lot of soul-searching about my troubles this spring. I wavered a little bit in my focus and my belief in myself. But when it came down to it, I knew I could get in there and do it."

"This is the Olympic Games. It's never easy for anybody and it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done previously. It's the hardest meet in the world-the Olympics have no respect for reputation."

"I was 18 in Barcelona, I just got in there and did it. Tonight I knew what could go wrong and what could go right. The preparation was tougher."

 When asked if he could win in Sydney 2000, Kieren said, "Hey, if I can win here, I can win anywhere!"

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 had transcended being just a great swimmer and took the rare next step of becoming the stuff of legend.

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 - just 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'mfor 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.

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...

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."

Kieren has his eyes firmly fixed on the Sydney 2000 Olympics. He wants to be the first male swimmer in history to win 3 consecutive Olympic titles for the same event.


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