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Swimmers disappointed but not defeated

30 July 2012

SWIMMING: Matt Targett emerged after a sleepless night, doing it tough. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. At home the papers were calling it the greatest disaster in the history of Australian Olympic swimming, and that, of course, is a very proud history indeed.

It’s probably pointless debating whether that extreme call is entirely accurate or not – as disappointments go, the men’s 100m freestyle relay relay, where James Magnussen, Targett, Eamon Sullivan and James Roberts failed to win a medal after starting odds-on favourites, was pretty pretty much 24 carat. It hurt. Badly.

But it happens. That’s the nature of the Olympic Games. It’s the greatest sporting show on earth and that means it is also the one with the capacity to create the most intense turmoil of the mind among competitors in everything from table tennis to the marathon, especially if you haven’t experienced it before.  It’s called Five-ring Fever.

It is worth remembering that while Magnussen is the world champion at the 100m freestyle – the fastest swimmer on earth, in other words – he is making his debut at the Olympics. He is like a young batsman playing his first innings in Test cricket - it doesn’t take much to go wrong for the occasion to swallow you up and you’re out for a duck.

And while he has captured the imagination of the Australian public with his confident and aggressive style, he is still relatively inexperienced at the pointy end of the caper and no-one, himself no exception, knows for sure how he will react to and recover from a surprise setback such as this.

His lead-off leg, in which he failed to break 48 seconds, a dawdle by his stratospheric standards, was a shock for all concerned and appeared to have a domino effect, with the Australians slipping from second to fourth over the course of the rest of the race.

“It wasn’t what we envisaged,” Targett said, somewhat superfluously.

But in the cold light of the new day, and not withstanding Targett’s subdued but honest demeanour when he faced the media on behalf of his teammates, the mood was not as toxic as it might have been. There were plenty of good reasons for that.

Not the least of them was the presence in the camp of one Kieren Perkins, who knows all about snatching triumph from the jaws of disaster, as he so famously did in the 1500m free at Atlanta in 1996. Perkins was no wide-eyed rookie there, rather a proven world-beater and defending Olympic champion, and yet he had a shocker in the lead-up and was pretty much written off by the sporting public. His comeback, scraping into the final and winning comfortably from lane eight, remains one of the most inspirational stories in Australian sporting history.

Perkins is with the team in London as an athlete liason officer and his advice - which you can read in Tuesday’s edition of the ASPIRE magazine – will provide positive reinforcement for Magnussen if he feels he needs it.

Another positive is that Magnussen now has his bad one out of his system well before the main game. That, of course, is the individual 100m, while he will also swim the 50m and the medley relay, which means he still has three realistic cracks at striking gold.

With Day 3 as a rest day for him before the 100m starts on Tuesday morning, Day 4, he had ample time to refocus and, to put it bluntly, just get on with it – which swimmers are usually good at doing. He trained in the morning and was looking forward to joining the rest of the team at the night session to cheer for Leisel Jones, who has been under a bit of pressure herself, Emily Seebohn, Hayden Stoeckel, Thomas Fraser-Holmes and Belinda Hocking, all of whom were in finals.

 As always happens in these circumstances, the team - not just the swimmers but athletes and other personnel from all sports – were offering support, with Chef de Mission Nick Green suggesting the setback might be just the spur Magnussen needs.

Certainly, the public fascination with him – he and hurdler Sally Pearson are by far the two hottest tickets in the eyes of the fans – will have intensified now, not diminished. Whether that adds to the pressure remains to be seen, but there is no reason to believe that his mental strength, not to mention his well-honed natural ability, will not cope. We will see.

Targett, 26, who was part of the bronze medal team in this race at Beijing four years ago, desperately wanted the gold this time and did not hide his dismay when it did not eventuate. It wasn’t his fault – swimming against American superstar Michael Phelps his second-leg 47.83 was up to scratch – and he then drew the short straw by being asked to front the media and explain.

It is, of course, a massive story in the mainstream press, and the hero of the night’s swimming, 100m breaststroke silver medallist Christian Sprenger, was ignored for at least 10 minutes while Targett was bombarded with pointed questions.

He looked and sounded glum, which was entirely understandable, but handled the ordeal with aplomb. Told that even head coach Leigh Nugent had branded the result disastrous, Targett said: “We thought we could do something very special. We expected gold or at least a podium if something went slightly wrong. It went more than slightly wrong and I’m sitting here without a medal. Leigh Nugent is known for his honesty and that’s not far from the truth.”

His mate would bounce back, he said. The entire swimming world, not just Australia, is waiting to see if he’s right.

Ron Reed in London

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