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Aussie swim team a special talent pool

6 August 2016

SWIMMING: Could there be something special in the water at the Olympic pool when the Australian team begins its campaign?

There was enough to suggest this from what was being said, and how it was being said, when four world champions and a Dutch-born coach sat before the media for the only pre-Games “all in” this week and spoke openly, yet guardedly.

Sure, the pre-fab veneer of public guardedness was evident to an extent. But those who have been around this 39-person swim team for a while now suggest that the ghosts of 2012 that hover over the worst performance in two decades will be cast aside and the stars might be set to align.

Firstly, great moments – particularly great team performances in sport – can so often have a generational influence; a quirk of birthdates dictating special talents somehow springing up at the same time.

It happened in 2000 with Ian Thorpe, Michael Klim, Grant Hackett, Leisel Jones and others all emerging as special talents at the best Olympic place and time a nation could dream for.

Now, sitting there taking questions, we had Mitch Larkin, at 23, on the right – one of swimming’s three bespectacled, university-educated, articulate ‘geeks’ with speed demon Cameron McEvoy and Mack Horton – and to his left his partner Emily Seebohm, 24, McEvoy at 22, and sister act Cate Campbell, 24, and Bronte Campbell, 22.

McEvoy alluded to it, the fact he and Bronte and Larkin had been in squads from south-east Queensland to the national teams since they were seven or eight. And here they all are genuinely in the hunt for Olympic gold.

They spoke about the motivating yet friendly rivalry with the Americans, the ‘Dominators’, who have not been beaten as a group on this stage for seemingly an eternity.

The Americans won 16 gold medals to Australia’s one (in the 4x100m women’s freestyle relay) the last time they met at the Olympic Games. The United States have owned the Olympic pool forever - 230 gold, 164 silver and 126 bronze (520 in total which is almost a third of medals ever available). Australia is next with 186 all-time medals.

So is it too rich to dream the Americans’ stranglehold could be challenged here after we topped the Olympic medal tally at the world championships in Kazan last year?

Perhaps Cate Campbell’s 100m freestyle world record of 52.06 seconds set last month in Brisbane when no one had any expectation was a statement that can at least make the ‘US of A’ team nervous.

After being a 16-year-old with so much to learn in 2008, and illness affecting her performance in London in 2012, she is now at her peak.

An American journalist asked the Campbell girls for reference about competing against each other in the same event, aka the Williams sisters in tennis, Serena and Venus.

It’s a rare experience in world-class sport and hints at just what the Campbells have in front of them if they were to both medal here.

Seebohm, too, is a historical figure.

While freestylers are like the quarterbacks of American football, the ones who have the biggest scrapbooks and most fan attention, she is a backstroker like her boyfriend sitting next to her.

But the general public all now seem to know about Seebohm and her impending showdown on Day Seven with Missy Franklin in the 200m backstroke.

But Seebohm’s reference is also about the ever-increasing threat of social media distraction that she admitted affected her performance in London four years ago and leads her to opt for a personal digital ban over here at a Games where Twitter, Instagram, Snap Chat, Facebook and the lot will have a bigger presence than ever before.

McEvoy v American Nathan Adrian. The greatest of all time, Michael Phelps, may be at his fifth Olympics but the dual of these two, who have become mates, might also be special.

They all hit the water after the death this week of former national coach Forbes Carlile at age 95. Another indicator father time has weaved into this scenario.

Current coach Jacco Verhaeren, the Head Coach for less than three years but who has played such an impressive role in forging a new culture in Australian swimming, referred to Carlile as the Lord of the Rings seeing he wore ring No. 1 of those presented to national coaches.

He spoke about meeting the Lord and speaking to his coaches after his death this week about his legacy.

What he didn’t reveal was that this was not just convenient eulogising.

Soon after Verhaeren arrived from Holland to take up his post, head of high performance Wayne Lomas put together a welcome committee to greet him and educate him on our great tradition and experiences from their time. The group was Carlile, who left his sick bed, Bill Sweetenham, Laurie Lawrence and Alan Thompson.

Even as recently as this year, Carlile and wife Ursula would be brought into the fold in respect of their knowledge and contributions.

The team’s media manager here, the vastly respected Ian Hanson, has been at close quarters around swimming in our country longer than anyone else in Rio this week.

He said with real conviction: “There is a little bit of Forbes in all of the coaches here [of the current team as a group and individuals); he has had an influence on all of them. And that transcends into the athletes.”

So don’t underestimate the legacy of Carlile and the drive to honour it.

It has strategically been kept in the background but the strength of an emerging squad is the relay teams. And the group attitude towards relays, and the depth of talent to drive it.

The best and the worst of recent performances reflect the relays – the greatest possible response to Gary Hall Jnr’s “we’ll smash you like guitars” in the form of a gold medal in the 4x100m freestyle in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and the disappointment of a failure to gain a medal in 2012 when the men’s four were pumped up as favourites.

We know that James Magnussen, aged 25, James Roberts, 25, and Matt Abood, 30 are determined to make the most of this Olympics. Kyle Chalmers, just 18, and McEvoy hold our hopes, with McEvoy expected to be rested from the heats.

McEvoy suggested a special bond has developed. And there needs to be to win what he predicted was perhaps the greatest 4 x 100 ever because of depth in the field.

There was perhaps some smugness across the swim team going into 2012. Not this time. Not even with Sports Illustrated’s prediction of 11 Aussie gold medals or Associated Press’s tip of eight.

And that’s another mark, perhaps, of the special resolve of this new generation.

Verhaeren articulated: “It’s definitely a special group. All you see here are world champions,” in reference to three of the swimmers flanking him when asked about what might be at hand in Rio.

“But we have to see, this is the Olympics and everybody starts at zero again and that is the approach we are really taking.”

So does Hanson, after four decades of closely being in and around Australian swimming, sense something special is about to happen?

“You do sense something special, there is no doubt about that,” he said.

“But Jacco is right. Everyone is on zero right now even though all Australia’s eyes are on these kids because of 2012, so we can’t over-hype expectations.

“But the athletes themselves know that. There is something different about this group, that’s for sure.”

Neil Cadigan

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