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Fifth is fantastic for veteran Jones

31 July 2012

SWIMMING: For the first time in her long and highly-decorated swimming career Leisel Jones has climbed out of the Olympic pool without a medal. She’ll be able to live with that OK for the rest of her life.

The critics who claimed she was in London on little more than a farewell tour can make what they like of her fifth place in the final of the 100m breaststroke on Day 3, but she is entitled to be proud of having gone to more Olympics, four, than any other Australian swimmer in history and never failing to make a final.

And, hey, fifth best in the world at the age of 26, with more than a decade of hard training and racing at the elite level behind her, isn’t too shabby.

Jones was never going to beat the winner, Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte, who had dominated every round of the event and prevailed comfortably enough from the runner-up, American Rebecca Soni, and third-placed Satomi Suzuki of Japan.

But at least she did not surrender her prized Olympic crown - she won this race in Beijing four years ago, her finest achievement - without a fair-dinkum fight.

And she chased her precocious rival up and down the two laps, she would have been forgiven for reflecting on the inevitable march of time. Meilutyte, who lives and trains in England, is just 15, the same age Jones was when she made her Olympic debut in Sydney, so young that her coach then, the knockabout Ken Wood, used to spur her on by telling her she was being chased down the pool by an imaginary creature named Freddie the Fastskin Sandcrab.

For a swimmer, that’s a lifetime ago - more than one lifetime, in fact. She has bridged generations. Stars of the ilk of Ian Thorpe, Michael Klim and Geoff Huegill were on that 2000 team and have since retired, made comebacks, and except for the Thorpedo have retired again.

Jones has swum all the way through, more or less seamlessly, and is still having a crack. The one thing she will never have to deal with is wondering whether she made the most of the talent with which she was born and the opportunities to express it. She did that in spades.

She has won eight Olympic medals (including three gold) which is as many as Dawn Fraser, Susie O’Neill and Petria Thomas and just one short of Thorpe. She has also been to five world championships and three Commonwealth Games and won a dozen medals at each, including a total of 18 gold. Do the sums: in all, that’s 12 visits to the three major meets considered most important in Australia for 32 medals and 21 gold. It is an astonishing statistic.

And she is not done yet. She won’t swim the 200m breaststroke, but the medley relay awaits, one more chance to peg back Thorpe.
She is very keen to do that with the help of a few friends.
That’s why she brushed off questions of retirement – that can wait until business has been completely taken care of.

“I still have the medley relay left yet so I have to think about that,” she said. “It would be so nice to finish it off with a medal. I fought so hard for that spot. It was my main aim at these Olympic Games to get into the medley relay team because it is so much fun. Now I get another chance to get out there and race at the Olympic Games.”

Describing herself as “a natural-born racer,” Jones made it abundantly clear that she was pleased with her competitiveness.
”I’m so stoked to be in the final. That was further than I hoped for. I’m so proud of myself with fifth. I would have loved a gold medal, we were all trying to win that, but I’m so pleased with fifth,” she said.

In other words, she is on very good terms with herself, having treated the week’s controversy with, well, perhaps not quite the contempt that many of her peers and admirers felt it deserved, but by simply turning it to her advantage. Old heads do learn how to do that.

“I have never felt so much love,” she said as the messages of support and encouragement piled up around her. Having long ago learned – the hard way – not to worry about what other people think or say, she simply decided to let her arms, legs, talent, determination and experience come up with the only retort worth making.

It was a point well made.

Ron Reed in London

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