Kieren Perkins with up-and-comer Rheanna Norris who wants to be an Olympic swimmer.
Kieren Perkins with up-and-comer Rheanna Norris who wants to be an Olympic swimmer. John Mccutcheon

Kieren's terror in Atlanta

WITH a sparkling Laguna Bay as his backdrop, a stretch of water he once ruled as the king of the Eyeline ocean swim, Olympic great Kieren Perkins confided to a restaurant full of fans how his heart was racing with terror before the final of the 1996 Atlanta Games 1500m final.

Three hours before his ultimate test of character, the now 38-year-old retired long-distance legend admitted that he was an emotional basket case. The day before the final, the defending Barcelona Olympic champion realised for the first time he did not want to be in the event he had owned for so many years.

Kieren was the inspirational guest speaker at Moy Sweetman’s Frangipani Dreams breakfast at Bistro C to support the family of Caloundra swimmer Rheanna Norris.

Back in 1996, after Australia was shocked by Kieren’s heat swim to scrape into the final by 0.24 seconds as the slowest qualifier, the word went around the nation that their hero had been feeling unwell in the race with a tummy bug.

In fact, what Kieren had suffered was a huge loss of self-belief as he failed to pull away from swimmers that were supposed to be inferior to him.

“With 300m to swim I decided I did not want to make the final. It was better to finish out of the final eight and quietly slip away rather than make the final and finish last,” Kieren told an absorbed Noosa audience.

“If I finished last I would not be able to face my family, my coach Mr Carew, my sponsors would all desert me and my life would be basically over.. Better to slow down, and that is what I did for the first time in my life.”

Or at least that is what he thought he had done.

What he had not reckoned on was the 3.96 million strokes he had swum in training, year after year at intensity, so his swimming action would perform like a relentless machine.

He later learned that his heat splits, though slower than his normal blistering pace, had maintained the same pace right until the finish. It was what made the split-second difference between bombing out in Atlanta in the heats and having a shot at redemption the next day.

But it was a shot that terrified him beyond all stage fright on what was the biggest sporting stage of them all.

“I won’t bore you with the gory details of the emotional roller coaster I was on for the next 24 hours,” he said.

And the most important thing, Kieren’s head was a mess. Where once there had been a self-assured calm aided by some positive adrenaline, was crippling turmoil.

Kieren said the turning point that day was “when I got really angry with myself” for acting that way. He thought back to his younger days and what enabled him to stay calm and focussed to set those jaw-dropping world records.

And then he re-found the answer to performing under intense pressure.

“I wish I could tell you that I discovered something earth shattering – the secret to being exceptional – but it’s nothing like that,” he said.

“I realised what I had to do was just go out there and swim the best that I could, and if I do, that everything would be OK. It wouldn’t matter where I came, I would have given my personal best on the day and I could live with that.”

He said by the time he walked on to the pool deck he knew everything was going to be fine. He had never felt calmer in his whole life.

And off he went from the outsider’s lane eight, taking the lead as he always did and never looking back to take one of the most awe-inspiring gold medals in Olympic history.

In the process he relegated the race favourite and fellow Aussie Dan Kowalski into silver.

Kieren said his biggest mistake in the 18 months before Atlanta had been not taking care of the “now”. All he wanted to achieve was gold in Atlanta and he neglected to live in the present and take care of the day-to-day little details that are needed to realise all-important life goals.

He now has a deep appreciation of how he got to where he did in his sporting career. The former Indooroopilly State School student said he did not set any school swimming records and it was not until he swam in as a 13-year-old in his first 1500m event that he realised he might even be good at swimming.

Kieran said “duking it out” in a state 1500m final, going “hammer and tong” for the lead lap after lap to claim silver was a revelation for him.

But a younger Kieren believed most of the other Australian distance swimmers, who told him that breaking the 15-minute barrier was “impossible”.

The breakfast raised valuable support funds for Olympic butterfly hopeful Rheanna, whose mum has to also care for two children with disabilities. And gave the 16-year-old a tonne of food for thought.