Olympics Legend: Kieren Perkins | Men's Health Magazine Australia

Olympics Legend: Kieren Perkins

Even defending champions don’t win Olympic swimming finals from lane eight, do they? An underdone Kieren Perkins wondered himself - by As told to Ian Cockerill

Coming into the trials for the Atlanta team I was complacent. After being on the up and up and up, after 1994 the intensity wasn’t there.

When it came to the 1500 heat in Atlanta, I didn’t think I was ready and as the race went on I went through a ludicrous amount of pain. It was then I began to think that if I can’t win my heat then I can’t win the final, and that if I can’t win the final then do I want to be in it? The last thing I wanted was to come last in the final with the whole world watching. So while I didn’t stop or slow down, I didn’t really push it.

It was the last heat, so when I touched the wall I looked up at the board and it scrolled through all the results to show who’d made the final. When lane eight came up with my name alongside there was a moment of panic. I put on a brave face, though, and said all the right things.

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Whatever my reaction, I didn’t think, “I’m screwed, I can’t win”. I always recognised that the attitude you take into a fight is the result you’ll get. But when I was lying on the massage table before the final I completely freaked out. Before I knew it my heart rate was flying. Nerves had never been a problem before and I knew I had to get them under control – I just needed to recall the steps I normally took before a race. As I did I calmed down and by the time we were moving towards the marshalling area I’d worked it out. The only thing I had to do was deliver my best and I could be satisfied with that.

I went out fast as usual and at the 400-metre mark I had a look on the turn. I could see Dan (Kowalski, his compatriot and main threat) and the rest of the field and realised I’d opened up a bit of a gap. I told myself at that point that it was mine to lose.

I’ve had some races when it hurt horribly and others, like that final, when it didn’t hurt at all. In the end, it was a great victory, not because of individual rivalries but because I’d stood on the precipice of emotional destruction and beaten it.


“When you’re in your early twenties you’re full of growth hormone and you get fit fast, you get strong fast and you recover fast,” says Perkins. “After Atlanta I recognised I needed to cut down on swim-training volume and supplement with weight sessions.” Perkins ultimately bettered his Atlanta time in the 2000 Olympics 1500m final, but had to settle for silver behind Grant Hackett.


Perkins’ key tip for extra speed in the water – aimed squarely at triathletes – is “to point your bloody toes when you kick!” “I see it all the time, kicking with their feet at 90° to the leg. It’s like using a braking system under the water.”


“Swimming’s a technical sport and personally I have an issue with people being taught to recover with a straight arm,” says Perkins. “The science is dodgy. I think the bent-arm stroke is still better.”

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