Swimming for Rio – redemption is ours?

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Australia's James Magnussen (Image: Swimming Australia)

From a public’s perception, I’m not totally sure the planets have fully realigned and swimming is once again the sugar and spice poster child of Australian sport, but after last week’s national titles in Adelaide, new stars have emerged and old ones are a bit more humble.

The post-Olympic dramas the sport endured included revelations of swimmers using the drug Stilnox during an initiation night, an evening which went on to include harassing teammates by door knocking and phone calls.

It hardly brought with it a wave of parents declaring they would never allow their child to participate in swimming, but it did remove some shine for our beloved number one Olympic sport. For some, it became the sole reason why Australia performed poorly in London.

Heads were removed as a consequence – a president, chief executive and head coach – and suddenly in Adelaide it again appeared business as usual and the lustre was on its way back.

Swimming is not the sport it was a decade ago. Same pools, lane ropes. The swimmers are faster now, but back then the profile seemed so much larger.

It had prime-time commercial television for its Australian titles. The big names, Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett, were Eddie Everywheres, and everyone’s kid wanted to be the next swimming gold medallist.

Some have suggested the sport which only gains significant exposure twice a year – once at the national titles, then at the major event each year – actually benefited from the dramas.

It has been in the spotlight for several months while the stories of their Olympic problems were exposed.

It certainly doesn’t appear to have done irreparable harm.

Adelaide wasn’t about redemption. The world titles in Barcelona won’t be about redemption either. The only way what happened in London can be put in the past is by performing well in Rio at the 2016 Olympics

If you believe what some suggest, James Magnussen was entirely responsible for our London performance. He was supposed to win the 100 metre freestyle and anchor the 4×100 metre freestyle relay to gold.

As we know now, he missed out in both, albeit by 0.01 seconds in the individual event.

If he had swum to his best, won the 100 metre freestyle, anchored the relay to gold, then it would have been a successful Olympics, we probably wouldn’t have heard about any of the initiation dramas.

And even if we did, it would have been put down to innocent boyish pranks, and a few people might still be employed by Swimming Australia.

But he didn’t, and he now has more to prove than any other swimmer over the next three years culminating in Rio.

He took a significant step in Adelaide, posting 2013 world best times in both the 50 and 100 metre freestyle, and will be desperate to defend his world title in Spain later this year.

He seemed far more reserved with his victories this time. No talking it up, no sledging the rest of the swimming world. He was humble and modest even.

Sure there was the big bicep flex after his 50 metre win. But that’s sprinters, and, if you’ve got it…

London was the biggest kick in the Speedos he could have got and it should make him a better swimmer. But perhaps sadly it will also mean he will no longer talk the talk.

It was entertaining, and good fodder for the media in the London lead-up. But when it comes to speaking about himself now, expect more cliches from the big fella.

At the conclusion of the eight-day event, 36 swimmers – and seven open water swimmers – had booked tickets to the world title sin Spain in July.

There were several old familiar faces, and a hand full of fresh new ones including 14-year-old Chelsea Guebecka, Grant Irvine, Alexander Graham, Emma McKeon, Ami Matsuo, and 17-year-old Jordan Harrison.

It was Harrison who garnered the most attention with his swim on the final night.

Trained by the man who put the polish on Grant Hackett, Denis Cotterell, Harrison clocked 14 minutes 51.02 seconds, to now be ranked behind only Hackett and Kieren Perkins as Australian’s all-time best over the distance.

Some of the standout performances in Adelaide apart from Magnussen were a Commonwealth record to Thomas Fraser-Holmes in the 400m individual medley, some scintillating world-best swims from Cate Campbell in the 50 and 100 metre freestyle, while five-time London Olympic medal winner Alicia Coutts qualified for five individual events in Barcelona.

By the meet’s end Australia had a total of 11 world number one times, seven number twos and four swimmers ranked three in the world.

New High Performance director Michael Scott wasn’t getting ahead of things though, noting the United States are yet to swim this year.

What Scott does want is further improvement, and he has set a target of 40-50 percent improvement on what the swimmers have done at the trials.

Last year in London, that improvement figure was a paltry 29 percent, and the results told as we collected our smallest medal haul in 20 years, with just the solitary gold.

While swimming, like all sport, is not raced on paper, we do look well placed as a nation heading to the world titles. And that’s great, and we should celebrate every fantastic performance in Barcelona.

And we should do likewise when we again dominate in the pool in Scotland at the Commonwealth Games next year.

But we all know the only one which really counts.

RIO – Redemption Is Ours?

Michael Cowley spent more than 20 years covering sport for the Sydney Morning Herald, including 12 seasons as the paper's AFL writer. During that time he reported on the awful Swans of the 1990s, and then the successful teams of the past decade, including covering their premiership seasons of 2005 and 2012. You can find him on Twitter: @mick_cowley

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