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Having conquered his own personal Everest in 1996, Kieren Perkins has a special insight into the challenges facing Ian Thorpe and others aiming comebacks at the 2012 London Olympics.
Thorpe, Australia’s greatest Olympic pool performer with five gold medals, Michael Klim and Libby Trickett have all recently announced comebacks, while Geoff Huegill returned to the pool before the New Delhi Commonwealth Games.
Having been appointed an athlete liaison officer for London, Perkins will impart his wealth of Olympic experience to Australian team members.
He says the 28-year-old Thorpe’s decision to pull on the goggles again is a courageous one.
“We like to trivialise it because Ian Thorpe is Ian Thorpe … of course he will do well,” said Perkins.
“But in a lot of ways he is risking disappointing people.
“I’m vehemently opposed to the view that anything they do in the future can diminish their former achievements.
“Ian Thorpe will be, still is, and will forever be our greatest Olympian until somebody better comes along, regardless of what he does in the next two years.
“If people can’t understand the likelihood of success and the enormity of the task if he doesn’t make it, then it will be easy for them to dismiss it as folly or a fool’s errand and ask why he bothered.”
Perkins, who overcome illness, injury and a loss of form and confidence to win his second 1500m freestyle gold medal in Atlanta after barely scraping into the final, is uniquely qualified to comment on the damage Thorpe risks to his reputation should he fail.
“My experience tells me that anyone who has not failed in their life will never achieve their potential,” said Perkins.
“It’s the ability to come back from failure that makes us great.”
Champion surfer Layne Beachley, former Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh and Wallaby hero John Eales will help Perkins mentally prepare London team members for the unique pressures of competing at the highest level.
He recalled how a chat with Australian great Murray Rose helped him survive his Barcelona Olympic debut.
“Here’s a guy who hadn’t swum for 40 or 50 years so there wasn’t a lot of direct relevance in terms of the technical aspect of our sport now to when was in the pool,” said Perkins.
“But in terms of the psychology of coping with pressure and understanding how you deal with the noise, excitement and everything an Olympics generates and to stay focused on the race, it was invaluable.”
Denied a third 1500m gold in Sydney by Grant Hackett, Perkins knew in his heart it was time to retire after the 2000 Olympics.
But he understands why Thorpe and others want to come back.
“When I walked away from Sydney there was not even the remotest little nano particle inside me that felt like I had anything else to achieve or try and prove,” he said.
“I was fortunate that I had exposure to Wayne Bennett, a coach I respect enormously, and other athletes with long-term success.
“Wayne titled his book `Don’t die with the music still in you’ and there’s never been a truer word spoken.
“I learned from them that you want to give it your best first time.
“… If Ian Thorpe decides to swim for another 10 years because he loves what he’s doing and he wants to see how good he can be, that’s fantastic.
“Don’t let anyone stand there and say `you’re too old, you shouldn’t be doing this or you’re not as good as you used to be’.
“To me that’s just rubbish.”