The Roar
The Roar

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Why did swimming fall in the public eye?

The 50m freestyle is neglected in Australia. (AFP PHOTO/ Martin Bernetti)
Expert
30th March, 2014
36
1812 Reads

I don’t think I’m showing my age too much, but surely you remember when swimming was Australia’s ‘it’ sport.

I’m not just talking about our fascination every four years when the pool becomes our Olympic river of gold – or silver or bronze – but a time when everyone seemed to talk about speedos, splits and strokes, and the chase of the elusive red (or sometimes yellow) world record line.

Who remembers watching Daryl and Ossie on Hey Hey It’s Saturday, only to be interrupted by a live cross to the Aquatic Centre to watch the 1,500m final at the national titles? Honest, it did happen.

We would be glued to the box to watch each of the 30 laps Kieren Perkins would swim, each butterfly stroke of Susie O’Neill and breaststroke of Sam Riley.

It was just what we did.

Then, when a teenager with big feet turned up, so too a successor to King Kieren’s throne, and, with the Olympics about to arrive on our doorstep, we became totally obsessed. We couldn’t get enough of it.

There was a suggestion we only watched because we liked to watch winners and during that golden age of swimming for Australia, we had a lot of winning.

In fact after the Sydney Olympics, in Japan at the world championships the following year, Australia beat the USA for the first time in almost 50 years, to become the number one swimming nation on the planet.

But I tend to think it was a little more than just winners being grinners – and viewers – the sport was truly exciting. Fingertips taunting that world record line, Ian Thorpe going stroke for stroke with the arch enemy, the USA, and Grant Hackett chasing, and breaking Kieren’s world record.

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We were so spoilt living through the most incredible era of Australian swimming.

And it continued. In Athens in 2004 we won seven gold, second only to the US, and was our best off-shore performance. In 2008 in Beijing, we won six gold, again runners-up to the Americans, and winning 20 medals overall.

We continued to love it, but what happened after that?

Well for starters, in 2009 the sport’s governing body somehow allowed swimmers to don ‘super suits’, which saw all but one or two world records shattered during that year.

The suits disappeared the following year, and times got back to where they should have been, but the sport had become a laughing stock, and one of the casualties was that the world record line was no longer a ‘rival’, instead it was often half a pool ahead.

The excitement of that chase, that need for speed, it was all gone for the viewer.

Also at that time, Swimming Australia signed a lucrative multi-year deal with the Ten Network, ending their highly successful partnership with Nine.

With the money involved it was not a surprising move, but it coincided with the launch of ONE, and that was where Ten decided to put most of their sport.

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The problem was, at that time, many people didn’t have digital TV, and swimming virtually disappeared from the spotlight, and it became out of sight, out of mind.

We still had the elite stars, swimmers capable of matching the world’s best.

We actually still had (often) live coverage, but it wasn’t being thrust in front of us on Channel Nine in prime time.

When Ian Thorpe returned in 2011, a spark of interest was reignited in the sport, and people did tune in for the 2012 Olympic trials.

But with just one gold in London and some swimmers with attitude less than appealing to the general public, then the post-Olympics fallout over initiation games and pranks, and swimming was for the first time in my long memory, on the nose.

The 2013 national titles went by almost unnoticed, and unfortunately so too did the world championships in Spain.

Sadly in recent times the only major mainstream coverage swimming has received is via stories about the struggles of Ian Thorpe with depression, Grant Hackett with addiction, and Scott Miller’s wayward life since he left the pool.

The national titles begin tomorrow in Brisbane. It will be shown live on One again, but now everyone has the channel and importantly knows how to find it.

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Now people, listen to me! You really need to give swimming and particularly our latest batch of swimmers, a chance.

We may not have a Thorpe, a Hackett, or a Perkins (you have no idea how rare they are), but we have some outstanding swimmers, including the reigning world champions in the blue riband event, the 100m freestyle – James Magnussen and Cate Campbell.

Magnussen was the one who turned plenty off before London with his brash approach. Personally I liked the confidence, some didn’t though.

London was humbling for him, and now, he’s just letting his swimming do the chatter. The fact is he could be one of our greats, and I think you should start learning to love him.

And Campbell, an exceptional swimmer, is just as remarkable a role model and person.

Add to that pair Alicia Coutts, a five-time medal winner in London – that’s right, five Olympic medals at one Games – an amazing feat, and yet the most humble sports person you would find. And then there’s Melanie Schlanger, a stunning swimmer, but also a young lady any parent would be proud to call their daughter.

Many of the guys and girls who you will see race this week in the selection trials for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, really are tremendous role models, not just for young swimmers, but young kids, showing that if do work hard and apply yourself, you can achieve some special things.

Keep an eye on these other names too, Christian Sprenger, Emily Seebohm, Cameron McEvoy, Bronte Barratt, Brittany Elmslie, Thomas Fraser-Holmes, Kylie Palmer, siblings David and Emma McKeon, and talented teenagers such as Jordan Harrison and Mack Horton.

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We can be just as proud of them as we were O’Neill, Riley, Hackett, Thorpe, Jones, Perkins and Kowalski.

And then there is one of swimming’s best, and also one of its most inspirational ambassadors, Paralympic legend Matthew Cowdrey.

But don’t take my word for it, let your fingers do the walking, onto the remote control and find Channel One. It won’t take the effort it once did, and you’ll be surprised just how good the product still is.