This week we celebrate exactly 20 years since the Sydney Paralympics. The well-known story is the incredible success of this momentous international event, the unknown story is that the Paralympic Games almost did not happen.
Ever since glamour couple and reigning world champions Mitch Larkin and Emily Seebohm missed out on medals in their pet events, the Australian media and public has been debating just why our Australian swimming team, the Dolphins, have not lived up to expectations at the Rio Olympics.
Debate has centred around whether it was the taper – how a swimmer’s preparation changes as big events near – or whether it was the general preparation of the team, the timing and schedule of events, nerves and emotions, perhaps even illness.
In an Olympic year, our swimmers taper twice. The first one this year was in the weeks leading up to the Olympic trials in Adelaide back in April. The second taper began weeks ago, just before our swimmers gathered and began preparing to go into camp as a team.
Debate has swirled over whether or not we got the timing, and number of tapers wrong. We did not. If our lack of success was about the taper and timing of the trials, then our relative successes back in 2008 and previously, would not have taken place.
The general preparation of the team was thorough and professional. Australia’s head coach, Jacco Verhaeren, took our charges into camp in Auburn in the weeks leading up to the Olympics.
At that swimming camp in Auburn, the team both acclimatised to what would be similar weather and climate conditions in Brazil, and swam their training sessions at the times they would be expected to compete at when the swimming at the Olympic Games began.
It could be argued that perhaps another week of training in this environment might have made a difference, but that improvement would have likely been too small to notice.
There was a little whisper that illness and injury may have played a part in preventing an athlete or two performing at their best later in the week. This includes Bronte Campbell’s shoulder niggle and an undisclosed lurgy which is said to have struck Mack Horton after his gold medal performance in the 400m freestyle.
Illness however, is a very limited explanation, as other Dolphins performed above expectations, seemingly unaffected by poor health.
One of the greatest reasons for our below par performance was nerves and individual preparation. Cate Campbell and Cameron McEvoy both candidly acknowledged as much in the last few days.
It has been argued that the timing of the Olympic trials, months ago, allowed for the build-up of nerves and emotions. This is possible, but it also allowed for months of preparation and time to seek assistance in dealing with those nerves.
We must also be prepared to acknowledge that other swimmers in the events we had high hopes in simply had better preparations, and dealt better with the pressure than our athletes did.
An Australian exceptionalism which says we must always perform at the same level, chiefly because we are surrounded by water, may also have been something our Australian swimming team were up against.
But not to worry, Swimming Australia will undoubtedly embark upon their own review of the swimming performances in Rio de Janeiro.