Swimming can sink even the strongest

COMMENT

When Kim Beazley became the Opposition Leader nigh on two decades ago, the great Labor identity Graham Freudenberg commented that he was “the first ALP leader since Ben Chifley not afflicted by a gross personality disorder”.

Unkind, of course, to the likes of Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, but his central point was valid: the position was only open to those with a near obsessive drive to have the position, and inevitably on their way to the top something was altered in them, and maybe knocked off a lot of bark on the way.

A little like getting to the top of the Olympic swimming podium?

For in the past three weeks, no Australian sport has ever seen such an implosion of its major stars in such rapid succession – not even the NRL.

In that time we've had Ian Thorpe spinning out of control and being gathered up by the police to go to a rehab centre; Scott Miller divulging to 60 Minutes how he so completely lost his way after the Olympics he was very lucky not to have gone to jail, mixed up with drugs and pimping; and of course Grant Hackett, found shirtless and drugged on Stilnox in the foyer of a Melbourne hotel, shortly before flying himself to America to go into rehab. All this, after our last round of male Olympic swimmers in disgraced themselves on the eve of the London Olympics, with their own Stilnox party and all the rest.

And while Kieren Perkins has been spared the ignominy of all of the above, even he has acknowledged many times just how hard he found life after swimming, how he suffered such bad depression that he simply didn't want to get out of bed.

Precisely what ails all these sport retirees – the four best male Olympic swimmers of the last two decades, all crashing and burning to some degree – and why has it all come crashing down so suddenly and devastatingly on men who are otherwise so accomplished?

See my opening premise. Maybe, these days, it is simply what goes with the territory. That was certainly the contention of a Herald reader on Megan Levy's piece on Hackett, leaving this as the opening comment: 

“Swimmers in the deep. Is there any correlation between how these people are pushed as tiny developing children to get up at 5.00 daily and swim for kilometres and their often troubled adult lives?”

Isn't there something in this?

As your humble correspondent noted when Ian Thorpe first went AWOL in late January, it's probably Perkins himself who explained it to me best when he said in the mid 1990s: "you have to understand, I spend six hours a day with my head in a bucket of water, looking at a black line.”

Under any other circumstance, would it not be a cruel and unusual punishment to visit upon any child, even if they do get a gold medal?

For here is the other key factor: when they do get the top, it risks merely exacerbating the problem. One famous Australian Olympian I talked to on Wednesday – let's just call him Matt Shirvington – was clear: "Sydney 2000 was the problem. We all lived like rock stars. And once you live like that, it is very hard to get back to normal life."

In Shirvington's case, though he was disappointed not to have achieved what he set out to do at those Olympics, which was to win a medal, he now believes it was actually the best thing for him personally – putting him on a solid path where he is now happily married and raising children in a stable environment, carving out a new career in the media and getting on with it.

All strength to Thorpe, Hackett and Miller as they try to get back on track – all are good men and Hackett in particular has already carved out a strong corporate career as a banker – but perhaps they can be a cautionary tale to the next generation of swimmers.

For all of you dreaming the dream, and working hard, good on yers. But bear in mind that after it is all over, you are likely going to be needing skills and character traits that have nothing to do with getting to the top of the podium. And if you don't get there, there might be an upside to it – relative normalcy, at a time when superstars are crashing and burning like the Red Baron and friends, in World War I.

Great to be a high-flyer, but there is all too frequently a huge cost.

smh.com.au

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