Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer based out of Victoria, BC. In feeding his passion for swimming, he has developed YourSwimBook, a powerful log book and goal setting guide made specifically for swimmers. Sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.
In a few short weeks 4,000+ athletes from 71 countries of the Commonwealth will assemble in Glasgow, Scotland for the 20th installment of the Commonwealth Games. The top swimmers from Australia, Canada, Britain, South Africa and more will compete at the Tollcross International Swimming Centre for their countries.
Among the athletes participating later this month are the next crop of Australian distance swim stars. Names such as David McKeon, Mack Horton, Jack McLoughlin and Jordan Harrison seek to continue the rich legacy passed down to them by Hackett, Thorpe, Kowalski, Housman, and of course, Kieren Perkins.
Kieren Perkins dominated the landscape of men’s distance swimming for much of the 1990’s. Back-to-back golds in the mile in 1992 and 1996, a silver in 2000, and multiple world records in the 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles, Perkins hailed from a long line of Aussie distance titans, including Murray Rose, John Konrads and Stephen Holland.
For the Brisbane-born Perkins, his swimming was never better than it was in the summer of 1994, when he destroyed all three distance freestyle records in the span of 5 weeks.
THE MEET THAT NEARLY NEVER HAPPENED
His intensity, choice of event, and results left little doubt that Perkins had a killer instinct in racing and in training. But that didn’t mean he was all business all of the time.
“What do I think about during a race?” Perkins said as he was bursting on the international stage in the early 90’s. “I think about how many beers I can sink at the end.”
This laid back approach manifested itself into recklessness at the Commonwealth Games in 1994 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, Earth, when he and some teammates got their hands on an air pistol and fired it in the athletes village. Facing expulsion from the team Perkins meet was saved by a last minute intervention from Australian chef de mission Arthur Tunstall.
’94 also wouldn’t be Perkins’ first Commonwealth Games experience.
At the age of 16 he had cracked the 15 minute barrier for the first time 4 years earlier in Auckland. In the final he would place second behind teammate Glen Housman. That swim, according to his long time coach John Carew, was the one that would catapult Perkins’ self-belief into the stratosphere of elite swimmers.
During the first few days of the meet it was clear that Perkins was going to do something very special.
He won golds in the 200m freestyle and the 4x200m freestyle relay, breaking the Games records in both. In the 400m freestyle he would crush the field, just missing Yevgeny Sadovyi’s two-year old world record of 3:45.00, swimming a 3:45.77.
Those three gold medals, the Commonwealth records, the near world record, would turn out to be a tune-up for his masterpiece of the summer, a two-record swim on the final night of competition.
Standing behind the blocks in the middle of the pool, Perkins tightened his goggles with a clear set of instructions from Carew in his head: swim fast to the 800m mark, break the world record and then ease off, just like he had done at Pan Pacs three years earlier in Edmonton.
With the FINA World Aquatic Championships set to take place just over a month later in Rome, Carew wanted his charge to save his best performance for the sport’s second biggest stage. Perkins’ body would need time to recover from the week of competition, and would need additional time to bounce back from a fully raced mile.
The intensity and speed with which Perkins swam the 1500 – out fast and back fast – was rather novel at the time, and the effort required would leave Perkins’ body in tatters for days afterwards.
Three years prior at the world championships when Perkins and Hoffman both ducked under the incomparable Vladimir Salnikov’s 1500m freestyle world record – which had stood for 11 years – Perkins was so exhausted he was unable to eat for three days after the race.
The Commonwealth Games hangover would be just as vicious, with Australian national team physiotherapists needing a full week to get Perkins’ body back to normal.
The plan was to avoid this and save the big performance for Rome, where Carew felt Perkins would be able to swim in the 14:30’s, shattering Perkins current WR of 14:43.
“MIGHT AS WELL MAKE HAY WHILE THE SUN SHINES”
When Perkins hit the water, with fellow Australians Glen Housman and up-and-comer Daniel Kowalski—who some analysts predicted would challenge Perkins after beating an unrested and untapered Perkins at the Aussie Trials earlier that summer – it was clear that this was going to be Perkins’ race through-and-through.
Perkins was off like a bolt, churning to a 7:46.00 at the 800m mark with nearly 20m on Kowalski, and up to 50m on the rest of the field. Instead of easing off and swimming solely to win, Perkins came off the wall with his torrid tempo in check.
In recounting the swim, Perkins described the thoughts going through his head as the crowd roared when he came off of the wall at the 800m mark–
“Basically I decided that I was going to break the 1500 world record as well. There’s nothing else to it. I said, ‘yes I am going to keep going and I am going to do this.’… That’s where most good things start, is a decision, when a person sits back and says ‘yes, I am going to do this’ that is when it happens.”
With the crowd going nuts, and all of the athletes pool-side waving him on, Perkins would touch in 14:41.66, breaking his own world record by nearly two seconds.
Afterwards, in talking to his coach, he found that Carew was less than enthused.
“What did you do that for?” were Carew’s first words to his swimmer.
ROME & BEYOND
Five weeks later, Perkins would also break the world record in the 400m freestyle, taking back the world record he had held before the 1992 Olympics, when Sadovy had beaten it and him.
Perkins would go on to compete for another 6 years. He would win in Atlanta in one of the gutsiest swims of the competition. After a terrible heats swim where he barely scrapped into the final, Perkins defied expectations and pulled out gold over his countryman Kowalski who again was being predicted to dethrone the king.
Four years later in Sydney he would swim in the final of the 1500m freestyle, but this time he would be relegated to silver, behind heir-to-the-throne Grant Hackett.
After retiring Perkins found a career in banking. He works in private wealth management with the National Australia Bank, while also keeping his toes in the water, serving on Swimming Australia’s board.
Two decades after Perkins’ performance in Victoria, the top distance swimmers from across the Commonwealth will again congregate, this time in Glasgow and seek to make their own mark in the sport’s most grueling race.
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