The Australian swimmers have been setting the pool on fire over the past 18 months, from the 2014 Commonwealth Games to the 2015 World Cup Series to the most recent World Championships. The squad was at it again last weekend, where the Dolphins collectively defeated visiting teams from Japan and China in the 2016 edition of the Pan Pacific Championships.
Stars abound on the Australian National Team, highlighted by females Cate and Bronte Campbell, Emily Seebohm, along with rising stars Emma McKeon, Georgia Bohl and Minna Atherton.
The men have impressive talent in the form of Cameron McEvoy, Mitch Larkin, Mack Horton, as well as the just returned-to-competition James Magnussen.
The vibe exuded from the squad both on the pool deck and via the athlete’s’ dedication and results in the pool is an about-face from the post-London 2012 ‘fragmented’ collection of athletes who took to the press to defend Australia’s worst outing in the past 9 Olympiads.
Swimming Australia’s culture was blamed for the lackluster medal results, with a commissioned report finding “there were enough culturally toxic incidents across enough team members that breached agreements to warrant a strong, collective leadership response that included coaches, staff and the swimmers. No such collective action was taken.”
On-the-mend sprinter James Magnussen likens the entire media response to the 2012 Olympic results and subsequent culture description as “a storm in a teacup.” He says, “If we’d had a couple of extra golds people wouldn’t even be thinking about it.”
“But I think people are looking for excuses for why the team as a whole didn’t perform the way some expected,” he said. “A lot of that has been blown out of proportion. The story itself seems to get greater, more distorted every time it’s told … there’s a lot worse things that go on every day”, referring to the NRL and AFL scandals that have hit Australian newspapers as of late.
Of the official Swimming Australia response to 2012’s disappointment, SA President Bertrand comments, “Would we do that again? You’d have to say no. You’d have much more preparation in terms of how you’d say something like that to the world,” he said. “[There was] a lot of publicity about it and the press fed on it. Looking back on it, you shake your head at it and say it could have been handled better in terms of the response of Swimming Australia to the media.”
Bertrand also points to the giant expectations placed on the swimmers themselves, which led to uninspiring results. “There was enormous pressure. Absolutely enormous. And it was unfair in many ways,” he said.
As a whole, the entire team has indeed taken steps to successfully shed its ‘toxic’ skin of the past and instead embrace a laser-sharp focus headed into the final months prior to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Not only did Swimming Australia replace 80% of the administration that had been in place during London, Bertrand is calling the entire mindset shift of the staff and athletes as a ‘revolution.’
“This team is the best team I’ve been part of, and I’ve been part of many Australian swim teams,” says 50m and 100m freestyle Olympic gold medal contender Cate Campbell. “No one’s perfect and we’ve definitely cleaned up our act since then but ‘toxic’ was a little bit harsh.”
She agrees that, “Things were blown out of proportion, I personally had a really great time in London. Having said that, perhaps it wasn’t bad there was a review and there have been real changes made.”
Four-time Olympian and Australian Sports Hall of Famer Leisel Jones,agrees that the team is well in the midst of a culture recovery, saying “I think having a pretty brutal look at yourself after London 2012 was something that … helped create a shift in the team and make sure they look at [its] culture.”
Jones further comments, “It really had to happen; it went toxic pretty quickly so they’ve done a really great job … you can’t do any of that without the team wanting to do it. The culture has done a complete 180 since London 2012. It was probably the worst it could have been. Even [since the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow 2014] they’ve looked like a completely different team. They’ve really worked hard, they’re really starting to gel and looking like the team was in 2000.”
Jones’ final thought is summed up as, “They’ve certainly got their heads screwed on properly.”
Faith in Head Coach Jacco Verhaeren has helped fuel the Dolphins’ gold medal bearing, with the Dutchman’s contract recently having been renewed through the next Olympic cycle ending in 2020.
Echoing the athletes’ sentiments that things internally are on the right track, Verhaeren says, “I must say since I’ve been here and that’s again been since Jan 2014 I haven’t had one bad experience in the team whatsoever.”
Focusing on the future, Verhaeren reiterates that “We can’t keep dragging along with the story as such. I think we turn the page and we’re ready for the Olympics.”
Verhaeren is credited with instilling values such as respect and professionalism in the athletes, while holding each individual accountable to him or herself.
C. Campbell says of the Dolphins’ current psyche, “It’s more about giving people personal responsibility and I definitely believe that the more responsibility that you give people the more responsibility they take.”
“So as opposed to just giving out rules and saying, obey this or else, you say look, these are our values, we want you to operate within those, and we leave it up to your discretion as to how to do that. Obviously there are penalties if you breach that, but it gives people more freedom, allows people to express themselves as more individuals and kind of allows more diversity.
“It’s been quite a liberating experience,” Cate says.
And, quite a successful one for the Dolphins’ athletes as they head into their nation’s ultra-competitive Olympic Trials slated for April