Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Salute

Since I'm amid all these Olympian values, it seems only apt to hail wondrous achievement much in the same way that the antennae are tuned to detect bunkum.

For this reason on Tuesday I unreservedly take my hat off to the affable Australian swimmer Hayden Stoeckel.

The self-avowedly shy country boy from Berri, South Australia, won the 100 metres backstroke bronze medal on the most salient sporting stage behind the legend that is Aaron Peirsol and his fellow American Matt Grevers.

Stoeckel who trains in Adelaide, the main town in South Australia, came in to face the media and instantly declared that he didn’t like facing the media. So much so that he’d even underperformed in races to avoid the glare of limelight.

He’s been given some training, he said, which had helped him conquer his trepidation about being up close and personal with the wolves.

But truth be told, it was an adoring pack that he encountered after his efforts in the pool. Mind you at 6ft 5ins tall, I’d dare anyone to try and rile the lad.

Questions were more biographical about his parents and what he did for hobbies.

“I just like to watch footie and hang out with me mates,” he replied. It seemed perfectly normal and healthy for someone who’d turned 24 two days into the games.

He also revealed that he’d given up swimming eight years ago but was persuaded to get back into the pool by his parents.

More recently there’s been work with a psychologist to help him accept that suffering is good for his art.

On Monday Stoeckel had become a contender for the 100 metres backstroke after setting the fastest time in the semi finals in a new Olympic record of 52.97 seconds.

His coaches in the Australian camp quickly calmed him down by telling him that he still had a final to race.

They did a good job.

By contrast another Australian, Leisel Jones, was so comfortable with the cameras and the questions on Tuesday that you could have mistaken her for a meejah darling.

But then again she has been told since her mid teens that she is the anointed one in the breastroke. She was selected for the Australian team at 14 and at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 won silver.

When she set a world record in the 200m breaststroke in the run up to the Athens games for years later, she was expected to take the gold. But it didn’t work out like that.

She came third in the 100 metres and second in the 200 metres.

Now at the ripe old age of 22. She was voluble as she outlined her odyssey from the despair and defeat in Greece to the glory and gold in China.

The message essentially was that there was more to her life than swimming.

What I find fascinating about being in Beijing is hearing these tales of the intangible. The driven one becomes a tougher competitor by gaining a wider outlook and the taciturn one explodes through embracing focus.

“You’ve got to hurt to succeed,” said Stoeckel. “I never liked pain. As soon as I hit that pain barrier I’d back off. And I’ve just learned now that you’ve got to push it.

“ If you hurt in training you’re not going to hurt in a race. You do 32 100s and it’s just hurts and hurts and you come out and do 100 metres and you think I can do 32 of these.

“Then you come out here and do 100m and swim awesome and not hurt and it’s just an amazing feeling.”

Will you get recognised when you go back to Berri? slurped one of the wolves. “Oh yes because it’s not very big. I might even get noticed in Adelaide…”

A shy lad looked worried for an instant.

But with his height and what he’s done, people aren’t likely to take chunks out of him.