Getting the Dolphins out of the doldrums
The Aussie Dolphins are in the doldrums. No doubt about it.
The Aussies are no longer the powerhouse that ruled the pool in 2001 at Fukuoka’s world championships.
The Dolphins peaked at Fukuoka. Ian Thorpe was on fire, breaking three world records in individual freestyle events. Grant Hackett smashed Kieren Perkins’ seemingly elusive world record in the 1500m freestyle. It was gold, gold, gold – a total of 13 gold medals to Australia.
The United States scored just nine gold medals – and the Americans were seething in Thorpe’s wake.
How did the Aussies beat the Americans? A simple formula. Money – government money and corporate support. And tough leadership.
Australian head coach Don Talbot cracked the whip, creating an environment that demanded excellence and fed the swimmers with overseas racing trips (thanks to money) and personal management skills that brought success.
When Talbot stepped down in 2001, a tumultuous period engulfed Swimming Australia. High performance director Greg Hodge stepped down amid controversy in 2003, and national youth coach Leigh Nugent carried the baton until the 2004 Athens Olympics, helping to revive the team.
Experienced Australian coach Alan Thompson took over the reigns from Nugent after Athens.
Since Fukuoka, the Aussies have struggled to come close to regaining its No. 1 status.
At the Rome world championships in August, there was just a hint of gold. Three pool gold medals. Just a shadow of the mighty 13 gold medals at Fukuoka.
Flyer Jessicah Schipper left others in her wake in the 200m butterfly, smashing the world mark in 2:03.41.
Eight years ago, Schipper told me she wanted to be better than golden girl Susie O’Neill. I looked at her intently and asked: “You want to be better than Susie O’Neill?” Schipper looked at me in the eye and said, “yes”.
I always thought Schipper, who won the 2009 Swimmer of the Year, would make it to the top. Like Talbot, Schipper stated her goal publicly. People who say what they want to achieve often live out their dreams.
After the farcical Rome world championships, with its swimsuit debacle, the Aussies finished fourth on the medal tally.
The result hurt the Australian camp. There are now serious measures in place to revive the Dolphins.
How can the Aussies recover? It will need a formula of energy, money, determination, perseverance and calculated leadership - driven by the need to be the best.
Like Schipper, Talbot always wanted to be the best. What Talbot did behind the scenes was a culmination of amazing energy.
Talbot was ruthless, uncompromising, but the discipline he bought to the team was unprecedented. The Dophins were a set of the most professional athletes.
With Thorpe leading an incredible era of Australian swimming (and Kieren Perkins before him), the success flowed. But now, the depth has evaporated.
Let’s look at our revered Aussie stars.
Ian Thorpe. Gone. Grant Hackett. Gone. Jodie Henry. Gone. Depleted ranks.
And while the cycle of success plays its part in Olympic outcomes, why are the Americans always No. 1? A huge population base and money, you say? Sure.
But consistent success comes with a consistent pattern of excellence. Money can help deliver excellence, but an uncompromising work ethic will determine the outcomes.
Unless another swimmer of Thorpe’s freakish talent emerges to set a high benchmark, I cannot see the Dolphins soaring to the heights it achieved in 2001.
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