Brains & Brawn

James Mag­nuss­nen and Cameron Mcevoy’s show­down will be one of the main draw­cards at Glas­gow, but will it be enough to re­store our pride in Aus­tralian swim­ming?

Inside Sport - - FOOTBALL - By Jeff Cen­ten­era

Cameron Mcevoy had just fin­ished an exam, his last for this uni term at Grif­fith. Sec­ond-year maths, a course that cov­ers ap­plied math­e­mat­i­cal tech­niques, use­ful for fig­ur­ing out pres­sure dis­tri­bu­tion in fluid or the di­rec­tion of forces in space. Es­sen­tially, the kind of maths that many of us never even get around to for­get­ting, but stuff that a budding physi­cist needs to know.

For most world-class swim­mers, their in­ter­est in the phys­i­cal laws of the uni­verse would be limited to how they could ex­ploit them to move through wa­ter more rapidly. McEvoy stands out as rather dif­fer­ent. He fits the mould of many an Aussie swim star: Queens­land born-and-bred, a close-tothe-wa­ter up­bring­ing with a stint in surf life­sav­ing, a prodi­gious talent in the pool that was ev­i­dent as he broke a suc­ces­sion of freestyle age records through his teens. But the 20-year-old is what you get when your in­spi­ra­tions are equal parts Ian Thorpe and Richard Feyn­man. McEvoy is fas­ci­nated by fun­da­men­tal-ques­tion sci­ence, an in­ter­est that re­ally de­vel­oped dur­ing his gap year, his mind need­ing some kind of stim­u­la­tion while he was qual­i­fy­ing for the 2012 Olympic team.

He’s gen­uinely in­ter­ested by the fact that Glas­gow is where Lord Kelvin set up what is

con­sid­ered to be the first univer­sity physics lab. “Kelvin – the guy who the tem­per­a­ture scale is named af­ter?” McEvoy says. While he pon­ders the fu­ture pos­si­bil­ity of a PhD, he’s not sure yet what field he might even­tu­ally pur­sue. “There are so many dif­fer­ent parts of physics where people don’t re­ally know what’s hap­pen­ing. I was read­ing ear­lier about su­per­con­duc­tiv­ity, and how they’re just start­ing to reach a few the­o­ret­i­cal break­throughs in that.”

It’s not al­to­gether of­ten that one of the na­tion’s ris­ing sports stars will talk up the cloud cham­ber they built in their room. Chat­ting with his re­search ad­viser about par­ti­cle de­tec­tors, McEvoy says, “I went on­line and found I could make my own with a Petri dish, a ra­dioac­tive source, dry ice and what­not. It would just be cool to see the par­ti­cles de­cay­ing off the ra­dioac­tive source, just out of gen­eral in­ter­est.”

Last April, at the Com­mon­wealth Games tri­als in Bris­bane, McEvoy pulled off an ex­per­i­ment with a sur­pris­ing set of re­sults. James Mag­nussen, hav­ing once again claimed the man­tle of world cham­pion in the 100m freestyle in late 2013, was pro­gress­ing neatly along the curve through heats and semis to a pos­si­ble tilt at the world record. }

But in the fi­nal, Mag­nussen found him­self beaten to the wall by McEvoy, who swam a 47.65 time that cut 0.23 sec­onds off his PB, was the fastest time in the world for the year, and was faster than Mag­nussen’s win­ning mark at the Worlds in Barcelona.

Mag­nussen was once again fac­ing ques­tions about a big-race let­down, later ad­mit­ting he be­came “stuck into the mind­set of chas­ing a world record again”. McEvoy, who also added the 200m free ti­tle in an­other year’s-best time, was bub­bling at his break­out per­for­mance. “I was aware that my train­ing was far ahead of what it had been, par­tic­u­larly in the gym; on dry land, my power in­creased,” he says.

“In the lit­tle com­pe­ti­tions leading up to the tri­als, I wouldn’t feel any dif­fer­ent to other years, but I’d come out in the fi­nal and be a sec­ond faster than the year be­fore. I knew, hav­ing a lit­tle bit more room to im­prove, I was go­ing to swim well and do PBs.”

See­ing the best of both swim­mers has set up one of the most in­trigu­ing nar­ra­tives of these Com­mon­wealth Games. It’s a po­ten­tial ri­valry built upon an ex­tremely neat di­chotomy, which was read­ily ap­par­ent to ev­ery­one: Mag­nussen, the man known as “Mis­sile”, against McEvoy, who was be­ing la­belled the “rocket sci­en­tist” (even if rock­etry fell out of sci­en­tific cool long ago). The tale of the tape told a story: the pow­er­house Mag­nussen is some 15 cen­time­tres taller and 20 kilo­grams heav­ier than McEvoy, and that’s re­flected in dif­fer­ences in style and tech­nique in the wa­ter. If the Aussie swim­ming team is the school car­ni­val writ large, it’s easy to pic­ture Mag­nussen as the gun-ath­lete, big man on cam­pus, while McEvoy is the ex­tra­credit stu­dent cheered on by the geeks.

How­ever you want to term it, this is a straight-ahead, up-and-back con­test for one of the great ti­tles of the pool and should pro­vide the high-wa­ter mark and fo­cal point for the Aussie cam­paign at the Games. But hard sci­ence won’t be pre­oc­cu­py­ing the na­tion’s swim­mers in Glas­gow; in­stead, it will be so­cial sci­ence.

IT WAS in Bri­tain two years ago, of course, that Aus­tralian swim­ming reached a his­toric nadir: a sole Olympic gold in Lon­don for the once-proud pro­gram, and a re­lay one at that. The na­tion, which had grown ac­cus­tomed to the spec­ta­cle of house­hold names fill­ing the medal tally like they were op­er­at­ing to a sched­ule, in­stead watched as a clutch of favourites went down in dis­ap­point­ment. Face-of-the-Games James Mag­nussen, who had ar­rived in Lon­don with his procla­ma­tion to “brace yourself”, be­came the em­blem of mys­ti­fied un­der­achieve­ment, summed up by his stunned re­ac­tion on the pool deck af­ter the 4x100m freestyle re­lay team failed to medal.

The re­sults would prompt the now-rit­ual prac­tice of a sport un­der­tak­ing a re­view. These in­tro­spec­tions, whether they were in cricket or rugby or swim­ming, tend to be proofs of Tol­stoy’s famed line from Anna

Karen­ina: happy fam­i­lies are alike, but the un­happy ones are un­happy in their own way. Swim­ming’s own fa­mil­ial dis­putes were laid par­tic­u­larly bare, with “toxic cul­ture” be­com­ing a eu­phemism at­tached to the Olympic team.

To ex­tend the anal­ogy of the swim-team-as-school-car­ni­val, the swim­mers have long been kind of like the na­tion’s school team – these kids, of­ten very young and his­tor­i­cally am­a­teur, were the most re­lat­able of Aus­tralia’s sports stars. They prof­ited from it, but as swim­ming de­vel­oped into its present-day form, the ac­com­pa­ny­ing ex­cesses and pres­sures be­came ev­i­dent. The pub­lic’s dis­ap­point­ment dou­bled down, in a way that it wouldn’t have for other ath­letes: the swim­mers might not win, but they had never be­haved like this.

The un­for­tu­nate episode cul­mi­nated with the case of the Stil­nox Six, the in­fa­mous, chem­i­cally en­hanced, pre-Olympics bond­ing ses­sion that in­volved both Mag­nussen and McEvoy. Their col­lec­tive mis­be­haviour earned them of­fi­cial warn­ings, but per­haps worse was the highly pub­lic way they had to deal with it. All the while, it re­in­forced per­cep­tions that this was a na­tional team that had grown a lit­tle too en­ti­tled over time, and win­ning had pa­pered over the de­fi­cien­cies. The re­view into the team’s cul­ture, by the firm Blue­stone Edge, said: “Win­ning was viewed too mech­a­nis­ti­cally and the


value of qual­ity re­la­tion­ships, re­spect and shared ex­pe­ri­ence was un­der­rated.”

Mag­nussen, who was made to slog through one mea culpa af­ter an­other, touched on a sim­i­lar theme in a news­pa­per in­ter­view ear­lier this year: “We have to beat each other to get on to the team and then we have to be friends again – it’s a tough dy­namic. Com­ing up as a young swim­mer, you know you have ‘X’ amount of people in front of you and you need to pick them off one-by-one.”

For the swim­mers, the watchword in Glas­gow will be “cul­ture”. The recla­ma­tion project took an im­por­tant step at the Worlds, as the talent level in the team proved it­self still good enough to pro­duce four cham­pi­ons. While the Comm Games won’t have the same depth of com­pe­ti­tion, it is ar­guably a higher-pro­file mo­ment in which both es­tab­lished and new stars will be faced with ex­pec­ta­tions – both of per­for­mance and com­port­ment.

“To Aus­tralians, the tra­di­tion of the Com­mon­wealth Games is still quite re­spected – know­ing that tra­di­tion, it makes it a lit­tle bit more im­por­tant than what it would be,” McEvoy says.

“The ath­letes that came be­fore me, they came through the Games. It’s a big step­ping stone, par­tic­u­larly for younger swim­mers that are re­ally tal­ented – the Comm Games might of­fer them an op­por­tu­nity to make an in­ter­na­tional fi­nal and get a medal and ex­pe­ri­ence what it’s like to be the best in

a big com­pe­ti­tion. Then, at a Worlds or Olympics, they’re bet­ter equipped than if it was their first ex­pe­ri­ence in that sce­nario.”

Glas­gow rep­re­sents a shot at re­demp­tion for Mag­nussen, or a big­ger mo­ment for McEvoy to make his name. Ei­ther way, they’re both out to re­store the faith be­tween swim­mers and sup­port­ers, that golden-hued re­la­tion­ship that rekin­dles ev­ery two to four years. Both play down talk of ri­valry – McEvoy notes that he’s known Mag­nussen for quite a while, ever since his older brother Hay­den com­peted against him at age level, and Mag­nussen was highly com­pli­men­tary to McEvoy when his young team-mate made the big step of reach­ing the 100m fi­nal in the Worlds. At the same time, though, the com­pet­i­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties of the two tack­ing off each other’s per­for­mances all the way to Rio are al­to­gether tan­ta­lis­ing. In­stead of mech­a­nis­tic win­ning, it’s two mates just push­ing each other, old-school.

“He’s al­ways on top of his game, in­sanely quick, no mat­ter what,” McEvoy says. “He’s the type of per­son who can get up and do a world-class time when­ever. I might have a cou­ple of weeks of awe­some train­ing and go into a com­pe­ti­tion go­ing, ‘I’m swim­ming re­ally well.’ He could come out and smash me, and that keeps me down-to-earth.”

It’s no longer “brace yourself”, but be pre­pared for what could be a lot of fun in Glas­gow. 

Mag­nussen is a show of raw power, com­pared to the cal­cu­lated grace of McEvoy [ ­]. Mag­nussen is 15cm taller and 20kg heav­ier than McEvoy. Will any of this mat­ter at Glas­gow?

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