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?
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
MAGNUSSEN IS THE BIG MAN ON CAMPUS, WHILE MCEVOY IS THE EXTRA-CREDIT STUDENT BEING CHEERED ON BY THE GEEKS.
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?