“As close to fly­ing as you can get”

He’s the young Olympian who won gold and now has his sights set on next month’s Com­mon­wealth Games, but Mack Hor­ton is not fazed by fame – or crit­i­cism

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents - In­ter­view by JES­SICA HAL­LO­RAN

He over­came a fear of wa­ter and won Olympic gold. Now swim­ming champ Mack Hor­ton has his sights set on the up­com­ing Com­mon­wealth Games.

“I can’t af­ford to move out of home. I live in Mel­bourne!”

Ten-year old Mack Hor­ton was fright­ened of the wa­ter: he’d spent al­most the en­tire school term re­fus­ing to put his head un­der it dur­ing swim­ming lessons. But at the very last class of the term, with three min­utes to go, de­ter­mi­na­tion kicked in. He whis­pered to him­self: “OK, I’m go­ing to do it.”

With a deep breath and a feel­ing that mixed trep­i­da­tion and courage, he dipped his whole body un­der the wa­ter. It was love at first splash. “They couldn’t get me out af­ter that,” Hor­ton tells Stel­lar, with a laugh. “That’s how good it was… I liked the free­dom of swim­ming, the zero grav­ity; I just felt free.”

It didn’t take long for Hor­ton’s in­fat­u­a­tion to turn into a long-term love af­fair, as he dis­cov­ered the thrill of rac­ing and the sen­sa­tion of speed swim­ming. “When you’re swim­ming really fast it feels like fly­ing,” he says. “The pain goes away and you just feel good. It’s as close to fly­ing as I reckon you can come.”

He flew to vic­tory just 10 years af­ter con­quer­ing his fear of wa­ter, be­com­ing a 400-me­tres freestyle Olympic cham­pion in Rio de Janeiro at the age of 20. Now, at 21, his fo­cus is the Com­mon­wealth Games. At the tri­als on the Gold Coast at the be­gin­ning of the month, he qual­i­fied in the 400-me­tres, 200-me­tres, 4 x 200-me­tres re­lay and 1500-me­tres. For the up­com­ing Games, his goal is sim­ple: “Swim fast.”

Fo­cus on the time, not the medals. It’s a phi­los­o­phy he first de­vel­oped as a kid, a method­ol­ogy hatched by his dad, An­drew, in the car ride from his morn­ing swim­ming train­ing to school. Hor­ton would eat his break­fast while his fa­ther gave him a steady stream of ad­vice. “Dad had me locked down for half an hour ev­ery morn­ing for a chat,” Hor­ton laughs. “Ev­ery day was a dif­fer­ent life les­son. He just drilled into me that you need to have goals and pro­cesses. The eas­i­est way to get where you want to be is to copy some­one else and do it bet­ter.”

On his fa­ther’s ad­vice, Hor­ton printed a sheet of pa­per de­tail­ing ev­ery age-group record for the 1500-me­tres: from the 13-year-old to the 18-year-old records for the event. “I printed it out and stuck it up above my bed,” Hor­ton says. He’d fall asleep look­ing at that sheet of records. “I man­aged to knock most of them all off as I went through each year. I knocked Grant Hackett’s time off but I never got Kieren Perkins’s record. My goal is still to swim really fast, rather than medals. The logic is if I’m go­ing to swim these times then the medals will come as well.”

At the Rio Olympics in 2016, Hor­ton re­mem­bers stand­ing on the pool deck just be­fore the start of the 400-me­tres freestyle. He knew he was go­ing to win it. (“You have to have that kind of level of self-be­lief.”) In the lane be­side him was his arch ri­val, China’s Sun Yang, who had just tried to dis­rupt his prepa­ra­tion in the warm-up pool. Hor­ton had ig­nored him and pub­licly dis­missed him as a drug cheat for whom he had no time or re­spect (Yang served a se­cret three­month sus­pen­sion for test­ing pos­i­tive to a banned stim­u­lant in 2014). And then the fi­nal blow: Hor­ton ex­e­cuted a tac­ti­cally ex­cel­lent race and won Olympic gold. It was a glo­ri­ous vic­tory.

But since bring­ing home the medal, Hor­ton says “not so much” has changed in his life. He still lives in the leafy Mel­bourne sub­urb of Glen Iris with his par­ents. “I can’t af­ford to move out,” he says. “I live in Mel­bourne!” He sleeps in his child­hood bed­room with that piece of pa­per still Blu-tacked to the

ceil­ing above him. “I am scared it could be bad luck to take it down,” he grins. “Ev­ery­thing at home is the same. Ev­ery­thing at train­ing is the same. The peo­ple who I know and care about are the same to me. It’s just the out­side world I guess… you get recog­nised a lit­tle bit more, but that’s it really.”

The Olympic gold medal isn’t even on dis­play in the pool room: Hor­ton keeps his medal in its tim­ber box, in­side a card­board box.

In the mid to late 2000s, ath­letes like Grant Hackett, Stephanie Rice and Ian Thorpe turned their medals into mil­lions – back then, the spon­sor­ship mar­ket was hot for suc­cess­ful swim­mers. But times have changed. Since his Olympic suc­cess in Rio, Hor­ton has been gifted a Vespa, RACV has been of­fer­ing him hol­i­days and cor­po­rate speak­ing engagements, and Speedo is still pro­vid­ing him with swimwear (as they did be­fore the Olympics). Then there’s the day-to-day fund­ing from the Ge­orgina Hope Foun­da­tion and money for swim­mers pro­vided by min­ing mag­nate Gina Rine­hart. It all helps, but it’s hardly mil­lions. “You do it be­cause you love it. And you end up with peo­ple who only do it be­cause they love it. I think the pub­lic’s per­cep­tion is that if you are an Aus­tralian Dol­phin or if you medal at the Olympics you are go­ing to be set for life, that there’s go­ing to be cash money ev­ery day. For per­spec­tive, the AOC prize money for a gold medal is, drum roll, $20,000. That’s like $2000 a year for train­ing for 10 years.”

The one thing that has changed since the Olympics – and Hor­ton’s tongue­lash­ing of China’s dar­ling-with-adop­ing-past, Yang – has been the trolls. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of them, who still pester and ha­rass Hor­ton on a daily ba­sis via so­cial me­dia. It didn’t stop him from speak­ing out again ahead of last year’s FINA World Cham­pi­onships in Bu­dapest, though. When asked of his fa­mous ri­valry with Yang in the lead-up to their 400-me­tres race, Hor­ton said,“i think it is a ri­valry between clean ath­letes and ath­letes who have tested pos­i­tive.” Yang even­tu­ally won that world cham­pi­onship ti­tle and Hor­ton claimed sil­ver.

He cops con­stant crit­i­cism. “It’s pretty crazy. When­ever I post a photo they will com­ment,” he says. “They post ‘poo’ and ‘snake’ emo­jis. Chi­nese writ­ing… I’m not go­ing to go and trans­late it!” Yang’s sup­port­ers troll pho­tos of him and his girl­friend, Ella Wal­ter, at the races, too. “Please apol­o­gise to Sun Yang” is a com­mon re­frain. But Hor­ton, who by his own def­i­ni­tion is “pretty laid-back”, says he is not fazed by the com­ments. “It doesn’t hurt me. When it hap­pened, I had 570,000 com­ments on a photo that were just hate. It is such a big num­ber that you can’t re­late to it. If it was 15 com­ments it would prob­a­bly hurt more than 570,000. It is just not real.”

Hor­ton clearly sees the big­ger pic­ture. While some ath­letes are ob­sessed by their sport, there’s plenty go­ing on out­side of the pool for this swim­mer. He is “slowly” study­ing com­merce at La Trobe Univer­sity. He likes to “geek out” about sail­ing with Swim­ming Aus­tralia pres­i­dent and Amer­ica’s Cup cham­pion John Bertrand – he’d like to do some kind of ex­treme sail­ing event one day, such as the Syd­ney to Ho­bart. There are also dreams of do­ing an Iron­man event, a marathon, or some other chal­lenge that would push him to his lim­its. He says his girl­friend Ella is con­stantly rolling her eyes at the num­ber of brain­waves he has about com­pet­ing in some kind of ex­treme sport. For the mo­ment, how­ever, he is stick­ing with a much tamer hobby: pho­tog­ra­phy. Hor­ton has just bought him­self a fancy new cam­era and ad­mires the work of iconic Aus­tralian pho­tog­ra­pher Max Du­pain.

But he won’t be giv­ing up his first love any­time soon. “I swim be­cause it’s fun. I try and keep it sim­ple. When pres­sure is high or I’m ner­vous I think, ‘Why am I do­ing this?’ – and it’s be­cause it’s fun to race. It’s fun be­ing as good as I can be.” Quite a turn­around for a kid who once feared putting his head un­der­wa­ter.

“The peo­ple I care about are the same to me. It’s just the out­side world…”

GOOD AS GOLD (clock­wise from left) Mack Hor­ton at the 2016 Rio Olympics with his 400-me­tres freestyle gold medal, along­side sil­ver medal­list, and arch ri­val, China’s Sun Yang; the swim­mer is an am­bas­sador for Speedo; with his girl­friend Ella Wal­ter; a...

All eyes will be on swim­ming star Hor­ton in the pool next month as he strives for glory at the Gold Coast Com­mon­wealth Games.

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