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The day Kieren defied the odds

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012 - 11:00 AM
Source: SportsFan
Author: Daniel Ramus

In the first of a 10-part series on iconic Australian Olympic moments, we look back at champion swimmer Kieren Perkins' career-defining victory in the 1500m freestyle in Atlanta.

Kieren Perkins' gold medal in the 1500m freestyle at Atlanta in 1996 illustrated the ability of Australians to succeed in the face of adversity, to fight to the death, and to never, ever give up.

Perkins had already won gold in the 1500m at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Not since Dawn Fraser's three successive 100m freestyle victories in Melbourne, Rome and Tokyo had an Australian won an individual gold in the same event at successive Olympics. It was a monumental feat.

The physical and psychological battles Perkins had to endure in the lead-up were intense, making his achievement all the more remarkable.

He was stricken by several viruses throughout the Olympic trials. He was unable to train for a fortnight following the trials. He even later admitted that his mindset was so negative during his Olympic heat that he would have preferred not to qualify than to race the final and finish bottom of the pile.

"With 300m to swim I decided I did not want to make the final," he said of his heat swim in Atlanta.

"If I finished last I would not be able to face my family, my coach Mr Carew, my sponsors would all desert me and my life would be basically over."

Despite his pessimism, Perkins was the eighth and last qualifier for the Olympic final, scraping in by a mere 0.24 seconds.  He was duly written off by the Australian media after such a mediocre performance, with the front pages of all the major Australian newspapers giving him no chance on the day of the final. Teammate and perennial 1500m bridesmaid Daniel Kowalski was deservedly installed as the favourite.

Of course, history records that Perkins defied his poor form, poor health and the pundits' predictions, again relegating Kowalski to the second step of the podium. And the fact he won the race despite having qualifying slowest and competing from lane eight drew a parallel with his country's achievements in Atlanta.

Australia finished seventh in the medal tally with nine gold medals. The only nations who finished above them – the US, Russia, Germany, China, France and Italy – all boasted significantly greater populations. Like Perkins, Australia was a contender punching well above its weight. It was an achievement to make any Australian proud,

It was rather appropriate that Perkins' never-say-die attitude was on display in Atlanta, where Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest fighter of them all, lit the Olympic flame to officially open the Games.

His triumph sits alongside Cathy Freeman's 400m gold and the opening ceremony at Sydney in 2000 as an Olympic moment that truly stopped the nation - a classic 'where were you when...' event.

I was playing soccer as an eight-year old on the morning of the race. It was a tradition for us to go back to our clubhouse after a game and play table tennis – but on this day, there was no time for that. We had to rush home because there was a race to be watched, a gold medal to be won, a legend - and history - to be made.

Perkins continued swimming after his heroics of 1996 with a view to matching Fraser's feat of winning gold medals in the same individual event at three successive Olympics at Sydney. He came agonisingly close, but had to settle for silver behind the event's new king, Grant Hackett.

Despite missing out, it was a brilliant effort which rounded out a brilliant career.

Watch Perkins swim to victory in Atlanta:

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