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Aussie dismay as swim gold rush nosedives

2016-08-14 14:20
Mack Horton (Getty Images)

Rio de Janeiro - Australians are seeking answers after their expensively-funded swimmers struggled to redeem themselves at the Rio Olympics after a disastrous showing in London four years ago.

Headed by a new coach and bolstered by rising stars, the team was predicted to win up to 11 gold medals.

But by the end of swimming events on Saturday in Rio they came away with only three golds - well below the mighty USA's 16 and even fewer than Michael Phelps, who bagged another five himself.

High among the disappointments were the performances of favourites Cate Campbell and Cameron McEvoy, the fastest swimmers in their 100m freestyle events heading into Rio, who succumbed to the pressure and bombed out of the medals in their pet event.

"The Australian public could be forgiven for saying, 'well, can we have our money back then?', Brisbane's Courier Mail bristled on Sunday.

"The taxpayer contributed just under A$40 million (R412 million) to fund the Australian swimming programme for the past four years, and they expect a certain return for their investment."

The Australian newspaper said of Campbell's meltdown: "The swimming team's Olympic campaign began with great promise, with two gold medals on the opening day, but unravelled in a race that produced the greatest shock in the pool this week."

Team figureheads Campbell and McEvoy admitted they succumbed to the pressure.

Head coach Jacco Verhaeren was more blunt, saying McEvoy had been gripped by "stage fright".

Richard Keegan, Assistant Professor in sports psychology at the University of Canberra, said the pressure Olympic athletes experience can leave even physically fresh competitors mentally fatigued.

"If one's entire career and life's work is going to be defined in the next few moments, that's pressure," Keegan told AFP Sunday.

"It is a long-established fact that pressure can make people underperform - whether it be choking, anxiety or distraction.

"It's one of the main reasons sport psychology was started.

"Even in simple lab settings you can see increases in heart rate, muscle tension, sweat just when people are performing in front of a crowd."

But it wasn't all bad news. Swimming-obsessed Aussies were buoyed by wins from Mack Horton and teen sensation Kyle Chalmers, who both took home gold medals early in the Games.

Chalmers, 18, grabbed gold for his country for the first time in 48 years in the blue riband 100m freestyle, while Horton scooped gold in the men's 400m freestyle.

And despite her 100m freestyle boilover, individual world record-holder Campbell anchored Australia to 4x100m freestyle gold in 3:30.65, the fastest time in history.

Rio was supposed to be a rebound for the Australian swimming squad, after a rocky period for the sport.

Swimming was overhauled after the team's disastrous showing at the 2012 Olympics where they finished without a single individual gold medal for the first time since Montreal in 1976.

In a tumultuous time for the sport, governing body Swimming Australia lost its president, chief executive, head coach and major sponsor.

Two inquiries uncovered a squad lacking leadership in London and reported "toxic" incidents, such as drunkenness and bullying, that had gone unchecked.

But under incoming head coach Verhaeren a new team culture was encouraged, and a number of emerging stars joined the squad - raising hopes in a country where swimming instills national pride.

Australia's Olympic hopes historically rely on its swimmers and the country has a rich pedigree of champions from Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose and Shane Gould to Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett.

More than any other sport, winning Olympic golds in swimming is key to shaping Australia's national identity.

With its vast 35 877km coastline and temperate climate, Australia is renowned for its beaches and water activities.

Twelve percent of Australia's 24 million population own swimming pools, according to recent national data, and children take compulsory swimming lessons at school from a young age.

Those ingredients have led Australia to Olympic greatness in the past, and fed the country's passion for the sport.

The Australian swimming team's best-ever performance came at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics where they won eight swimming gold out of the 13 on offer, while their best return at an overseas Games was seven in Athens in 2004.

Prior to Rio, Australian swimmers brought home 42 percent of the country's gold medals since they competed in the first modern summer Olympics in 1896.

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