Superfish out of water


He’s best known for that incredible 1500-metre swim in Atlanta. Today, former Olympic champion Kieren Perkins faces his next big challenge: raising our sporting cred.


I don’t know it yet, but I’m about to make Kieren Perkins uncomfortable. We’re talking about Atlanta in 1996 and his momentous, second successive Olympic gold medal in the 1500-metre freestyle. You remember it, right? Perkins had always seemed imperious in the pool, yet a form trough had somehow seen him plunge into underdog status. The swimmer known as “Superfish” performed poorly in his heat, barely scraping into the final. He spent the ­following day in a roiling panic, counting down to his medal race in a cold sweat.

“I’d never felt self-doubt before,” he says today. “There was this overwhelming public support, but in my mind there was also this build-up – I don’t think I can win – and it was distressing.”

Remember how he charged off the block, defying anyone to pass him? Australia rode his domination in the water stroke for stroke that Saturday morning, until commentator Dennis Cometti loosed his ­famous baritone at the finish: “This is rare gold! The best kind of gold!

Before Cathy Freeman, before the Matildas, this was the uniting moment of Australian sport. And afterwards? Perkins was feted more than ever – and confronted by that adoration. “I still don’t feel there was anything special about what I did,” he says. “I didn’t cure cancer or bring peace in the Middle East.” Yet people stopped him in the street – they still do, almost weekly – to tell him where they’d been when he won.

I know where I was. I was ­playing footy for Murrumbeena in an away game against St Kilda City. I’m not sure why, but I share this hyper-specific memory with Kieren Perkins. The retired swimmer, now 50, nods graciously, because those moments are beautiful to him, but they’re also awkward. Every single time.

“It’s a fascinating psychosis,” he says. “It’s weird to have stopped people’s lives, because the things that stopped mine were Lady Diana dying, and the Twin Towers falling, so it’s hard for me to rationalise.”

But here’s the important bit. That uncomfortable ­collective recognition? Perkins has made it work for him in the 27 years since…

Click here for the full story from Good Weekend magazine on Saturday September 30, 2023

Photography by Josh Robenstone