Mysterious Ailment Afflicts Aussie Swimmers

BY Phillip Whitten

SYDNEY, April 1. WHILE an anxious world’s attention has been riveted on a mysterious, flu-like disease called SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) that originated in Asia and has already killed at least 54 people worldwide, an even more mysterious disease apparently has broken out in Australia.

The ailment, which has been concentrated in Sydney, Brisbane, Canberra and Perth, strangely has been identified only at major swimming centers where it has attacked only elite-level swimmers.

Known as SCAReD (Swimmers Consumed with Anxiety over the Realization they will be Defeated), its victims thus far have included Ian Thorpe, Ashley Callus, Petria Thomas, Geoff Huegill, Leisel Jones, Josh Watson, Brenton Rickard and Heidi Crawford. Strangely, every one of those stricken by the epidemic, which is characterized by acute anxiety, shaking and lame excuse-making, was a member of the Australian National Team that is scheduled to meet the USA in a dual meet – the Mutual of Omaha “Duel in the Pool” – to establish the world’s #1 aquatic power.

Today, just as the remnants of the Aussie team were preparing to board a United Airlines flight to America, sprinter Jodie Henry was cruelly stricken and forced to withdraw.

Two years ago at the World Championships, the Aussies – led by Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett and Giann Rooney, among others — laid claim to being the world’s greatest swimming power. Last year, the US outswam Australia when the two superpowers clashed at the Pan Pacific Championships.

Who was #1? Aussie and US officials decided on a dual meet in 2003 to settle the issue – at least for the moment.

Even before the mass withdrawals, it was clear that the hoped-for, down-to-the-wire contest would turn out to be no contest. Plagued by (actual) injuries, and weakened by key retirements, a reduction in government support, scandals involving several coaches and athletes playing Musical Coaches, Australia in ’03 was not the power it had been in 2000 and 2001. The “Duel” would be a rout, a plain old-fashioned butt whupping.

Indeed, that realization has been offered as an explanation for the uncharacteristic, unsportsmanlike withdrawals by critics on both sides of the Pacific.

Where’s the old Crocodile Dundee spirit?

Where’s the power immortalized by Men at Work:
“I come from the Land Down Under…
Can you hear, can you hear it thunder?
You’d better run, you’d better take cover”?

Where’s the intestinal fortitude that has allowed these hardy folk not only to endure, but actually enjoy such delicacies as Vegimite?

Some of the Aussies who have withdrawn are genuinely hurting. Ashley Callus is one. Michael Klim ahs been plagued by one serious injury after another. World champ Petria Thomas does need additional surgery, though she did manage to go 58 and 2:09 for the 100 and 200 flys on her gimpy shoulders. But others apparently don’t want to fly halfway around the world just to get spanked.

To their great credit, world champions Grant Hackett –featured on the cover of this month’s Swimming World, Matt Welsh and Giann Rooney are making the long trans-Pacific voyage. They will be doubly welcomed in Indy.

(In fairness, it should be noted that many top US stars did not journey to Brisbane last year to take part in the Goodwill Games, a major event in Australia. Some who did swim there gave less than their full effort. Perhaps, in the minds of some Aussies, this is Payback Time.)

Chuck Wielgus, Executive Director of USA Swimming, told SwimInfo: “The Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool was created to bring together the world's two best swim teams to meet in head-to-head competition to determine who is #1 in the world.

“Australian Swimming President John Devitt says they are coming to win. We recognize that athletes get hurt and get sick, but this is a team event and we'll be fielding the best possible team of U.S. swimmers and we look forward to taking on the challenge of the best swimmers from Australia. At the end of the meet, the #1 team will be determined … no excuses."

David Marsh, head coach of the USA men’s team, commented: “With all the energy and excitement that has been generated for this event, it’s very disappointing not to have many of Australia’s great stars coming. But those who are coming are still capable of giving us a great meet.

“Everyone enjoys watching Ian Thorpe set records. He is the standard-setter in our sport and his presence will be greatly missed. Still, I do believe there will be world records set at the Duel in the Pool.

“Speaking on behalf of the USA team, we’re coming to have fun and some great racing with our Aussie rivals. I’m also looking forward to catching up with Brett Hawke, who led us (Auburn University) to our first NCAA title in 1997.”

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