By M. Duncan Scott
BRISBANE, AUS, September 7. LIESEL Jones seemed ready to roll. Just a few weeks out from the Athens Olympics she was the world record holder in both breaststrokes and seemed poised to be Australia’s golden girl from these games.
Jodie Henry and Petria Thomas usurped, and fully earned, the mantle of Australian Olympic star from Jones with phenomenal performances in Athens.
It appears to SwimInfo, according to reports from the Courier-Mail and Fox Sports-Australia, that the power of expectations can make it a sin in swim-crazy Australia for a contender to not come home with individual gold medals. Leisel has been greeted on return from Athens by harsh criticism from former leading ladies in the Australian swimming community, most of whom are many, many years removed from their own competitive experiences.
All Jones did was win a full bouquet of Olympic medals, giving her 5 on her career. Is that terrible?
With two further Olympics under her belt, former 100 freestyle world record holder Jenny Thompson never managed individual gold, but with her trunk full of medals she is still rightly venerated as a great champion. Jones could have three more Olympics by the time she reaches Thompson’s age. Who knows what may happen?
Jones garnered gold (4 x 100 medley relay).
She swam to silver (200 breaststroke in a nail biter with present world record holder Amanda Beard).
She bagged bronze (100 breaststroke behind China’s world champion Luo Xuejuan, who was in an outside lane where Jones likely couldn’t see her well, and .01 behind Australian teammate Brooke Hansen, the same swimmer who won the Aussie Olympic Trials in the race over Jones).
Jones did do what no one else could. Not Amanda Beard; not Brooke Hanson; not Luo Xuejuan; not Germany’s Anne Poleska. She earned a medal in both distances of her stroke discipline.
But she was even criticized for being selected to be on the medley relay in the breaststroke leg because of Hanson’s margin in the final of the 100, despite the fact Jones not only has the world record but had the fastest Australian 100 of the meet from an earlier round. And it wasn’t even her choice but that of the coaching staff, but she bore the brunt of the controversy. She then still swam well enough to contribute to the Aussie team gold.
This eighteen-year-old first showed a big dose of international competitive mettle in winning a silver medal in the 100 breaststroke as a fourteen-year-old in the pressure cooker of a home country Olympics in 2000.
Some people may think that Leisel brought this all on herself. She has had a record of actually giving full efforts in preliminary races and unrested competitions where she has produced world record times. Thus, the only reason she doesn’t win every championship has to be either unwillingness to put herself on the line or tightness around her neck.
Right? It can’t have anything to do with other tenacious competitors or the fact she is still just eighteen and may not yet be ready – appropriately and not due to some shortcoming – to be the winner of every major race. With a little patience couldn’t she be swimming’s version of Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj, who set a slew of middle-distance running world records when he was younger but couldn’t get gold in either Atlanta or Sydney, despite being the favorite? In Athens he stood on the top podium after both the 1500 and 5000 meter runs.
The spitting match has gotten so ugly that some have speculated it might drive Jones out of the sport. The battle has been joined between Jones's coach Ken Wood and former swimmers Dawn Fraser, Shane Gould and Nicole Livingstone.
Wood is clearly worked up, and maybe should have handled the situation differently, but it is undeniable that he was driven to his response by the aggressive lack of graciousness exhibited by one time admired champions Fraser, Gould and Livingstone in their comments and attitude toward him and his coaching charge, Leisel Jones.
Fraser won Olympic gold in the 100 freestyle in ’56, ’60 and ’64 and the 4 x 100 freestyle in ’56. She was dominant, seldom facing any, much less multiple, competitors capable of presenting her a real challenge.
Gould had one dominant Olympics in 1972, winning golds at 200 and 400 free and the 200 IM, but when challenged she twice lost races in which she was the world record holder (Sound familiar?), getting bronze behind Sandy Nielson and Shirley Babashoff in the 100 freestyle and silver behind Keena Rothhammer in the 800 freestyle.
Livingstone slipped in for a 200 backstroke bronze in Barcelona, and though more recent she is not a champion in the same category as Fraser, Gould, or, for that matter, Leisel Jones.
Wood was clearly exercised over the comments of these three women. "Those remarks that they made – that she should examine her support staff and go and see a bloody psychiatrist – I mean, it's just bullshit. A least she didn't stop bloody rowing, did she?"
After Jones's reaction to winning bronze in the 100m breaststroke, Fraser said the 18-year-old had behaved like a spoilt brat with a swollen head and needed to "come back down to earth". Jones’ apparently offending comment, according to the Courier-Mail, was simply "I'm just not cut out to be a winner just yet."
Gould and Livingstone said Jones should assess her coach and support staff. Gould commented on Fox Sport's Back Page program, suggesting Jones should change coaches. "Her coach Ken Wood is 74 – 75 this year – and he needs to hang up his stop watch."
Wood warned yesterday that such comments could drive Jones away from swimming. He also said Jones's mother Rosemary was devastated. "Her mother won't even go to the bloody store," Wood said. "She's absolutely mortified by the comments that have been made about her girl, and she said Leisel didn't deserve that."
"You just never know, those sorts of things can do that to young people. They can get traumatized by it. Fraser doesn't know the girl – neither
does Gould," he said. "You'd have thought if Dawn wanted to do something constructive she could have dropped her a line or something, or made a phone call."
Wood defended Jones and called for more time before post-race interviews were conducted. "You never see gymnasts being interviewed after they have fallen off the balance beam or weightlifters if they have dropped the bar," he said. "How can any athlete make a rational comment regarding their performance when they have just completed the most emotional and physical race of their lives?"
Wood acknowledged that sponsorship, broadcast arrangements and media commitments were needed for the sport to survive in the professional era. "What we don't need is our athletes criticized by the likes of Dawn Fraser, Nicole Livingstone, Shane Gould and any other professional Olympian who some time ago won some swimming races and has lived off that for evermore," Wood said.
"Unfortunately if anyone is ever seen to criticize these so-called icons the roof just about caves in."
Wood said he had his lawyer send Gould a letter and intends to make a formal complaint to the Australian Swim Coaches and Teachers Association about the comments.
ASCTA president Michael Ursu said the complaint from Wood was unprecedented.
As was such out of proportion tackiness by champions of other generations.