Only three Australians have taken home five medals from a single Olympic Games. We meet one of them. By Richard Cooke.

Credit: Eddy Krangle

Golden girl: Alicia Coutts, 26, swimmer

Alicia Coutts is a champion swimmer specialising in medley and butterfly events. At the 2012 London Olympics she won five medals, matching the tally of Ian Thorpe and Shane Gould. She will represent Australia at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in July. At her previous Commonwealth Games outing, in Delhi, she won five gold medals.

Richard Cooke Can you remember your earliest swimming lessons?

Alicia Coutts I remember doing my swimming lessons at a woman’s house; she did them in her backyard. They used to throw you in the pool and you’d have to find your way back to the edge. One time I was walking around with my brother’s towel wrapped a round me, and I tripped and fell in the pool and almost drowned. But my swim teacher said to my mum, “Just leave her; she’ll make her way to the surface”, and I did.

RC When did the Olympic Games start to seem like
a possibility?

AC I first wanted to go to the Olympics when I was six. But it was probably when I was about 16 that I thought that I could really make it. I used to have Australian swim team posters up in my room, and the quote: “Success isn’t final, failure isn’t fatal, it’s courage that counts.” I had an autograph book with all my favourite swimmers in it, and a couple of times I was lucky enough to be able to carry the medal pillows at one of the competitions. I got to meet Susie O’Neill and Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett and all those superstars.

RC A conversation with Susie O’Neill helped rebuild your motivation. What did you talk about?

AC I just said to her that I was kind of bored of it and it’s just so repetitive and I didn’t really know if… I wasn’t really enjoying it anymore. And she said to me that after Atlanta she felt very much the same, and it took her a couple of years to really snap out of it and get ready for Sydney. It’s funny, as you get older as an athlete it is harder to commit to anything. It was good just to have Susie say that she experienced the same thing and yet still came back to be successful in Sydney.

RC As your body changes, it takes more effort to remain at the elite level.

AC Yeah, definitely. The other factor is that you don’t recover as quickly as you used to. I found that in world championships last year, backing up, doing so many events, is more taxing on your body and it just gets harder and harder. I guess that’s why a lot of swimmers, as they get older, tend to specialise in shorter events because it’s just too much to be doing the longer ones. 

RC When you go on holidays, do you go in the pool?

AC No. It’s funny because my fiancé and I went to Bali after London for a week, and I think I got in the pool once. The beach, yes; the pool, not really.

RC Your first coach, Dave Urquhart, is still part of your life.

AC I started training with Dave when I was nine and he became like a real surrogate father to me. My father passed away when I was seven, so I didn’t have a dad growing up, but Dave was the closest thing to a dad that I could ever have asked for. He didn’t push me too hard in my swimming; he didn’t want me to burn out too early. There were a lot of girls I was racing when I was younger who were swimming 10 sessions a week. They might have swum until they were 13, 14 and then they stopped because they just hated it so much. Dave didn’t want me to be like that. He wanted me to finish growing, he really looked out for me not only as a swimmer but as a young girl. He’s actually going to be walking me down the aisle at my wedding.

RC Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett, Scott Miller – there seems to be something about life after swimming that can drive people off the rails. 

AC I think it could be routine. Being a swimmer, you’re set in a routine and you do it for so many years that it’s almost like, once you stop, you don’t know what to do. It’s setting a schedule every week: you get up at this time, go training, finish training, come home, have something to eat. I think there are real difficulties for some athletes or some swimmers when they finish swimming and ask the question, “What do I do now?” Because they’re just not really sure.

RC What to do with that freedom? 

AC After London I had eight weeks off and it was so nice just to be normal and not have to stick to a training routine. I can go away, I can do anything I like, I can go down the coast for three days, or whatever, and not have to worry about being back for training. It was just really nice to just be able to make choices that didn’t involve swimming.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 31, 2014 as "Golden girl".

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Richard Cooke is a contributing editor to The Monthly, and the 2018 Mumbrella Publish Award Columnist of the Year.

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