Sport

Commonwealth Games silver medallist Mack Horton on the Australian swim team’s cultural turnaround. By Richard Cooke.
Credit: SWIMMING AUSTRALIA

Super fish: Mack Horton, 19, swimmer

It’s not true that I can’t see my hand in front of my face without my glasses. Obviously I can – but it’s not clear, so I’m pretty blind. I think I’m minus five-and-a-half, minus six. Someone thought that because I couldn’t see, I had a better feel for the water, but I don’t know. How can you know? Because it’s always been this way.

When I played tennis, my parents were trying to figure out why I couldn’t hit the ball. And then it came out that I couldn’t see it. I think my year 4 teacher finally figured it out.

The first time I went swimming, I didn’t want to put my head under the water. But then once I did, I didn’t want to get out.

The Australian swimming team is an interesting group of people. There’s Cam McEvoy, who is an aspiring astrophysicist, or whatever he wants to be. Another of the guys collects Batman comics and that sort of thing. My family has a boat so I like sailing, but I don’t really have that much time to do anything else. I’m studying commerce online, so I do that a bit. But nothing like Batman comics or physics.

I’ve definitely seen some changes in the team culture. I wasn’t there for the path to 2012 and that whole situation [the “Stilnox Six” controversy]. But since I’ve been on the team, I’ve definitely seen the level of respect everyone has for each other increase. Also, just steering in a clear direction where we want to be as a team. John [Bertrand] and Mark Anderson – they’ve really pulled the team together and our heads are in the same place, heading in the same direction.

Your competitors are also on the same team. So say my 400-metres freestyle, Dave McKeon’s my biggest competitor in Australia. And then during international competitions, we usually room together. It can be really funny that way, but at the same time we all want to do the best we can representing our country.

Elite swimmers definitely have to have a machine-like quality. My coach seems to think I’m a machine and just, you know, keeps giving me sets that only a machine could hack through every day. 

At such a high level, people feel like they almost can’t change their routines. It’s almost superstitious, you know? They go into every meet with the same approach and try to do the same thing. But the body’s always at different phases going into every meet. It might take us the same amount of time, but it might turn out differently. There are so many little factors, and then also you can’t control your competition.

I’m not that superstitious. Just a little bit crazy. There are fast pools and slow pools. Usually the deeper the pool, the faster. But then in terms of talking about my process, getting ready for a race, it’s to do with the location of where the room is, or where the warm-up and cool-down pool is, where the team puts all their bags. The order in which you do things, or the routes you use to get to everywhere. Or where you walk out from, or the amount of time you have to get undressed, or… all those sorts of thing. But I’m not counting the tiles on the way to the pool.

Other swimmers think distance swimmers are just complete nutters for doing what they do. Then I guess sprinters are a bit macho. Macho men. When a sprinter tries to do a distance swim, it’s not the same pain because their body’s not tailored for that sort of swimming. They hate it. And when I try and do a sprint swim, basically I don’t go anywhere. I don’t have fast-twitch muscles in my body. I swim with a long stroke, like a 1500-metre stroke, which is long and strong. But just try to get the rating up to go a little bit faster… Sometimes it works, and sometimes it just falls to pieces.

The 1500 is more tactical than a 100 or a 200. So during the race I’m thinking about tactics. Keeping an eye on where everyone’s at, even though I can’t see them that well. And then just trying to focus on the pace. Around the 800 or 900 mark, if you slow down or stop thinking, you can drop off. It’s important to keep pushing and pushing.

I’ve never got to the point where I haven’t been able to continue. Which is true, but also kind of annoying – there are certain boundaries that you have to figure out, literally. And obviously, the sooner the better. When I get to that point, finally figure it out, it will probably be the race of my life. I always think I can go faster.

This week’s highlights…

• AFL: Carlton v Port Adelaide 

Saturday, 1.40pm (AEST), Melbourne Cricket Ground

• NRL: Canberra Raiders v North Queensland Cowboys 

Saturday, 3pm (AEST), GIO Stadium, Canberra

• NRL: Gold Coast Titans v New Zealand Warriors 

Saturday, 5.30pm (AEST), Cbus Super Stadium, Robina, Queensland

• Netball: Grand final – Queensland Firebirds v NSW Swifts 

Sunday, 12.10pm (AEST), Brisbane Entertainment Centre

• Formula 1: Austrian Grand Prix

Sunday, 10pm (AEST), Red Bull Ring, Spielberg, Austria

• Soccer: FIFA Women’s World Cup – Brazil v Australia

Monday, 2.45am (AEST), Moncton Stadium, Moncton, Canada

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2015 as "Super fish". Subscribe here.

Richard Cooke
is a journalist and writer for television. He is The Saturday Paper's sports editor.