Michael Cowley July 31, 2012
James Magnussen and his 4 x 100m freestyle teammates are disappointed on missing a medal. Photo: Supplied
For James Magnussen and his coach Brant Best, the search for answers began immediately. Neither saw the Missile's implosion coming. They had planned for virtually everything, even the unexpected. But this? Suddenly swimming's Superman seemed merely a mortal.
After just 48 seconds early yesterday, what was supposed to be the Olympic Games of his life was suddenly on life support. Magnussen's lead-off swim not only spelt doom for the Australian 4 x 100m relay team, but had the sport's most confident man questioning himself. And for the first time, he had no answers.
The confident Magnussen, happy to state the obvious about his ability, was left on the bottom of the Olympic pool. What emerged from the water was a man in deep shock, terrified he might not find all the answers. Why now? What went wrong? How can I fix it? Can I fix it? ''Words can't describe how I feel,'' said Magnussen. ''I don't know what went wrong. Obviously that's my first big disappointment at international level and I have to regroup from there. Obviously [I'm] bloody really disappointed, but it happens.''
Asked if the pressure of expectation may have played a role, Magnussen replied: ''Of course it is [there], but it's no excuse. I've swum with it before and will swim with it again.''
In the two years Best and Magnussen have been a team, the coach has done everything to mould a raw country kid into the world's best, and the boy from Port Macquarie has done whatever it took to reach the mantle. Now both face their greatest challenge, finding out why it happened when it happened, and making certain it won't happen today when the 100m freestyle begins.
''We can't control [that], it's his first Olympics,'' Best said before they even arrived in London. ''We can't control what everyone else is going to do, but we can control what's going on between the ears to a certain extent and how he approaches it and that's where my focus is.''
He's not ill, or injured, so it's seems pretty clear the area Best will need to work on is between the ears. That is fortunate, as it's the one area where he sees as Magnussen's strength.
''He's as competitive as anyone I have met. He doesn't want to lose at anything,'' said Best. ''He's a big strong boy and it's good to have him six foot five [195 centimetres], and if I tell him he's got to lose some muscle to get some speed, he'll lose muscle to get some speed despite the fact he wants to look good at the beach. He wants to go fast even more. He wants to win.''
For the past two years, Best and Magnussen have planned for this day to arrive. Every pool session, every drip of sweat in the gym, the training camps, the competitions. All for the next 300m Magnussen will swim - a heat, semi-final, and then, hopefully a gold medal performance in the 100m freestyle final.
It all really began when Magnussen walked through the door at the Macquarie University pool back in 2010. Having come to town from Port Macquarie to study business and swim at the university, ''the big bloke who could swim fast'' still needed the rough edges trimmed.
''My first memories were there is a big bloke who can swim fast but has a lot we've got to improve on, which potentially means there is a lot we can do to make him go quicker,'' Best said. ''He was a bit over-muscled, not flexible enough, but ambitious and had a fight in him. He was a super-competitive kind of kid, it was just how we channelled that ambition.
''I've had plenty of talented kids, but talent doesn't mean a lot without a mental application that works. I think the big turning point where he had that application was straight after he got on his first [national] team. You could almost see the penny drop and him go: 'Holy shit I can do this'. I was asking him to step up beyond his comfort zone and as soon as he saw there would be a reward for that, it rolled on from there.''
Since yesterday Magnussen has been so far outside his comfort zone, he must have wondered if he would ever see it again. Today we will all see if he has made his way back in time.