‘I knew I had her’: How Ariarne Titmus won that unforgettable race in Tokyo
By Peter FitzSimons, December 5, 2021
Ariarne Titmus was one of the key breakout stars of the Tokyo Olympics. Her two golds in the 400 metres and 200 metres swimming will live long in the public memory, as will her coach Dean Boxall bouncing off the walls after her first win. I spoke to her on Friday afternoon.
Fitz: I saw an interview recently where you said that when you were a young girl in a Tassie swim club, you were always at the back of the pack. At what point did you start to see their ankles, their hips, their heads, and then nothing but their ankles again because you’d lapped the lot of ’em?
AT: (Laughs) When I was a young girl I had no strength, and all the others were a lot stronger than me. But I just kept trying my hardest, and when a lot of the young swimmers would get out of the pool, pretend they were sick, go and get an ice cream or sneak off to the change room, I would always be the one doing the training properly, and I caught them and passed them. And when I was 13, I started to make my mark, winning my first national age title in the 200 freestyle. I think that that’s when I kind of thought ‘Oh, this is my gig’.”
Fitz: Did you whisper to your fine Mum and Dad, “I’m going for gold!” ?
AT: I didn’t have to. They believed in me, and actually moved interstate with me to support my career.
Fitz: Researching you I was stunned at how hard you train. We all know no “pain, no gain”. (My motto was ’no pain . . . no pain . . .) But your mantra has always seemed to be “No shattering exhaustion at the end of each session, no bloody point”. Your coach calls you an “animal”. Where does this ferocious drive to really hurt yourself come from?
Former school celebrates Ariarne Titmus' Olympic double.
AT: I don’t know. I think that you can learn it to an extent, but mostly you are born with it, and I believe I have it. And I think there’s something addictive about feeling that pressure at the end of a training session and having to keep going and going and, you know, it’s terrible in the moment, but when it’s done, it’s the best feeling ever knowing that you’ve done your best job and you’ve actually put the money in the bank, as it were. I never saw myself as the most talented swimmer. But I have worked. And I always do my best because if I don’t do my best, there’s no way I would be the best in the world.
Fitz: Let me be the devil for a moment and whisper evil into your ear. I said to Kieren Perkins once, “Do you never think this is a bit crazy? I’m devoting my entire life to shaving hundreds of a second off a time that will inevitably be knocked off by someone younger and faster?” He said, “I can’t let myself think like that, or I’d stop mid-stroke.” You? Those thoughts?
AT: I’ve never really had those thoughts. But I would say, definitely off these Olympics I have enjoyed how normal people live. But I look at it as, “I have this tiny window of opportunity to make the best out of myself as an athlete, and I have to make the most of that”. I will kick myself if I finish my career knowing I could have done more.
Fitz: Three years ago, you set your sights on beating the G.O.A.T. for the 400 metres freestyle, the Greatest of All Time, Katie Ledecky, from America. Neophytes would think the tactics would be six words: “Ready, set, go like the clappers.” But you and your coach Dean Boxall spent days, weeks, months, years, working out methodically how to take her down. What was the plan?
AT: I guess Dean and my sports science team are the ones that really studied Katie and figured out how she swims and collected all the data and I guess tried to nail a pattern of how she races the 400. So we had to make a plan that we thought could outdo that. So for me, it was to be able to have this great front-end speed but be able to out-split her on the second half of the race and looking back now [it was a] pretty gutsy plan because it was almost like I was doing a Ledecky on Ledecky. Dean and I made a commitment to each other: There are 100 stones, and we will turn over each one. Turn up every day with a smile on your face, no matter what’s going on in your life. Go till you can go no more. And then do it again, and again and again, no matter what. I believe I stuck to my end. I believe that he stuck to his.
Fitz: Well here you are on the starting blocks. You look to your left. It is Katie Ledecky, the Greatest of All Time 400 metres swimmer. The Olympic champion. The world record holder. What are your thoughts?
AT: I was fully expecting for me to be shitting bricks. But surprisingly, it was the most relaxed I’ve ever been at international competition. And I think it was because of the confidence – not cockiness – I had in myself the past six weeks leading into the Olympics and those years of training. I knew I had turned over all 100 stones, done everything possible. So pretty much I was just listening to my heartbeat. I was breathing as calmly as possible.
Fitz: GO! Ledecky goes out to the front, but you are holding on, and with 60 metres to go, you make your move. Australia is going crazy. “Go! Go! GO!” Do you have time for conscious thought? Could you think, “I’ve got you, girlfriend, and now I’m going to run you down”?
AT: I did have little snippets of that, mixed with “Wow, this is actually happening”. It was unbelievable on the last 50 metres. It was like the adrenaline just kicked in, and I had this extra power in my legs and I knew I had her.
“I think I just forgot where I was’: Titmus after winning gold.
Fitz: You win! You have got the gold! Your coach is literally bouncing off the walls of the stadium like a ping-pong ball in a blender. But then there is Nietzsche, the German philosopher, who wrote of “the melancholy of all things completed”. You’ve just won your first Olympic gold medal. In that moment of victory, did you feel the exaltation you always thought you would feel or did that only come later?
AT: When I hit the wall I think I just forgot where I was. It’s very hard to comprehend everything in a split second. It wasn’t until I saw the “No. 1” next to my name on the scoreboard that I realised I’d actually done it. I’d achieved my childhood dream and that’s impossible to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced it because it’s something that you just absolutely worked years and years for, it’s all come down to that one moment in time, and when you think about it, it’s quite overwhelming. But the first emotion wasn’t joy, it was relief.
Fitz: The other star of the show was Emma McKeon, who won four gold medals. You two had a moment?
AT: Yes, we had massive programs, with so many events we literally hardly had time to breathe. And near the end, after Emma was part of the team that won gold in the medley relay, we formed a tunnel for them as they came off, and Emma and I came face to face, and we hugged and we both cried. We had done it.
Fitz: On to Paris, 2024? Are you at base camp for Everest?
AT: I am underground. I had a massive break. I had about nine weeks out of the water and I did absolutely zero exercise. I didn’t do anything. I pretty much became a socialite of the century. I had multiple commitments every day going to events. But I hit the water again two months ago, and am starting to feel normal again.
Fitz: Last question, and a serious one. Just before the Olympics, Maddie Groves and Emily Seebohm, made serious allegations about the culture of Australian swimming, with abusive behaviour by coaches, fat-shaming, and all the rest. You’re a vastly experienced swimmer. Did you see the things that they were referring to?
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AT: Hand on heart, in my entire swimming career – from seven years old to now – I’ve never experienced any of what these allegations are, and I’ve never seen it. I’ve been very fortunate with the coaches that I’ve had, who have all been male, and I’ve never experienced it personally. I can’t speak for anyone else but myself. But I believe that the culture that we have on this last Olympics team has been the best culture I’ve ever been a part of.
Fitz: I hate to be a fanboy. But it’s been a wonderful pleasure to speak to you and I really wish you well for the future. You’re a great Australian.
AT: Thank you!