London Eye: Australia's Missile James Magnussen is on target to make a record splash at Games
Friday 30 March 2012
They like a nickname Down Under – there is a federal law that states no team can depart Australian shores without having "roos" attached to their name – but when it comes to James Magnussen, it's not so much a moniker as a statement of intent.
Meet The Missile, the anointed successor to the Thorpedo, the man who has to stop the Baltimore Bullet (yes, the Americans can do it too) and his US team-mates from taking all the attention away from Australia in the London Aquatics Centre this summer. Forget Michael Phelps and Co, Magnussen is coming to London not only to win gold but to swim faster than any man ever has.
Yesterday, he stood on the south bank of the Thames next to Tower Bridge at the start of a flying visit to the capital and was asked, by an Australian TV man, is this a city you are ready to conquer?
"I'd like to think so," said Magnussen. "I'm sure there are others with similar aspirations but I'll do the best I can to conquer the pool. I've heard it's pretty quick. I can't wait to get a chance to race in it and, hopefully, break the world record."
World records in the pool have almost dried up over the two years since hi-tech suits were banned. Only two new marks have since been set and it was expected that the times recorded in the sprint events in particular, like Magnussen's 100m freestyle, would stand for years. Then along came The Missile from Port Macquarie in New South Wales. Last year he won World Championship gold, turning in fifth and storming down the last length – the tag comes from his ability to produce such devastating late bursts of speed.
Earlier this month he won the 100m and the 50m at the Australian trials to earn his Olympic place, winning the first in the fastest time ever in a textile suit and 0.2sec outside the Brazilian Cesar Cielo's world record.
Magnussen was disappointed not to have broken it despite, in the words of his coach Brant Best, being "crook". Magnussen had a chest infection during the trials –athletes can't take cough medicine because it contains banned substances.
"I was under the weather in the trials," said Magnussen. "I didn't want people to know because I didn't want them to think that I had any weaknesses. But if I can stay fit and healthy and gain 0.2sec, I'm on my way to Olympic gold and a world record."
Best, who has accompanied his charge on a trip with VisitBritain to see the Olympic Park and take in some sights – and get to a Premier League game if they can find tickets (Magnussen is a Liverpool fan), is sure the 20-year-old's time is only going one way.
"I have no doubt he can go quicker," said Best. "He seems to love the pressure, the more he's under the better he gets. He doesn't see it as a burden."
And Magnussen is under pressure to bring gold back home. There are fears in Australia that this will be their worst Games in the pool since 1996, when they won two golds. Magnussen is their sole gold favourite in a young team. Beyond swimming, Australia are sending their smallest Olympic team since 1992 – a lesson for London, perhaps, as the 2000 Sydney Olympics did not lead to a rise in sporting participation, and Australia have since slipped down the medal table – and are banking heavily on a handful of stellar names delivering. A nation expects from Magnussen.
"It's pretty exciting," he admitted. "I feel it's something I can revel in, like that pressure and expectation leaves me no choice but to perform well."
He will not get to swim in the Olympic pool on this visit – "I'll just strip down to the swimmers and walk up and down the side of the pool and try and get a feel for it" – but for a first-time Olympian, the need to see the venue, the village, and distance between them, can play an important part in easing what can be an overwhelming experience come Games time. "It's about familiarity," said Best. "It makes it not such a mental strain when he gets here."
Not that coach or swimmer appears overly concerned about Magnussen dealing with what is coming. Others are most definitely worried about him. Noises out of the US and France, one of the world's sprinting powerhouses, signal he has made a deep impression.
"It's pretty flattering," said Magnussen. "There's probably a few mind games going on too –I'm sure that they're not as scared of me as they say they are."
The last word belongs to Best."He's put the cat among the pigeons," he grinned, imagining perhaps what might happen when he puts a primed Missile in the Olympic pool in four months' time.
Olympic news you may have missed...
Team GB's uniform may not have been universally welcomed, but Australia have responded much more positively (as is their wont) to their kit launch. It looks as you would expect, all green and what they call gold, what we call orange, although in some cases there is not much of it. "It's like a little bikini," said Sally Pearson, their world champion hurdler. "In a way it still feels like your skin, so it's like you're naked."
While the Aussies stripped off, the beach volleyballers have been given the option of togging up. The International Volleyball Federation decided that women can wear shorts and sleeved tops at the Games instead of bikinis, a damning comment on a British summer.
What's coming up...
On Wednesday the cycling world track championships get under way in Melbourne, with all Britain's big names in action. At stake are not only world titles but also Olympic places.
Lizzie Armitstead The British rider won the first women's Gent-Wevelgem road race to further her good start to 2012.
Achmat Hassien The South African Paralympian swimmer, who last year told The Independent the incredible story of how he lost his leg to a shark attack, won six golds and set two records at his national championships.
David Millar The Scot would be a high-profile beneficiary of the British ban on dopers being overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport next month, but he may not be fit after dislocating his collarbone in Belgium last week.
US footballers A goalkeeping blunder in the fifth minute of injury time meant the US were held to a 3-3 draw by El Salvador to end their efforts to qualify for the Olympics.
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