Race day starts the night before the heats, when you are desperately trying to get some sleep. I can't say that night's sleep was the best sleep I've ever had, but I did get some shut eye and woke up feeling excited than I was nervous for the big day.
I felt a bit foggy during the morning, and tried to clear my head with a walk, and some good breakfast, aiming to eat 3-4 hours before the race. We don't tend to stock up on coffee as it dehydrates you and is also a banned substance in certain amounts and don't want to risk a positive drug test.
About mid-morning we headed to the pool and jumped in for the warm up, you always hope you will feel good in the warm up, as it gives you a great feeling of confidence leading into a race, but you need to remind yourself that if you don't feel good in warm up that it doesn't really matter as you can still have a great race even when you feel rubbish in the warm up pool. It becomes a very mental game with yourself. Most swimmer s have superstitions that help to build confidence going into a race, and my favourite yellow jocks were no exception! We also spent some time going through the race plan for the morning, we were in a great position as the current world record holders with 6 of the world's best 200m freestylers to choose from.
There was incredible depth in the Australian Men's swim team at that time. Ian Thorpe and Michael Klim were rested from the morning heat swim, as they were the top two qualifiers from Nationals, they were automatically included in the finals. For us other four though, Todd Pearson, Grant Hackett, Daniel Kowalski and myself - it was our job to swim a good race, swim as fast as we could, get our team into lane four for the final, and hopefully pick up a swim in the final ourselves.
Whilst we were, technically I guess, competing against each other in some way, there was nothing but a feeling of respect and support between us athletes.
It was a great race, we swam gr eat times, and did the job of qualifying our team for the final in lane four. The anxious wait was then on to find who would swim the final. On paper Todd Pearson and I were the fastest two swimmers from the heats, and should be chosen for the final, but it was only later (a few years in fact) that I found out things almost didn't pan out that way. The relay coach had in fact initially chosen Grant Hackett and Daniel Kowalski to do the race, feeling that they may 'lift' for the final. Luckily for Todd and I, our coach was able to argue (strongly!) in our favour and the team selection went our way, but it was a line-ball call.
I heard that we were selected in the final four and was stoked. Whilst you hope that if you are the fastest, you will be chosen to swim, it doesn't always go that way and you are at the mercy of the coaching staff's choices in some ways, so to hear you are definitely swimming is a relief.
I spent the rest of the day an eager anticipation for the f inals that night, trying very hard to keep my resting heart rate down, it was well over 100 at some points in the day, and my normal resting heart rate is around 40-45 so I had to fight hard to keep myself calm for most of the day with meditation and relaxation techniques.
That afternoon, we had a team meeting, where apart from housekeeping, all the results from the night before are read out and discussed, and the current days finals are also read out. You stand in front of your peers and are cheered and applauded for your efforts and results. It was at this stage that we found out the order in which we were to swim that night.
As the third fastest swimmer on paper, I was expecting that I would swim in position 2 or 3 in the relay. They usually put the fastest two swimmers in the lead-off leg and the final leg. The final position 'the anchor man' is a dream spot in a relay, but also comes with some pressure. You have the honour and privilege to finish last, but can als o seriously stuff up a race and it's a high pressure spot. The final order was:
1. Ian Thorpe
2. Michael Klim
3. Todd Pearson
4. Bill Kirby
A coach told me after this that they wanted to put the older, more experienced guy at the end, to anchor, but I'm not sure if he was just handing me a line or not! I was ready to take on the challenge and responsibility and felt awesome about it.
We headed off to the pool, warmed up and got ready to race. The last thing our coach said to us was 'I don't need to tell you guys how to do this, you know how to do it, go out and just really enjoy it'. That sense of confidence he had in us was great and really set the tone for our race.
We walked out on pool deck and my goal was to try and keep myself calm before the race. The crowd was wild and so loud. Once the race started I really had to calm down and try and focus. I was so used to swimming in the second/third spot, that I almost got myself ready to jump up on the block! I sat myself back down and started visualising things that really relaxed me, specifically surfing in Margaret River, somethi ng that brought me a lot of relaxation in my down time between swimming seasons but that I hadn't had the chance to do much of in the preparation for Olympics. I was in fact so relaxed that Thorpie came over to me and asked me if I was going to get onto the block!
I dove in and remember spending the entire first 50m telling myself to 'slow down, slow down' as I was so excited - it was really hard to pace myself and make sure I didn't spin my wheels too early. The second 50m was similar - but the fatigue started to set in. The third 50m was the hardest part, with fatigue really setting in.
As I turned for the final 50m the announcer told the crowd we were under world record pace - they went WILD. As I came up, I could hear the ROAR and all of a sudden, I felt like I became a hovercraft on the water, I swear I lifted up about 10cm in the water and the pain I was feeling just literally evaporated. I'd never had that feeling before.
As I touched I realised we'd done it ! It was almost like the things I'd dared dream of had finally come to reality - and I felt immense relief that I hadn't stuffed it up! All the negative thoughts that I'd had about swimming, almost retiring, illness and disappointment really faded away. I felt teary and emotional and wildly happy.
The next part is such a blur, I almost felt like the podium was an out of body experience. I don't remember feeling anything, just numb - I honestly think after all those years, that emotionally I just couldn't cope with it - I felt like I was watching myself from outside my body. I remember seeing my family - but not really feeling much or connecting much at that point.
Of course, after that there was a drug test, so things dragged out quite a bit. We were able to head over eventually, towards the Samsung Tent, a big area set up where we could meet with our family and finally get a moment to reflect. But it was very late, and it ended up being quite a short visit to say hi a nd touch base. It really wasn't until I came back to Perth after the Olympics(about 6 weeks later) that I had a chance to speak with, and catch up properly with my family as they headed home the day after my race to go back to work and real life.
Overall the experience was, for me the culmination of endless hours and years of work. I was exceptionally luck to be peaking in a time when there was a home Olympics, and also an incredible depth in men's swimming in Australia. Whilst that depth prevented me from being able to excel individually in the 200m freestyle, it also meant that I was able to be a part of a legendary relay team, over a number of years, break 6 world records in that event and be an integral part of a team that was not surpassed for any years in swimming history.
I feel incredibly lucky also that the stars aligned and this success allowed me to pursue my passion after swimming and give me an incredible leg up into the world because of that.
On a day to day basis, I don't think of, or reflect on my single Olympic success as much as respect the values that swimming over the years instilled in me. The work ethic, the ability to train when you felt terrible, race under pressure, sacrifice for your goals and be solely dedicated to success.
Forbes Carlie had a great quote placed up at his funeral recently that resonated with me:
'Our object is not to produce a champion but provide an atmosphere where champions are inevitable. However, swimming is a means to an end...to build self-confidence, self-discipline, integrity and courage for life.'
If you'd like to watch the race again - here's a link to the video: