Swimming healed Australia's Perkins now he's in it for long haul

July 25, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- Eighty-six stitches closed the wound, but swimming healed Kieren Perkins' body.

He will show you the scar that cuts across his left calf. He will tell you the story of how a childhood game of hide-and-seek turned into a bloody crash through a glass door. And he will recount the painful hours spent in a pool, floating on a board and kicking, regaining his strength, and falling in love with a sport.

But ask him why he holds world records in the 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle distance swimming events, and he will pause for a moment before looking straight ahead and saying, "Hard work and a big heart."

Perkins is 18 and poised to become a big star at the Summer Olympics. He is an Australian with a sense of humor and history, second only to golfer Greg Norman as the most popular athlete in his country.

Once, an announcer proclaimed that Perkins was going to try to get a world record in the 400. From across the pool, Perkins bellowed: "I'm glad you think I am because I haven't decided yet."

Of course, he got the mark.

At the 1991 Pan Pacific meet in Edmonton, Alberta, Perkins stopped 800 meters into the 1,500 final, checked the clock to make sure he got the 800 record, and then won the race.

"What do I think about during a race?" he said. "I think about how many beers I can sink at the end."

Don't be misled by Perkins' free-spirited attitude. A career that began with an accident could continue with two or more golds in Barcelona.

When he was 8, Perkins and his brother Jared were playing hide-and-seek in their family home in Brisbane, Australia. It was summer. Twilight. Most of the doors were open. So were most of the windows.

The brothers ran from room to darkened room, up stairs and down, finally reaching one last glass door.

Unfortunately, it was closed.

"I went through the door knee first," he said. "A piece of glass went through my left calf muscle. It was a little messy."

Perkins went to a local pool for therapy. He had to be carried to and from the water. He painfully pushed through his laps. He struck up a friendship with a veteran swim coach, John Carew, who once dabbled in training horses and dogs before teaching humans how to paddle through water. "The animals don't talk back," Carew said. "Neither does Kieren."

In truth, Perkins was a terrible age-group sprinter. "Even the girls beat him," Carew said. But Perkins showed promise in the distance races. It was a matter of style and technique.

At 6 feet 3, 185 pounds, Perkins is extraordinarily tall and heavy for a distance swimmer. But he is able to pull himself through the water like an 16-cylinder engine powering a Corvette. And in a race, he has plenty of time to think. About music. The crowd. And even the competition, which he normally leaves in his wake.

"Depending on how things are going I'll look at the crowd, try to catch a peek at my parents," he said. "Because you swim so fast, your mind races. Your brain goes quicker. Bang. Bang. Something is going on. Your stroke is good. You are in the lead. The first 1,000 in a race is OK. The last 500, you start to feel it. That's where you separate the men from the boys."

In the 1,500, he will meet his fiercest rival, Germany's Jorg Hoffmann.

To be blunt, they just don't like each other. At the 1991 world championships in Perth, Australia, Hoffman smashed into Perkins in the warm-up. And then, in the race, Hoffman won with an extraordinary time of 14:50.36, just .22 ahead of Perkins. As Hoffman left the pool, he raised his hand in an obscene gesture to the crowd. And then he pushed aside Perkins' teammate, Glen Housman.

"I don't know the guy," Perkins said. "I've seen him once in Perth. What I saw and heard of him, I thought he's very arrogant. Then some Australians went to Germany and said he was a nice guy. As far as rivalries are concerned, there is more than just one guy in the race. If you concentrate on one swimmer, where will that get you?"

Perkins plays the field. He owns the 1,500 world record of 14:48.40 and the nickname of the Superfish from Down Under.

"He's not a freak," Carew said. "We just worked the program. We built the speed. We built the technique. His hardest race is the 200. Swimming that one and the 1,500 is like a track man training for the 100 meters and running the marathon."

But swimming's most versatile performer longs to win a marathon in water. "The 1,500 is the one I want," he said. "For the last six years, I've been aiming for the 1,500. The 400 and 200 dropped in at the last moment. The 1,500 is the race."

( And Perkins is its star.

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