MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia’s swimmers must live in a world of “no fear” as they head to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics under pressure to make amends for the flop in the London Games pool, according to Swimming Australia boss John Bertrand.
Australia has long relied on its swimmers to set a medal-winning platform for the entire team at the Olympics but the nation that produced Dawn Fraser and Ian Thorpe won only a single title at London.
The worst medal haul in 20 years sparked recrimination back home and led to a series of reviews that found evidence of bullying, drunkenness and the abuse of prescription drugs by some team members.
After having its funding cut by the Australian government for failing to meet governance standards, Swimming Australia has overhauled its coaching regime and worked hard to repair the sport’s image.
Impressive results have followed in the wake of the culture change and the team heads to Rio on a high after posting some outstanding times at national trials last month.
But it will all count for little if the results do not come when it matters, said Bertrand, who won a sailing bronze at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
“Absolutely. But we’ve got to be in the world of no fear,” the 69-year-old told Reuters in an interview in Melbourne.
”There are two sports which are fundamental to the psyche of this nation. The Australian test cricket team whenever we take on the Brits (England) in the Ashes and the Australian swim team every four years at the Olympics.
”(Pressure) is just part of the gig.
”We like to think we’ve left London behind.
”But we haven’t really been in the real heat of the kitchen in terms of the way the new Swimming Australia operates. And that’s the Rio Olympics.
“But I know we’ve made a lot of progress.”
Australia bring strong medal hopes in a number of events, with Cameron McEvoy and Cate Campbell holding the year’s best times in the men’s and women’s 100 meters freestyle.
Double world champion Mitch Larkin has the year’s fastest times in the 100 and 200 backstroke while Madeline Groves is a strong contender in the 200 butterfly.
Head coach Jacco Verhaeren, a former mentor of Dutch swimming great Pieter van den Hoogenband, declared Australia had got its “mojo” back after the national trials but also demanded his team keep their heads down.
The swimmers have obliged, and have been wary of talking up their chances in the months leading up to the Aug 5-21 Games - a stark contrast to the bravado of some of the top contenders in 2012.
Former 100m world champion James Magnussen was raging favorite to win the event at London but after warning his competitors to “brace themselves”, he was pipped for the gold by American Nathan Adrian.
The men’s 4x100m freestyle team, spearheaded by Magnussen, also talked up their title chances but failed to win a medal.
The quieter determination of the Rio team is matched by Bertrand, who remains revered in his home nation for piloting the Australia II yacht to victory in the 1983 America’s Cup.
“It’s a different world (to last time),” he said.
”It’s about expectations. This country will go crazy if we start talking about a metal count and that’s not part of the way we see the world.
“We don’t have a medal count but the Australian Sports Commission does,” he added, referring to the government’s top funding agency for sport.
”Everyone else seems to have. But we don‘t. It’s a matter of peak performances. All I do know is that it’s really, really hard to be the best in the world.
“I know from my own experience. To put the numbers on young people’s shoulders is irrelevant to the final outcome.”
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Nick Mulvenney