MELBOURNE (Reuters) - For a myopic teenager who can barely see his hand in front of his face, Australia’s Mack Horton has a laser-sharp focus on his bid to restore his nation’s dynasty in the 1,500 meters freestyle.
Swimming’s most grueling pool event holds a special fascination in Australia, which has produced an honor-roll of 1,500 champions since Andrew “Boy” Charlton at the 1924 Paris Olympics.
“I‘m definitely aware of all the greats, Murray Rose, Kieren Perkins, (Grant) Hackett,” 18-year-old Horton told Reuters in a telephone interview of the legacy of Australia winning eight of the 24 Olympic titles in the race since the 1908 London Games.
”I’ve grown up through the Hackett era, so that’s probably what I know best.
“They’re massive shoes to fill ... I‘m just doing what I can do and do the best that I can do whilst enjoying it.”
Hackett, who won gold in Sydney and Athens, has already declared Horton a huge threat at next year’s Games in Rio after he clocked 14 minutes, 44.09 seconds at last week’s national titles in Sydney to qualify for the world championships.
Such expectations might be premature, given Horton is yet to race against Chinese world record holder Sun Yang.
“I try not to really think about it,” Horton, who will also compete in the 400 and 800 freestyle at the world titles in Kazan, said of the buzz surrounding him.
”I need to try to keep a level head to be able to recover and do what I need to do.
”For the moment, I‘m placed number one but it’s just a time. It’s not competition, it’s on my home soil. There’s nothing else going on.
“So it will be good to see once I get to Russia and see how I am against the best in the world where I place in that.”
Wearing thick-rimmed glasses outside the pool and prescription goggles in it, Horton has been dubbed the ‘Clark Kent’ of Australian swimming by local media, who are keen to see the teenager rip off his tracksuit and power ‘Super-man’-like to the top of the Kazan podium in August.
Horton took silver behind Olympic silver medalist Ryan Cochrane at last year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, though admitted his sight problems may have affected how he paced his race, with the Canadian swimming out of view on occasion.
Horton strains to see the race clock after finishing events.
“It can be a bit of a struggle but I seem to do okay-ish,” he said.
“I hear a bit of a roar from the crowd. I can kind of see some of the numbers, sometimes it’s kind of like – ‘is that a four or an eight?’ And I‘m hoping that’s the better one that I can see.”
Though focused on his own work, Horton has been keeping an eye on Olympic champion Sun, who broke Hackett’s long-held world record at the 2011 world championships and smashed his own mark at the London Games with a time of 14:31.02.
The 23-year-old Sun served a controversial three-month ban last year for failing a doping test at national championships, with the punishment kept under wraps by Chinese authorities for six months.
Sun’s defense was he had been prescribed the drug trimetazidine to treat heart palpitations for years and he was unaware it had been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list.
“I think most of the swimming community would agree that once something like that happens, there is an asterisk against your name,” Horton said of Sun’s doping ban.
”I guess I can just use him as a tool to be the best I can be. He can be there to challenge me whether he’s clean or not, he’s always going to be something there to push me further.
”I wouldn’t say that it’s motivation, it’s kind of just something that I‘m aware about and it kind of makes me a little bit annoyed that that kind of thing happens.
“It definitely would be nice to see that (world) record back for Australia, after all it is our event, supposedly.”
Editing by Greg Stutchbury