SYDNEY (Reuters) - Armed with a new-found maturity and self-belief, Australia’s Leisel Jones is hoping it will be third time lucky when she stands up on the blocks at the Beijing Olympics.
Jones has been among the world’s best breaststrokers since she won a silver medal in Sydney in 2000 as a 14-year-old but has yet to win an individual Olympic gold medal.
After overcoming defeats, depression and family break-up, the newly engaged Jones has been on record-breaking form in recent weeks and is determined to strike gold at last in August.
She went in to her second Olympics in Athens four years ago as world record holder in the 100 but had to settle for bronze in the final then a silver in the 200.
She did win gold in the medley relay in Athens but was heavily criticized for her glum expression on the podium during the individual medal presentations, then came under further attack for dumping her coach Ken Wood who had trained her since she was a child.
Wood had started coaching Jones almost by accident but turned her into the fastest breaststroker of all time. They met when Jones’s mother was a cleaner at a Brisbane pool and used to take her young daughter to work with her.
When Leisel jumped in the pool one day and sank to the bottom, her mother decided it was time to start lessons and Wood agreed to help out.
Wood immediately recognized her talent but to make her go faster he told her to imagine she was being chased by a giant crab.
As Jones began to advance in the pool, so did her imagination and by the time she got to Athens she would envisage herself at the wheel of a Ferrari driving at top speed.
Stung by the criticism she faced after Athens, Jones decided to make big changes in her life. After dumping Wood for Swiss-born Stefan Widmer, she chopped off her hair and adopted a more relaxed approach to her sport after admitting the pressure was making her depressed.
It was a move that paid instant dividends. She broke her long drought at major events when she won the 100-200 double at the 2005 world championships in Montreal, regaining the 200 world record she had held for two days in the lead-up to Athens.
Jones lost her 100 record to Jessica Hardy in the semi-finals at Montreal but beat the American in the final then regained her record at the Australian championships the following year, lowering her 200 mark at the same meeting.
She collected four gold medals at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, then won the 100 and 200 at the 2007 world championships, also in Melbourne, to become the first swimmer, male or female, to win the breaststroke double at successive championships.
Now 23, her self-belief took a significant new turn this year when she announced her engagement to former Australian Football League (AFL) player Marty Pask and left her Brisbane home to train under Rohan Taylor in Melbourne.
Seemingly able to cope with anything, she faced an extraordinary test of character just before the Olympic trials in March when her estranged father revealed he had terminal cancer and issued a public plea to reconcile his differences with her.
Jones has not spoken to her father since her parents separated before the Sydney Olympics and has refused to discuss their relationship publicly, saying only that it was a private matter.
She provided a demonstration of her new-found maturity by casting aside her emotions to qualify for the Australian team and give herself a chance of finally winning that elusive gold medal at her third attempt.
Last month, she showed off her form by breaking her own shortcourse 100 meters world record at a grand prix meeting in Canberra.
Editing by Clare Fallon