Deciding on New Zealand greatest 25 Olympians of all time wasn’t an easy task.
Partly because of the sheer volume of fantastic feats over the last century or so and partly because of the difficulty of comparing performances across a range of sports.
It’s hard enough for the Halberg Award judges every year, but we had to compare the merits of medals won in different eras.
The list was thrashed out by some of the Herald and Radio Sport journalists covering the Rio Games.
We had to agree some early ground rules.
The first was that only gold medallists would be considered. That was a tough call, considering the likes of Nick Willis (silver, 2008), Dick Quax (silver, 1976), Paul Kingsman (bronze, 1988) and Bevan Docherty (silver and bronze, 2004 & 2008) had provided some of our most memorable Olympic moments.
But there had to be a line in the sand.
We also agreed that potential success in Rio wouldn’t be taken into account, so the likes of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, Valerie Adams and Mahe Drysdale would only be judged on achievements until 2012.
The list was also restricted to the Summer Olympics, otherwise Annalise Coberger, our only winter medallist, may have featured quite prominently.
From an original master list, each of us was tasked with listing our personal top 25.
From there we met, debated each group of five (25-21, etc)and took the majority view.
In general we considered the following factors: The impact of the performance at the time, the relative competitiveness of the sport or field and the rarity of the feat.
It’s unlikely anyone in our lifetimes will match Snell’s three gold medals on the track, nor Danyon Loader’s feats in the pool.
Most of the rest of the top 10 were multiple medallists or responsible for achievements that resonated for decades (the Munich rowing eight, Yvette Williams).
It was a head-scratcher, but in a good way because it was a celebration of success.
1996 Atlanta — 200m freestyle
1996 Atlanta — 400m freestyle
1992 Barcelona — 200m freestyle
Danyon Loader won gold in the 200m freestyle at the Atlanta Olympics, New Zealand’s first swimming triumph …
Three days later he won gold in the 400m freestyle, becoming only the second person to get the 200-400 freestyle double at the same Games.
The 10-year-old boy waited to be picked up after swimming training by his mother.
His togs were wet, his hair was wet, both dropped under a tap. His body was not.
The boy hadn’t felt like going to training, lap after lap, so he’d fooled his parents. More than once too. It doesn’t sound a promising start to what transpired to be the career of the greatest swimmer New Zealand has produced.
Danyon Loader’s performance in winning two gold medals at the Atlanta Games of 1996 is indisputably among the finest achievements by a New Zealand athlete.
And that’s why he sits among the top five athletic achievements in the Herald’s list of the best of the best Olympic performers.
He remains New Zealand’s only Olympic swimming champion — if you exclude the oddity of Malcolm Champion, the New Zealander in the Australasian quartet who won the 4 x 200m freestyle relay at the Stockholm Olympics of 104 years ago.
Only five New Zealanders, including Champion, have won Olympic swimming medals.
Jean Stewart won bronze in the 100m backstroke at Helsinki in 1952; at Seoul in 1988 Paul Kingsman, from lane one, took the bronze with a late run in the 200m backstroke; and Anthony Mosse won the 200m butterfly bronze. Then there’s Loader, who won gold in both the 200m and 400m freestyle in Atlanta. When he arrived there, Loader was 21, far from an unknown quantity. Indeed he was at the peak of his athletic powers.
So to lodge Loader’s success in the bolt-from-the-blue category is well wide of the mark. Even so, no one saw the double glory coming. He was a respected international swimmer, winning Olympic silver in the 200m butterfly in Barcelona four years earlier and a Commonwealth Games title in the same event in Victoria, Canada, in 1994.In a sense the stage was set. Add in that, as 1996 New Zealand head coach Mark Bone acknowledged, the fields for Loader’s key events were not of the usual stellar class and it’s possible to look back and figure the stars were neatly aligning for the tall, shy young man with the ponytail.
“To [Loader’s coach] Duncan Laing’s credit, he had noticed that internationally, middle distance freestyle was an event where there weren’t the great competitors entering,” Bone says.
“It seemed more good luck at the time, but great research had identified that.”
Laing, a larger-than-life figure who died in 2008, was Loader’s only coach. The pupil only ever referred to him as Mr Laing. Still does. Loader joined Laing’s swim squad in Dunedin aged 10 and, by his own admission, spent two years mucking around. Then came a change. Aged 12, at a camp in Cromwell, Loader found the spark.
Perhaps it was brought on by Laing telling Loader that “either I had to train harder or I had to train with the girls”.
Loader took the hint and a massive corner had been turned. Loader was soon training 10km a session, 11 sessions of two and a half hours, each week. Aged 14, he was swimming 110km a week.
Bone believes the work done at a pre-Atlanta camp in Hendersonville, North Carolina was important for what followed. Loader had won events at the Pan Pacific Championships a year earlier using the same base. It was laidback, had a good 50m outdoor pool and the New Zealand group relished the environment.
Upon arrival in Atlanta, thoughts turned to what Loader might be capable of.
“We always felt the 400m (was his better event),” Bone says. “We wondered in the 200m, did he have enough speed? We always knew he had enough endurance and when he was able to kick and get into the last part he was pretty dynamic, so we were confident about the 400m.”
The 200m was first up. Loader always liked to warm up in lane five, to get a feel of being in the centre of events during the big races. He was in lane five for the 200m final.
Always in the frame with the leaders, he turned for home fractionally up on the Swede Anders Holmertz and pressed on to win in 1:47.63. Loader looked happy, but not fist-pumpingly ecstatic on the dais. Perhaps he knew there was more business to be ticked off. Maybe more a case that that wasn’t his personality.
Atlanta Olympics 1996 - 200m freestyle final Photo: Getty Images
|1:47.63 s||1:48.08 s||1:48.25 s|
At his press conference afterwards there was a goose-like performance from New Zealand’s then Minister of Sport John Banks, who leapt to his feet and asked the first question of the conference: “What does it feel like to be a New Zealander and to have the greatest swimming coach in the world working with you?” Later, when quizzed about his gauche, patsy question, Banks quipped: “I’m used to asking the donkey-drop questions in another forum.”
As for Laing, it was too much.
“At the end of it, Duncan didn’t really identify whether Danyon had won,” Bone says.
“He was going ‘did we win, did we win?’ Brett (assistant coach Naylor) said ‘yeah he won’. And Duncan just started crying. This was a big man and the emotion was just too much for him. Seeing a man of that stature burst into tears ...”
The day before the 400m, this writer approached Laing for a chat through the mesh netting at the training pool, looking for a quote for a preview. What were Loader’s chances of completing a golden double, Laing was asked.
He ummed and aahed a few seconds, pawed the ground with a foot, reluctant to offer much. Then he fixed his inquisitor with a beady eye: “I’ll tell you this, if he’s within a length of the lead when they turn for home no one will catch him.”
So it proved, except Loader was in the lead turning into the final lap and simply extended that, holding off Briton Paul Palmer beside him, winning in 3:47.97. It was a more emphatic victory than the 200m and when he had the second gold medal placed around his neck there was no question Loader had been one of the stellar achievers in the Atlanta pool.
Atlanta Olympics 1996 - 400m freestyle final Photo: Getty Images
|3:47.97 s||3:49.00 s||3:49.39 s|
His rivals were unstinting in their praise for the pony-tailed Kiwi. “I knew by the 200m mark of the 400m final that Danyon couldn’t be beaten,” said Australia’s then world champion and record-holder Kieran Perkins, who had failed to qualify out of the Australian trials. “He can beat any swimmer in the world if the field isn’t more than half a body length ahead at that stage. I include myself in that. Danyon is so good you can’t afford to give him even a sniff over the final stages.”
Palmer called him a phenomenal swimmer.
“He has the best finish I’ve seen. He is amazingly strong. I’d hate to think what work he does in training.”
Or this from American Tom Dolan, who had recorded the fastest time of the year, pre-Games but who also missed making the final: “He’s a one-in-a-million swimmer. He’s casual and seems laidback, but in the water he’s a killer.”
Bone remembers a young man buttoned down during competition, easily capable of dropping into a cocoon.
“He was very tunnel-visioned, kind of aloof. But the moment the 400m finished, from then he was like a little boy, and had a lot of fun (in the Games village).
“They had golf carts around the village and he nicked one and took the team on a trip around the village, doing wheelies around the corners. It was outlandish stuff, which possibly could have got him into trouble. He totally left off steam and was a different person.”
Speaking of trouble, Laing trod a thin line on 400m final day. Somehow he’d found his way into a restricted VIP area, had plonked himself in a seat and wouldn’t budge.
Security was called and strife was brewing. They tried to remove Laing. Hard words were exchanged.
However, Laing got to watch his man complete the job in emphatic style. “All he wanted was to see his athlete in that one race. The security was pretty officious,” Bone says.
Laing’s health was not good at the time, he struggled in the heat of Atlanta. He didn’t make the warm-up for the 400m final but Bone has an interesting theory about the relationship. By that stage, Loader didn’t need his mentor.
“And I don’t mean that disrespectfully. Duncan had done such a great job he made Danyon independent of him.”
Before that final, Bone found Loader below the stand down the far end of a preparation room doing tai chi, oblivious to what was going on around him.
“He was ‘centring’ and other athletes were saying ‘who is this guy’. He had it all under control. He knew what he needed to do and how to do it. He had great faith in the training programme that Duncan had put into him.
“There was huge respect, and what Duncan said, Danyon did and he never let him down.”
Bone remembers constantly changing phone batteries because “we couldn’t keep up, the calls from media all round the world, the phone ringing perpetually.
“Everybody wanted a piece of Danyon, and he didn’t want to give it back. That made it really hard for him.
“You either totally embrace it, or you do a Shane Gould (legendary Australia swimmer of the 1970s who shunned the limelight) and disappear off the face of the earth. Danyon was almost in that vein as well.”
Loader, never at ease in the limelight, returned home to a hero’s welcome. Had his personality been different, he would have been one of the country’s stellar sporting figures, perhaps on boards, in demand for speeches, a prize asset for corporates. But that wasn’t — isn’t — Loader’s way. Indeed he politely declined to be interviewed for this story.
“On his return from Atlanta, he was amazingly gracious, tremendous,” Bone says. “But we never saw enough of him outside that and he was lost to the sport for so long. The sport tried to put him in places he wasn’t comfortable and we never utilised his success the way the sport could have.
“If I have one major regret it’s that we never captured the opportunity with Danyon and the success of Danyon and Duncan for the sport. It just didn’t happen. That’s the saddest reflection I have on the sport.”
Recently, Loader opened up to a group of young swimmers at an event in Auckland, freely answering a range of questions. At one point a youngster asked him what he thought about during a race. This is his unabridged reply: “Good start, streamline into water. Fly kick under the water, coming up, good long strokes, good turn, push off the wall. It’s starting to hurt but it’s okay. Keeping long and strong, what’s everyone else doing? Next turn push off, stay under water, coming up, long strong stroke, into the third (length), little bit faster, good turn, strong turn, stay under, coming up, okay now here we go, let it all hang out. Fast as you can, then touching the wall.”
At the same chat, Loader said to his audience: “I’m standing here as an unremarkable person, who did a remarkable thing. You have potential in you. You don’t know what it is, and it might take 10 years.”
Ten years. The time it took for him to get from the Cromwell swim camp to the pool in Atlanta. Some journey.
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