Ian Hanson, Award-winning sportswriter

Some two months before her birthday last year, a then 18-year-old Australian, Ariarne Titmus, achieved the unthinkable, swimming over the top of the world’s greatest ever women’s freestyler, US golden girl Katie Ledecky.

A slip of a kid who grew up and learnt to swim in Launceston, Tasmania, a river city in the north of the island state, situated off the southern tip of the Australian mainland. A kid who all her coaches would agree was never the most talented athlete in their squads but was without doubt the hardest worker.

That hard work, dedication, self-belief and parents who gave her the chance to fulfil her dreams of one day going to the Olympics paid off with a stunning World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea.

I feel pretty normal, it was just a swimming race

Titmus had moved with her family at the age of 15 from Launceston to Brisbane, knowing that if Ariarne was to achieve her dreams then there were far better opportunities in Queensland, with its abundance of high-performance coaches and facilities.

It was a move that she would thrive on, eventually linking with her now coach, the passionate, ‘heart on his sleeve’ South African-born Dean Boxall – a partnership which has seen the rapid improvements from the top of Australia’s age-group ranks to world champion and world record holder and now one of Australia’s most exciting prospects for the Tokyo Olympics.

Ariarne broke into the Australian team at the 2016 FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) in Windsor, Canada, where she had a taste of her first senior international competition after getting her toes wet in the World Juniors in Singapore the year before.

Then 2017 saw further progress, making the Dolphins team for the World Championships in Budapest, swimming in finals before a 2018 break-out year that would define a girl destined for greatness – a home Commonwealth Games with three gold medals, in the 400, 800 and 4x200m freestyle; a Pan Pacs in Tokyo where she raced Ledecky, taking silver and bronze behind ‘the Ali of the pool’ before setting her first world record in the 400m free at the short-course Worlds in Hangzhou.

It was then on to her second World Championships in Gwangju for the unthinkable with an Australian team that signalled its return to a world stage.

The eccentric Boxall – the latest in a string of ‘out of the box’ coaches very much in the mould of Olympic gold medal coach Laurie Lawrence – had prepared his young charge to be ready for anything and the kid they now call ‘Arnie’ – a nickname given to her by her Dad, Steve, as a reference to ‘The Terminator’ Arnold Schwarzenegger – did not disappoint them.

No one outside the Australian team really gave Titmus any chance of stopping Ledecky but with a perfectly timed race it happened.

Titmus broke Ledecky’s extraordinary seven-year unbeaten run over 400, 800 and 1500m freestyle to claim Australia’s first gold on night one with a 400m triumph that set the stage for a stunning week in the pool.

Titmus clocked a superb PB of 3:58.76 (27.52; 57.12; 1:57.72; 2:28.03; 2:58.45; 3.29.25) – a Commonwealth, Oceania and Australian record – making her the second-fastest woman over 400m freestyle in history, behind Ledecky, who owns the world record of 3:56.46 and the seven fastest times ever.

Titmus overhauled the American after trailing her going into the final turn to become Australia’s first world champion in the women’s 400m freestyle since Tracey Wickham in West Berlin in 1978.

Titmus clocked the fastest final split of the night in 29.51 and said afterwards: “I never thought I would be in a situation where I would be mowing Katie (Ledecky) down – she is such a champion – so I tried to make the most of it. I am happy that I got the job done… but I can still see room for improvement."

And how did she feel? “I feel pretty normal, it was just a swimming race… there was no pressure really coming into this race. I just wanted to fight as hard as I could – in that last 50m I gave it everything.

“My coach Dean Boxall said to me there were three outcomes: you could swim great, you could swim good, you could swim bad but you will still wake up tomorrow."

But it was just the start of a memorable week for Titmus, Boxall and the Australian team, with further success with silver behind Italian legend Federica Pellegrini in the 200 and a bronze behind Ledecky – who had pulled out of the 200 and 1500 because she had not been feeling  well - and another Italian, Simona Quadarella, in the 800m freestyle.

Where I am today would not be possible without my coach Dean

But then came the icing on the cake – World Championship gold in the women’s 4x200 metres freestyle relay and in a world record time.

It had been almost two decades in the making – and finally for the first time the Australian men’s and women’s 4x200m freestyle relay teams won gold at the same World Championships.

Ever since a fateful night at the World Championships in Fukuoka in 2001 when the Australian girls touched the wall first but got so excited they jumped in the pool before the race had finished and were disqualified.

The 2001 disqualification was a classic case of ecstasy to agony for Giaan Rooney, Petria Thomas, Linda Mackenzie and Elka Graham – a heart-breaking moment in Australia’s swimming history.

And it had been silver in 2003, 2005 and 2011 and bronze in 2017 before finally tasting gold in 2019, with Titmus joined by Madison Wilson, Brianna Throssell and Emma McKeon and delivering a special gold medal for Australia in a world record 7:41.50 – smashing a mark that had lasted 10 years.

Titmus’s lead-off was the fastest leg of the race – a flying Commonwealth and Australian record of 1:54.27 – that gave the Aussies just the start they needed. The US brought Ledecky back from illness and she put the Americans back in the race in the second leg but the Australians held their nerve. Wilson (1:56.73), Throssell (1:55.60) and relay constant McKeon (1:54.90) ensured a hard-fought victory, the quartet’s 7:41.50 eclipsing the 7:42.08 set by China in 2009. The US touched just 0.37 seconds behind in 7:41.87, also inside the old world mark.

An elated Wilson said: “As Emma was coming to the wall, I was just screaming with all my energy that I had left saying ‘come on, you can do it’ – nothing describes the moment when Em touched the wall.”

In the 800m freestyle it was Ledecky who responded to the call like a true champion, defying the challenge of Quadrella to win the world title for the fourth time in a row, clocking 8:13.58. Quadrella took the silver in 8:14.99, with the fast-finishing Titmus charging home for bronze in an Australian record 8:15.70 (almost negative splitting with 4:07.75 and 4:07.95). Titmus swam the final 50 faster than any other swimmer in the final in 30.27 – encouraging when coach Boxall goes to the drawing board for Tokyo.

And what did Titmus think?

“Super stoked to finish off a great week with a personal best and a bronze medal – that’s my Worlds for 2019 done. Where I am today would not be possible without my coach Dean (Boxall) and the team at St Peters Western and all my family,” said Titmus.

We are heading towards something great

Australia has had some amazing swimmer-coach partnerships in its rich history and with Titmus and Boxall you get the impression this is another which could follow winning Olympic combinations like Dawn Fraser/Jon Henricks and Harry Gallagher; Murray Rose and Sam Herford; the Konrads kids, Ilsa and Jon, and Don Talbot; Jon Sieben/Duncan Armstrong and Laurie Lawrence; Kieren Perkins and John Carew; Grant Hackett and Denis Cotterell.

The Titmus/Boxall combo dominated last year’s Australian Swimmer of the Year Awards, winning five major gongs between them after a momentous 2019.

On the back of the FINA World Championships the pair came away with the big ones, the Olympic Programme Swimmer and Coach of the Year Awards. They also collected the Short Couse Swimmer and Patron’s Award for Titmus and the Youth Coach for the third time for Boxall.

Asked to describe the coach-swimmer relationship, between her and Boxall, Titmus replied: “…we just kinda click… there are things we do bicker about but we do try to be on the same page and with the same goals and that’s why it works… I have to put trust in Dean… and I hope he trusts me.”

And Boxall chimed in with: “That’s why I think it works… I love the sport and I know ‘Arnie’ loves the sport… she loves the training, she loves racing and every aspect of swimming as I do.

“But I think what she’s talking about is that she trusts that I will create and provide her with the best environment and training programme and trust that she will execute it to the….(pause) last nth of her fibre! And she’s going to need that!”

Like the rest of the world, Boxall and his St Peters Western High Perfomance squad have been closed down, with COVID-19 forcing the IOC to make an historic call to postpone the Games.

Titmus says: “It was the best decision for everyone all over the world. Saving lives is the 100 per cent most important thing and as long as the dream is still alive it doesn’t affect me that much.

 “I will try and keep as active as I can by running and doing home workouts! I will stay motivated – the race isn’t finished – the goalpost just got moved.

“It is all towards one big goal, things will definitely ramp up. We’re going to have more energy and we’re going to need to give more energy.

“Everything is going to be on a whole new level but I still think we’re going to have to enjoy it as well and know that we are heading towards something great, and not many people get to do that.”

That kid knows how to race…

From the age of eight months Ariarne Titmus loved the water and like so many Australian families her parents Steve and Robyn had their toddler and her sister Mia taught to swim.

It’s just as important to take your first strokes in this swimming-mad country as it is taking your first steps.

Ariarne grew up in Launceston, a riverside city in northern Tasmania, the Apple Isle on the far southern tip of Australia and a passionate sports-loving state – though one which produces more AFL footballers, cricketers, rowers and cyclists than swimmers.

Football in the winter and cricket in the summer is the order of the day, with most Tassie kids eyeing off one day following in the footsteps of Aussie cricket legends Ricky Ponting or David Boon or footie stars like Royce Hart or Peter Hudson.

In Los Angeles in 1984, swimmers Brett Stocks and Audrey Moore were the first swimming Olympians from Tasmania and it wasn’t until Scott Goodman in 1996 Atlanta that it produced its first Olympic medallist, with bronze in the 200m butterfly.

And as Ariarne’s love of the water grew and grew, could this skinny kid, who had developed into an eye-catching breaststroker, become Tasmania’s next home-grown swimming star?

With her rapid improvements it wasn’t long before Ariarne joined a swimming club at the city’s Riverside Aquatic Centre to fulfil her desire to improve.

And as she grew up there was no keeping this determined little six-year-old away from the pool. Never the best in her infants and primary classes at Sacred Heart School and no one really thought she would one day develop into a world champion – maybe except Ariarne herself.

At the age of 11, the kid with the heart of a tiger won her first title at the Hobart Aquatic Centre – the 100m individual medley at the Tasmanian State Short Course Championships – on just three sessions a week.

And there was a comment from one poolside parent, who caught Ariarne in action at the State Championships and was overheard saying to race officials: “That kid knows how to race… there was no way she was going to lose that one.”

And little Ariarne began to up the ante in the training pool, graduating into squad training, with more sessions under respected mainland coach Derek Taylor, who had taken over at the Launceston Aquatic Centre and saw her potential.

In 2012 Ariarne made her first representative team, the Tasmanian State Swimming Team, to contest the School Sport Australia National Championships in Sydney – in breaststroke, medley and backstroke. Ariarne arrived at the famed Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre, the home of the 2000 Games – the year she was born.

Improving her times, enjoying the experience and despite not making it on to the podium – she returned home excited and enthused to swim on.

It was then she started to train with the boys and chase them up and down the pool, continuing all four strokes, but Taylor’s keen eye also noticed Ariarne’s endurance freestyle ability.

Her next big trip away from home came in early 2014 – after qualifying for the Australian Age Championships – and that would provide just the incentive and the inspiration as she again walked in awe through Sydney’s Pathway of Champions. A who’s who of the swimming world in a swimming-crazed city that had such a strong history of great champions like Dawn Fraser, Murray Rose, Shane Gould and the man who had captured the imagination of all in 2000, Ian Thorpe.

And it would be a big turn-around from her debut two years earlier.

Little did anyone know that when Ariarne Titmus would leave Sydney that year that it would herald a career that would take her on a similar path to swimming glory. With Taylor guiding her along, she returned with her first Australian Age gold medal after winning the 13 years 200m freestyle in a time of 2:06.18, adding bronze in the 400m freestyle in 4:27.69 and fourth in the 800m in 9:15.64.

Ariarne was on her way and there was no stopping her.

Twelve months later Ariarne would return to the National Age stage – a year older, a year stronger, a year wiser and certainly a year faster, now under a new coach in Peter Gartrell as coach Taylor knew he had taken her as far as he could. It was the first of several master-strokes under Gartrell, one of Australia’s most astute coaches, specialising in longer freestyle events.

Titmus soon capitalised on the hard work under Gartrell, taking double gold in the 400 and 800 metres freestyle at the 2015 National Age – her 400m title in some 14 seconds faster than the previous year in a stunning 4:13.53 – adding the 800m in an eye-catching 8:45.67. And despite an encouraging personal best of 2:01.86 in the 200m freestyle – almost four seconds faster than her winning time from 2014 – she had to settle for a hard-fought silver.

Visiting Canadian Penny Oleksiak led all the way to win in 2:01.60, with Titmus chasing hard down the third 50m – the fastest of the field before Canada’s future 100m freestyle Olympic champion in Rio 2016 edged her way in front down the final lap. (Little did she know then but Titmus was in the very best of company on that 18th day of April 2015, with another Queensland rising star, Minna Atherton, finishing fourth after winning the 100m backstroke in 1:01.35. Four years later both Titmus and Atherton would arrive at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju and leave with three gold, three silver and one bronze medal between them.

Tokyo 2020/21 awaits the kid from Tassie

 But the years in between, changes in coaches and a move from Launceston to Brisbane would define Titmus’s journey to become one of the finest swimmers in the world.

She was now unbeatable in Tasmania and was rapidly leapfrogging her opposition into the senior ranks. But first there were lessons to learn – including missing the final in the 400m freestyle at the 2015 FINA World Junior Championships in Singapore by just 0.03sec. Four years later she was world champion. (Her only opponent left in 2019 from that event in Singapore – Canada’s Holly Hibbott who was fifth there - actually missed the 400m final in Gwangju, finishing 10th.)

Before leaving for Singapore, Ariarne and her parents had already decided on the move to Queensland to continue training under Gartrell, with mother Robyn taking her girls with father Steve, a television news reporter and presenter, to arrive later in the year. Gartrell, like the coaches before him, knew Titmus might not have been the most gifted of talents but she was far and away the hardest worker. However, when a lack of lane space forced their hands, a move to Dean Boxall at St Peters Western – a swimming powerhouse created by Olympic gold medal coach Michael Bohl – seemed an obvious fit and so far it’s been a swimmer-coach partnership that has made the world sit up and take notice.

This prodigy was born to swim and, as you’ve learned, born to race. And with the Games of the 32nd Olympiad postponed for 12 months (with the dates yet to be confirmed at the time of going to press) you get the impression she will be ready.

Even in 2021, Tokyo awaits the kid from Tassie.

And while her plans may well have been curtailed in the short term, she will be cooking up a storm in the kitchen as she awaits her return to the pool.

Titmus says: “I’m planning on doing lots of cooking and making up new recipes; keeping a routine while at home; try and read more; do lots of colouring and puzzles; re-assess my goals for next year and be grateful every day.”

You get the feeling that nothing will stop this latest Aussie freestyle star; she still has some tiger left in her tank and Boxall will ensure she squeezes out every last drop.

 

*This article can be found in the FINA Magazine. To access the online version of the magazine (2020/3) click here