Misfire ... the lessons of London have been learnt, says James Magnussen. Photo: Marco Del Grande
NEARLY three months have passed since James Magnussen dragged himself from the pool at the London Olympics and slumped, head in hands in disbelief, in a chair behind the Australian 4x100metres freestyle team's block. His sub-par opening leg had left the unbackable favourites on the back foot and there would be no coming back, with France claiming a dramatic victory and Australia, incomprehensibly, missing a medal.
The 21-year-old would go on to be denied gold narrowly in the individual 100m freestyle and then collect a bronze anchoring the men's 4x100m medley relay, but it was not the kind of medal haul the world champion had in mind when he strutted into the athletes village in late July.
As it turned out, that was only the beginning of the drama. After Australia drifted to its worst showing in an Olympic pool for 20 years, allegations of disharmony, harassment and favouritism would be levelled, and Magnussen and his 4x100m freestyle colleagues were right in the firing line.
Time to reflect ... James Magnussen after missing gold in London. Photo: Brendan Esposito
Here, the swimmer dubbed ''the Missile'' discusses the pre-Games ''bonding night'' at the centre of the controversy, reveals his sleepless nights and battle to cope with the pressure of being a raging Olympic favourite and sets his sights on Rio de Janeiro with plenty of lessons learnt.
Magnussen admits his involvement in prank-calling teammates and banging on their room doors late at night but says the furore over misbehaviour in the pre-Games camp in Manchester was ''blown way out of proportion''. He also rejects suggestions that the actions of the men's 4x100m freestyle squad affected team cohesion.
''Obviously what we did was silly. We made mistakes. Would I do it again, in light of the repercussions? No, I wouldn't do it again but I certainly don't think it was as big of a deal as people made out,'' said Magnussen, who was speaking yesterday as an ambassador for his sponsor, Subway. ''It was schoolboy stuff, it was nothing malicious, nobody was targeted, there was certainly no bullying or anything along those lines.''
He believes the members of that relay team have been unfairly cast as villains. ''I think the position that we were in, going in as favourites - people often use the term 'pin-ups' of the swim team - we were obvious targets,'' he said. ''When people want to talk about what went wrong, our names come up first. But we were definitely targets. I certainly don't think the blame lies solely there. I think in some ways we've been targeted unfairly. I think had we pulled it off everyone would be praising us right now about how well we did.''
Magnussen would not confirm or deny knowledge that the sleeping pill Stilnox, banned for London by Australian officials, was part of an initiation exercise at the camp, because of a pending inquiry by the former federal sports minister Warwick Smith.
The 'big head'
The undisputed star of Australia's swimming contingent leading into London, Magnussen was, after the meeting unravelled, fingered also for being arrogant and aloof from many teammates. Specifically, there were claims that he did not feel the need to attend team meetings and that he did not want to sit poolside to watch other Australian swimmers compete. ''At no stage did either of those occur,'' Magnussen said. ''The one thing with the team meetings that has been brought up is that I wasn't at the team induction. I had media commitments that day so it was not my choice. I did a team induction the next day with the synchro swimming girls and some of the judo guys.
''As far as not going out to watch the other swimmers, I swam on every night, bar two, and those two nights that I wasn't swimming I was in the crowd watching. I find it quite damning for people to say that when I felt I supported the team to the best of my abilities.''
Magnussen concedes he was mentally drained by the eve of the Olympics, with so much attention on how he would perform. Critics would argue that he brought that on himself by flexing his muscles literally and figuratively ahead of the Games. On reflection, Magnussen knows publicly telling his rivals to ''brace themselves'' probably did not do him any favours but he believed what he was saying.
''There was a lot of hype, a lot of pressure, a lot of expectations and that is something that I struggled coping with for the first time. I think in some cases I maybe overcompensated with my confidence and that in turn put more pressure on me again,'' he said.
''[But] I was honest with the media and I hope that's something people can relate to. If I've just come off winning a world championships, I'm not going to say coming into an Olympic preparation that I'm aiming for a silver medal. I was honest - I was aiming for gold. In saying that, the media paints a certain picture of someone. I can do a half-hour long interview and the one thing that will come out of it is that I think I'm going to win.''
Australia's flop of the Games set the tone for overall disappointment in the London pool. While Eamon Sullivan and Matt Targett swam respectable splits, the poor lead-off and anchor legs swum by Magnussen and James Roberts respectively left them fourth. Magnussen is happy to take his share of the blame, admitting his priorities were out of sync. ''I went out in that race chasing a world record and didn't stick to my race plan and didn't swim the race that I had envisioned,'' he said. ''I think in the days leading up to that I really started feeling the pressure. I started losing sleep over it. I think it got to me. By the time I stepped up on the blocks for that relay I was pretty tired, and I think it showed.''
Magnussen denies the relay team members thought they were a lay down misere for gold but acknowledges they may have started to read their own press. ''People were calling us 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' - that stuff is tough to read and to not believe,'' he said. ''But I felt like we went into it with high expectations but certainly at no stage did we think we were unbeatable and certainly at no stage did we start calling ourselves Weapons of Mass Destruction. It just didn't go the way we envisioned.''
The Stilnox debate
Would Australian swimmers have fared better had Stilnox not been banned from use by Australian athletes in London only three weeks before the Games? We will never quite know but for Magnussen, who spent hours lying awake in the village, he suspects it might have helped.
''Had it been available to us, yeah I probably would have used it,'' he said. ''Did it affect my performance? Well, possibly. But then again there is side effects of sleeping tablets, they can give you a bit of a hangover the next day. I couldn't sleep before my races but that would have been a choice that my coach and I would have had to weigh up.''
Magnussen travelled to Brazil for a holiday after London with other swimmers and says he has made great friends on the Australian team. Yet he admits they are a group in a ''transitional'' phase and in London missed the input and direction that several key and experienced members of previous teams could have provided to bring the party closer together. ''We're taught to be cutthroat towards our competitors then all of a sudden you're sitting in a dining table next to your competitor. It is a tough transition,'' he said. ''I personally try really hard to get to know as many people on the team as I can and be as welcoming as I can. I'm still a young member of the team, so I'm in no way a leader of the team.
''The toughest thing about the team this year … throughout the 2000, 2004, 2008 Olympics you had a core group of guys like Grant Hackett, Ian Thorpe and Leisel Jones who went through those Olympics and knew what it took and knew how to unify a team. This year, for a lot of people, it was their first Olympics. For a lot of people it was their first team altogether.''
The road to Rio
Back in full training after a break of six weeks following London, Magnussen's next major goal is defending his title at the world championships in Barcelona next year. He intends to head abroad before then to build on the education he received in his first Games outing.
''I'd really like to get overseas this year and do a lot of racing around Europe and just get as much experience under my belt as I can under the next three years leading into the next Olympics. That was something that in hindsight I was lacking a little going into London,'' he said.
''Hopefully the swimmers who were there for the London Olympics have learnt a lot. Guys like myself went in quite naive and with
all this pressure on us and have come out better swimmers, better people and that will certainly be a weapon that I'll use both to motivate me and to use as a weapon moving towards Rio.''