Perkins emerged from those Olympics with the image his country wants for itself: clean-cut and unbeatable. Even now he refuses to lower his goals, saying he'll make a run at his 1,500 record of 14:41.66 in Atlanta. "If I'm fit and healthy, I'll be fine," Perkins says. "I've got no worries."
Such cockiness is usually not well received in Australia. "Talk about winning here) Christ, you don't say that," Talbot says. "If you do, somebody hopes like hell that you fall over and break your nose."
Talbot knows. The man derided as Ming the Merciless early in his career has made plenty of enemies—many of them his own swimmers—since he became full-time national coach in 1989. He has been accused of everything from intimidation to arrogance to marching into a women's locker room unannounced. In '90 more than half of the Australian team drafted a letter of complaint about him but never sent it to anyone. Two years later he and Housman's coach, Ian Findlay, ended up in the pool after a scuffle, part of a string of events that led to Talbot's being derided on the floor of Parliament. "We need a head coach who is going to encourage our swimmers, not use Rambo tactics to retaliate when his oversized ego is threatened," thundered Labor member Con Sciacca.
But while many have questioned Talbot's methods, few doubt his intentions. Talbot wants to make Australia the No. I swimming power by the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and his efforts to do that have brought to an end the Aussie era of low expectations. "When I came in '90, people weren't talking of gold medals; they were talking of making finals," Perkins says. "Now people are talking of Olympic medals. They want to break world records and be the Number 1 swimming nation. That's starting to become a reality."
Proof of the Aussies' progress came last summer when a contingent led by Kowalski, Lewis, Miller, Perkins, Riley and butterflyer Susie O'Neill finished just two gold medals behind the U.S. at the Pan Pacific Championships in Atlanta. The absence from the competition of swimming's X factor, the Chinese, left plenty of questions, but the Diggers left convinced that the Yanks have declined plenty since Barcelona and are ripe for a kicking. "The American guys are arrogant," Kowalski says. "And I mean that in the nicest way. They walk around the pool as if they own it, they talk really loud and they chew their gum. We love beating them. It's something we strive to do."
They strive because they consider swimming their sport. Australia's cities are scattered along the coast like so many jewels tossed in the sand, so most everyone lives within a day's ride of the sea. Children Hock to learn-to-swim programs, and the culture resonates with the rhythm of pounding waves. "That's the Australian way," Lewis says. "Go to the beach, go to the pool; it's just swim, swim, swim."
On summer Sundays the Australian Olympic team doesn't rest; it hurls itself into the sea to partake in the nationally adored sport of surf-lifesaving, a combination of running, swimming and paddling that springs from the training followed by lifeguards and is far more fun than counting laps in a pool. "This is part of our life," says Ian Hanson of the Australian Olympic Committee, ticking off the names as a troop of swimmers sprints by on foot at Kurrawa Beach. "There's Deane Pieters, who was on the 4x200 free relay in Barcelona; there's Scott Miller, who'll be in Atlanta; and Grant Hackett, who should be the boy most likely to [star] in Sydney. They all grew up on the beach."
A central figure in Aussie swimming history is Dawn Fraser. At the 1956 Melbourne Games she won the 100 free, the first of three such golds she would earn in her Olympic career, and led Australia's swimmers to an unrepeated domination of their U.S. counterparts. Eight years later, having survived a car wreck that killed her mother, she won the 100 at the Tokyo Games, then left a late-night party to try to swipe an Olympic flag from the Imperial Palace. The prank helped earn her a 10-year ban from competition, but it also sealed her place as a folk hero. Even today, no Aussie is more beloved.
But Fraser's success fed into a phenomenon that all athletes Down Under fear and that even Perkins is feeling. Get too big, fall the slightest bit short, and you get cut down like a flower allowed to grow too high. "Australia's funny like that; we call it the tall-poppy syndrome," Lewis says. She should know. She went to Barcelona with her compatriots sure she would win a gold medal, came home with a silver and has never been forgiven. "It's terrible," she says. "There's nothing you can do about it." But Lewis will be swimming in Atlanta, and that, too, is the Australian way. When you're surrounded by water, the only thing to do is swim, swim, swim.