Daniel Kowalski came to know the rarefied place swimming occupies in Australia when he picked up the phone in the kitchen of his Melbourne house one July afternoon in 1995 and heard a man promise to kill him. Kowalski, then 20, had just beaten Kieren Perkins—owner of multiple world records, an Olympic gold medal and a million-dollar endorsement career, and the most popular Australian athlete—in one of a series of Grand Prix freestyle races. Five minutes after the first call the man rang again and repeated his message: "If you win [again], you're dead." In the following days letters arrived detailing what would be done to Kowalski and his coach, Bill Nelson. As the series' next race loomed, Kowalski couldn't sleep. Any noise pierced his stomach like a blade. "If someone came up behind me, I'd jump in the air," he says.
When he next faced Perkins a few days later, in the 1,500-meter freestyle, Kowalski eyed the crowd and lost badly. It's the one time he was happy to finish fourth. Two nights later Kowalski had a dream. He was by a pool, and a man fired a gun at him. Nelson dived to protect his swimmer and was shot. The noise jerked Kowalski awake. "The alarm clock went off like the pop of a bullet," Kowalski says. "It was so loud." The police tapped Kowalski's phone for five weeks. They never found the man.
Kowalski hasn't won a major swimming championship or even been to an Olympics yet, but at 21 he has challenged Perkins's freestyle supremacy by beating him at least a half dozen times in the last year. He has become a new force in Australia's drive to supplant the U.S. as the world's leading swimming power. Problem is, to swim well in Australia these days is to achieve a level of celebrity beyond sports, a level at which movie stars dwell and at which the adoration of certain troubled fans can turn to black rage for no reason. Kowalski isn't the first Aussie swimmer to receive death threats. Asked to name the toughest part of swimming fame, another Australian freestyler, Hayley Lewis, unhesitatingly says, "People stalking you." A man sent her roses on her birthday once and followed up by bombarding her with irate letters. One day she walked up her driveway, and he was standing at the door.
Australia's frenzy over its swimming stars is usually more benign, of course. It merely magnifies episodes such as breaststroker Samantha Riley's recent positive test for a banned headache medicine and the warning she received from the pooh-bahs of international swimming; Riley's romantic relationships with Australian rugby bad boy Julian O'Neill and now with Norwegian speed skater Johann Koss; butterflyer Scott Miller's arrest for battery last August in Atlanta; and Great Britain's bid last September to lure away Australian coach Don Talbot. These things ferment in the public's mind until they take on the proportions of national soap opera.
For the moment no character is more scrutinized than the surging Kowalski. Perkins, after all, is a cultural icon Down Under—"the Michael Jordan of Australia," as Talbot says—having dominated for five years a sport that's at the core of this island nation's psyche. One newspaper poll in January found that 91% of Australians feel that the hugely confident Perkins "symbolizes" their country, and Aussies have long expected that at the Atlanta Games he would spearhead their rise as a swimming power. That has changed now.
At Australia's Olympic trials in April, Kowalski qualified in three freestyle events while Perkins went into the final day still needing to make the team. After Perkins bombed out in the 200- and the 400-meter frees, nearly one fourth of the nation—about 4.5 million viewers, according to A.C. Nielsen Australia—tuned in to see him plod to second place in the 1,500 behind Kowalski to earn a trip to Atlanta. Perkins was noticeably humbled. "There was a definite negativity in his voice, and that's a side I've never seen before," Kowalski says. "I was just staring at him, thinking, Is this the same guy?"
To understand Kowalski's shock, you must understand that although he is one of only four active swimmers—along with Perkins, countryman Glen Housman and Jörg Hoffmann of Germany—to break the 15-minute barrier in the 1,500, he is no Perkins in ability or swagger, and he knows it. He has never gotten within sniffing distance of Perkins's world-record times in the 400 or 1,500. Since announcing himself with a third-place finish at the Australian Olympic trials in 1992, Kowalski has been known as a diligent but fragile swimmer. He has a degenerative condition in both rotator cuffs. He tore his right biceps in the fall of '94; after starting to run to keep in shape, he sustained a stress fracture in his right ankle. While biking to a rehabilitation session for the ankle, he was hit by a car. Kowalski is a fine athlete "within water," he says with a laugh, "but get me on land, and I'm an accident waiting to happen."
Until recently he had lost dozens of races to Perkins and Housman, thereby building a reputation for buckling in big events. After manhandling Perkins at the 1994 Commonwealth Games trials, Kowalski wilted at the games themselves, losing to Perkins in the 1,500 final by 12 seconds. At the '94 world championships in Rome, Kowalski was ill before the 1,500 final, where he finished second behind...guess who? "He was first, yeah," Kowalski says. "Story of my life."
Not anymore. "As far as the armchair critics are concerned, I'm gone," says the 22-year-old Perkins. "Now Daniel's the Number 1 swimmer." Only Kowalski remains unconvinced. It's as if he has spent so long in Perkins's shadow that he doesn't know how to handle the sun. "Nobody, not even me, has known what I'm capable of doing," he says. "Something has always gone wrong."
With those words Kowalski hints at Australia's greatest sporting fear. Its tennis has become mired in mediocrity, and Greg Norman has become a golfing Gallipoli. So who better to carry the dreams of the nation than an athlete who is used to coming in second? Story of my life. Sure, Australia has produced gold medal brilliance in swimming in the past 30 years, from Shane Gould to Jon Sieben to Duncan Armstrong, but its athletes have an equally impressive record of collapsing under great expectations, most notoriously when 1,500 swimmer Steve Holland rolled into the 1976 Olympics with 11 world records under his belt and rolled out with Australia's only swimming medal, a bronze. When, despite high expectations, no other Australian won swimming gold at the '92 Barcelona Games, Perkins had to salvage Aussie pride with a 1,500 victory.