If ever there was a living embodiment of that mythical Australian hero, "the little Aussie battler," who overcomes adversity on the road to victory, it is 18-year-old swimmer Glen Housman. Three years ago Housman was so burned out on swimming that he gave up the sport. Now he has swum the world's fastest 1,500 meters, and his former coach predicts he will take nearly 25 seconds off the world record before the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
Australia awoke to Housman's potential on Dec. 13, at the Commonwealth Games trials in Adelaide. In the 1,500 event, he passed the 800-meter point in 7:55.31, 4.13 seconds inside the world-record pace of the U.S.S.R.'s Vladimir Salnikov. Cheered by an exultant crowd, Housman finished in 14:53.59, 1.17 seconds better than Salnikov's 1983 mark of 14:54.76. Overcome with emotion, Housman's coach, Ian Findlay, jumped into the pool fully clothed, complete with stopwatch and spectacles, to hug his swimmer.
But within a minute, Findlay and Housman's celebration went flat. Roger Smith, the meet director, delivered the bad news that the clock had failed to stop when Housman touched the automatic timer at the end of his lane. "Thanks a lot, mate," said Housman before going off to weep on the shoulder of his mother, Dawn. Officials with handheld stopwatches clocked him in 14:53.57, 14:53.59 and 14:53.60, but that was small consolation to Housman, because FINA, swimming's international ruling body, does not accept hand-timed records. Australian Swimming Incorporated, the national federation, said that it would lodge a protest with FINA and submit Housman's time for world-record recognition. FINA is expected to review the case at its July meeting.
A little more than a month later, in winning the 1,500 gold at the Commonwealth Games, in Auckland, New Zealand, Housman came within 49 hundredths of a second of Salnikov's record, the oldest world mark in men's swimming. By then, however, his speed was not the shock it had been in December.
During the 16 months he has been coached by Findlay, Housman has grown three inches—he's up to 5'10" and 154 pounds—and has lowered his 1,500 time by more than 43 seconds. Findlay, 24, is a prot�g� of Australia's former Olympic coach, Laurie (the Maniac) Lawrence, who may be best remembered for jumping into the pool after his swimmer, Duncan Armstrong, beat Anders Holmertz of Sweden and Matt Biondi of the U.S. to win the 200-meter freestyle in Seoul.
Findlay wasn't the only proud coach in Adelaide on the night of Dec. 13. Also watching, with mixed emotions, was Otto Sonnleiter, the regional coach in Housman's hometown of Rockhampton, a provincial city in northern Queensland famous for producing Australia's two-time Grand Slam tennis champion Rod Laver. Sonnleiter began coaching Housman in Rockhampton's open-air pool when the boy was nine, but in October 1988, Housman rebelled against Sonnleiter's tough program. Backed by his father, Cliff, who is a longshoreman, Housman gave Sonnleiter an ultimatum: Either help me switch to the shorter, more interesting 200- and 400-meter events, or I leave. Sonnleiter, convinced that Housman was a distance swimmer and not a sprinter, stood his ground and the pair separated. By November, Housman had moved in with his sister Trudi, a former 800-meter swimmer, in the Brisbane suburb of Coorparoo and had begun working with Findlay, though he stuck with the 1,500.
The Housman family photo albums show the blond, crew-cut, blue-eyed Glen standing on the winner's rostrum at junior events, always dwarfed by the other boys. Today the boyish-looking Housman still sports a scruffy crew cut. He is reserved, although he is known for his combative qualities, and it is clear that he doesn't like being given orders, whether by his parents or his coach.
He always wanted to swim, and was so promising at age nine that, small as he was, other swimmers got a 10-second head start when they raced against him in the 100. By the time he was 12, Glen was doing 1,600 50-meter laps a week in training, and he got fed up with the regimen. In the winter he would stop swimming to rebuild his interest for the summer. But when he was 15, and still small, he decided to take a year off.
"I got really sick of it," says Housman. "I got too much pressure from Mum, and everyone. I was doing four or five miles a session. It was too much, too young. It was hard competing against bigger guys all the time."
At 16, Housman was back in the pool, but within a year he had had enough of the training marathons, and he told Sonnleiter he wanted to swim the shorter distances. Looking back now, after having lost his champion, Sonnleiter makes no apologies for teaching Housman in the hard school of the 1,500. "It's difficult for a 1,500-meter swimmer," says Sonnleiter. "You train longer and farther, and you don't have other swimmers in the pool. The 1,500 is a disciplined event, and if you don't have discipline, you don't make it."