By Phil Lutton
Jack McLoughlin was almost ready to walk away from swimming when COVID-19 forced the postponement of the Olympic Games in 2020. At 26 and with an engineering degree almost in his keeping, the thought of putting himself through the meat grinder of 10 distance sessions a week was less appealing by the hour.
Still, he found ways to keep moving. Cycling became a pursuit, then a passion, and he found ways to connect through that sport. Eventually, the wheels would turn enough for him to return to the water with a renewed focus and intent.
It’s a good thing, too. McLoughlin would take silver in the 400m freestyle on the first morning of finals in Tokyo, swimming a daring race and backing his 800m and 1500m pedigree to keep the field at arm’s length. His plan almost worked, foiled only by a bolt from the blue in lane eight as Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui stunned everyone to take gold.
McLoughlin was over in lane two and desperately hoped his 3:43.52 would be enough. Hafnaoui stopped the clock at 3:43.36 but, without his glasses, McLoughlin wasn’t initially sure what had just gone down. All he could see was some far away white water, before he buried his head for the final sprint to the wall.
“I normally wear glasses, so, it was pretty far away. I knew I’d be up there but I knew they were coming at me. I’m super, super stoked with second, little annoyed I didn’t get the win but it’s my first Olympic medal, my first international medal,” McLoughlin said.
“When I saw what I came in the heats, I thought it was perfect. That was going to be my race plan, I just wanted to get out the front and say, ‘Chase me’. It almost paid off. I couldn’t see all the way over, I could see some splashes, but I was just trying to hold on. I didn’t breathe in the final 10m and I was sinking at the end.”
McLoughlin owned the second-fastest time in the world this year going into the Games but was the less fancied of the two Australians, with compatriot Elijah Winnington the race favourite. But Winnington went out of the gate far too hard and laboured beyond the first 100m. He was too distressed to offer any comments to reporters.
It seemed to set things up perfectly for McLoughlin, who trains at Chandler under coach Vince Raleigh, and he wasted no time in stamping his class on the race. He made his move and, with his main rivals floundering, the gold was beckoning.
An 18-year-old in an outside lane had other ideas.
“I just can’t believe it,” Hafnaoui said. “It’s a dream and it became true. It was great. It was my best race ever. ” It was Tunisia’s fifth gold medal at an Olympic Games and their third in swimming.
McLoughlin had worked hard to get in the right headspace for these Games. The postponement filled his head with doubt over whether he could get up again for 2021 after convincing himself 2020 was his year. A regular spin on a bike cleared his head, his family did the rest, and Tokyo provided a moment for him to savour.
“That’s all to my family and friends, they really helped me. Last year I was really struggling. I thought 2020 was where I was going to be at for my career peak. To be here right now is really special,” McLoughlin said.
“It was hard. I’m 26, nearly finished my Bachelor of Engineering, I just really wanted to make sure that was going to be my time to peak. It’s pretty hard not knowing whether something is going to be on or not. I trained up to 10, 11 times a week.
“To do that and not be sure if you are going to get to be where you want to be, it’s pretty hard.”
Winnington still has the 200m freestyle and a 4x200m relay and simply must find a way to mentally reset, because his team needs him to stay focused with medals on the line. But that effort will sting for a long time and his trials time from just six weeks ago would have good enough to win.
But such are the hurdles athletes must negotiate at an Olympic Games. How he rebounds heading towards Paris in 2024 will be telling.