James Magnussen (11 April, 1991) is an Australian freestyle sprinter that has recorded some of the fastest times in history at 50m and 100m, and is a two-time 100m world champion.
James’s obvious potential emerged during his “apprenticeship” as a permanent member of the Australian relay teams, and a series of impressive performances garnered him several notable medals. At the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, California, he swam the anchor leg in the 4x100m freestyle team’s silver medal effort, and followed this up with gold in the same event at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, setting a new games record in the process.
However, it was 2011 that established James as a name to be reckoned with at the world’s premier meets. He made his first statement in his kickoff event in Shanghai, when his 47.49 lead-off in Australia’s winning 4x100m freestyle relay effort marked the fastest-ever in a textile suit, eclipsing Pieter van den Hoogenband's pre-polyurethane suit time of 47.84. Four days later in the individual 100m freestyle, he was sixth at the turn, and then produced a blistering second fifty as he came home to win it in 47.63. On the Championship’s final night, he swam the 4x100m medley relay’s fastest freestyle leg by far, almost catching the victorious Americans as the Australians finished second.
Preparations for the 2012 Olympics were promising as James improved his own textile best to record the fastest ever non-polyurethane 100m freestyle at the Australian Championships, winning in a time of 47.10. But despite strong performances in London he was unable to repeat his World Championship heroics as he lost out on the 100m free gold by just one-hundredth of a second. He also picked up a bronze medal in the 4x100m medley relay.
Putting the narrow loss in London behind him, James got back to work, producing a 47.53 100m at the 2013 Australian Nationals to once again head the world rankings going into the Barcelona World Championships. Having led the field in the WC heats, he swam only the fourth-fastest semi-final, but from lane 6 in the final he produced a late surge and powered to victory in 47.71 (the same as his heat time). In successfully defending his world title, James became one of only four male swimmers in history to have won the 100m freestyle back-to-back (along with Alexander Popov, Matt Biondi, and Filippo Magnini). For good measure, he also swam the fastest anchor leg in the 4x100m medley relay, to carry his team to the silver medal.
“Fall down 7 times… stand up 8.”
As a mantra for a world champion, it doesn’t get much more definitive than this. And nothing exemplifies James Magnussen’s adherence to this Chinese proverb better than his resounding statements in the pool in 2013, after the disappointment of London 2012 and its aftermath. Going into the 2013 World Championships, he had posted nine 48.5 or better swims for the year, something that had never been done before. In Barcelona he added three more. This is most certainly one man that doesn’t stay down.
It’s not easy getting to the top in a sports-crazy country like Australia, not least in a sport that has produced athletes like Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett. But having been born in the New South Wales coastal town of Port Macquarie, the water was always going to be part of his youth. Says James: “There are great beaches in Port Macquarie and I remember being fascinated with the water and the waves and loving swimming in the ocean in summer.”
Competitive swimming, however, came a little later. “I was what might be described as a ‘late developer’. I had some good results at National Age group meets when I was around 12, 13, 14 years of age but it was not until I was 17 / 18 that I started to think I may have the ability to really pursue swimming. When I won my 1st Australian National Open 100m championship in 2011 and qualified for the Shanghai World Championships, I then thought that I could really make a go of swimming.” Talk about high standards – many swimmers would readily “make a go of swimming” long they were in the realm of winning a national title.
It was two years before that, however, that coach Brant Best of the New South Wales Institute of Sport (NSWIS) convinced James and his parents that he should move to Sydney to focus on his swimming. Like all top swimmers, James’s family and coach have been critical in his success, giving him unqualified support and teaching the qualities of loyalty and what he calls “mateship”. Like his family, Brant has of course been key, instilling a high degree of competitiveness through his goal-setting and training methods, as well as belief through his confidence in James.
It all certainly paid off in 2011 in Shanghai, although it was touch and go whether James would even compete: “I had been really sick leading up to the meet and there was a chance I would not even make the trip to Shanghai. To then be World Champion just a few days later and to be able to be in the history of swimming alongside idols of mine such as Biondi, Popov, Van den Hoogenband was very surreal for me at only 20 years of age. I felt so excited and humbled.” Two years later in Barcelona excitement and humility had turned into relief and happiness, after a tough twelve months – there’s not much that makes The Missile cry, but by his own admission “the medal ceremony for the 100m freestyle in Barcelona may have come close!”
Beyond the pool, James is a down-to-earth twenty-something year old who enjoys many of the same things as other robust young Australians – going to the beach with friends, listening to Eminem, 50 Cent and Linkin Park, eating a good steak and downing a Red Bull (in moderation), supporting his favourite Cantebury Bulldogs rugby league team, and driving performance cars, something he’d like to take a step further by learning to drive a racing car on a track. And while he’s a confirmed Australian and loves his home country, he also enjoys Europe with France and Geneva in Switzerland, describing them as “beautiful places with great people and great lifestyles.”
Another of his interests shows that he doesn’t simply live in the present, he’s also thinking ahead: “I’m really interested in property investment and real estate and I’d like to explore some projects and opportunities in this area over the next few years and when I eventually retire from the sport.”
But for now, that’s as far as other interests go – it’s all swimming, and there are a few things he’d still like to achieve: to become the fastest man in the history of the 100m freestyle, to break the 100m freestyle wold record, and to become the only man in history to win 3 consecutive World Championships. Healthy goals, big ones too … but also achievable, if your name is James Magnussen. Naturally it will take lots of hard work, but that’s not something he’s scared of, and words like strength, power, aggression, confidence, courage, purpose, and respect pepper his thoughts when he speaks of his mind, body, heart and soul.
However, when it all comes down to it, these are the foundations that every champion needs. What will distinguish James when history ultimately measures his career is his will – how much does he want it, how determined is he to make the sacrifices necessary to get there. Given that two of his most inspirational figures are Nelson Mandela and Rafael Nadal, one could comfortably assume that with these two as role models, he’s on the right track and there won’t be a problem with his mindset. (He’s already been voted 2013 Inspiration of the Year by the Australian GQ magazine.)
He reinforces the notion when asked to give three factors that motivate him to keep going at the pinnacle of the sport – he doesn’t give just three, he gives six: the thrill of competition, desire, competitive nature, will, the legacy he’d like to leave behind, and the creation of new benchmarks in the sport. Thoughtful, varied, honest, personal – qualities that flow through his character.
And with that Chinese proverb echoing in his head, picking him up, and keeping his feet firmly on the ground, one senses that he just might be on his way to etching his name into the history books.