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September 22, 2000
Perkins on course, Thorpe chases number fiveDerek Parr and Julian Linden
Fear of not making the final drove Kieren Perkins to swim his fastest race since Atlanta and once again break the 15-minute barrier in the Olympic 1,500 metres freestyle heats on Friday.
"Even up to this morning there was a big question mark in my mind whether or not I'd be able to get through to the final, let alone swim the time I did," Perkins said after winning his heat in 14 minutes 58.34 seconds, far the fastest time leading into Saturday's final, the climax of the eight-day swimming programme.
Perkins, now 27, almost failed to make the 1996 Olympic final with a slow heat swim and was determined not to slip up in the last big challenge of his career.
"It felt a good comfortable swim. I didn't feel like I was swimming that fast. I just had to keep the pace I was going because I was nervous about whether or not I would actually get in.
"I knew it was going to be tough. Mr (coach John) Carew said I've got to treat it like a final. When I saw the time I was rapt (thrilled)."
Perkins confounded the doubters with his magnificent swim. It was the fastest heat time he could recollect in an international career which goes back a decade filled with world records and big titles, and the first time he had swum the event at a major championships inside 15 minutes since Atlanta.
American Erik Vendt was second-fastest overall in 15:05.11 and fellow Australian Grant Hackett, successor of Perkins as world champion in 1998, third, winning his heat in 15:07.50.
"I didn't wake up this morning feeling fantastic," Perkins, whose world record of 14:41.66 dates back to 1994, said.
"Now's really the crunch time. A swim like that is good because it fills me with confidence but it can also be bad because it could wipe me out... I probably hit it a bit harder than I needed to."
Hackett, long the world number one, said Perkins was now the favourite and Perkins did not disagree. "I guess that swim is going to well and truly put me up there as favourite in the public's mind. It will put a lot more pressure on me," he said.
But he added: "I could honestly come out of tomorrow's race, swim that time, not get a place and be absolutely ecstatic. The whole thing has just been a magic carpet ride for me."
The challenge for him was now in the mind. "It's for me a lot more of a mental thing now. My mental state is much better than in Atlanta," he said. "I've won consecutive 1,500s. I don't feel I need to prove anything like I did in Atlanta."
Perkins said he had received "mind-blowing" support from fellow Australians.
"When you're down at your local shopping centre sorting through a pile of fruit, looking for the best one, and you've got people coming up to you giving you a pat on the back and saying 'Good luck mate. We know you can do it', that stuff just blows you away," he said. "Who am I to have that sort of adulation?"
Saturday will be his last race and he said he would hide himself away for 24 hours to prepare for it.
"The Olympics has always been it for me. It has been a hard road. There were times when I thought myself I wasn't going to get there," he said. "It's been very difficult to get there. I'm human like everyone else."
Ian Thorpe meanwhile, looks certain to win a fifth Olympic medal after he was a late inclusion in the Australian 4x100 metres medley relay team on Friday.
The 17-year-old already has three golds and a silver and can add to his tally if the team finishes in the top three as expected.
Thorpe will not swim in Saturday's final and will not mount the podium at the ceremony if the team does finish in the first three. But he will still be eligible for a medal after swimming in Friday morning's heats.
"It wasn't something I expected," Thorpe said after anchoring the team to a comfortable win in the heats. "I really enjoyed this morning, getting another swim in the Olympic pool.
"Our guys should go pretty well in the final. We've got some very good racers in Australia and the better swimmers will be in the final."
Thorpe was only told that he had been selected to swim the heats on Thursday night.
Michael Klim was already assured of swimming the freestyle leg in the final after breaking Alexander Popov's 100 world record of 48.21 seconds as the lead-off swimmer in last Saturday's 4x100 freestyle relay final.
Klim's new mark of 48.18 stood for just three days until Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband lowered it to 47.84.
Australia went on to win the 4x100 freestyle gold ahead of the United States when Thorpe, swimming last, came from behind to overhaul Gary Hall in the final few strokes. His split time of 48.30 came just an hour after he lowered his own world record to win the 400 freestyle.
Thorpe went on to win a third gold with the 4x200 freestyle relay after taking silver behind van den Hoogenband in the individual 200 freestyle final.
Sprint specialist Chris Fydler reached the final of the 100 freestyle but failed to better Thorpe's time from the relay. Fydler was slower than Thorpe when he swam the second leg of the relay and was slower again in the individual final.
"Ian was always an option we were looking at," Australian team spokesman Ian Hanson said. "He was told he had the swim because of his relay split."
Australia qualified fourth quickest overall in Friday's heats with a time of three minutes 39.38.
Germany qualified fastest in 3:38.50 ahead of Hungary but the United States and Australia are the favourites after resting their top swimmers from the heats.
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