Mack Horton: going for gold at 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games

Photo: Simon Schluter

Photo: Simon Schluter

It’s a crisp afternoon at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre, and though we’re inside where the water is a bit warmer, Mack Horton is one of the few brave enough to dive in, springing off the board with the playfulness of a kid.

“I don’t know if I’m doing this right!” he says, preparing for lift-off.

A diver he may not be, but a swimmer he certainly is. The 21-year-old Olympic gold medallist has continued his success in the pool since the 2016 summer Olympic Games in Rio (where he won the 400-metre freestyle, finished fifth in the 1500m freestyle and clocked a fourth in the 4x200m freestyle relay).

At the 2017 Australian Nationals, the Victorian became the first swimmer since Grant Hackett in 2008 to win the 200m, 400m and 1500m freestyle.

When competition for the Commonwealth Games starts on April 5 on the Gold Coast, all eyes will be on Horton to restore Australia’s hold on the 1500m – a blue-ribbon event immortalised in Australian sporting history by Kieren Perkins, Daniel Kowalski and Hackett.

The Commonwealth Games 1500m was dominated by Australia from 1950 to 2002, but that 52-year winning streak ended in 2006 in Melbourne when Welshman David Davies scooped gold.

Horton, and Queenslander Jack McLoughlin, are our great hopes to take back the crown. McLoughlin beat an underperforming Horton in the 1500m at the national trials last month, but thanks to Horton’s distinctive character – he has the handsome spectacles and eloquence of a Collins Street executive, with the aquatic power of a shark on the hunt – he’ll be the crowd favourite.

At MSAC, Horton dons those dark-rimmed glasses as he always does after he gets out of the pool – he can’t see well without them and wears prescription goggles under the water. It’s earned him the nickname “the Clark Kent of swimming” – something the 188-centimetre Adonis is quick to shy away from.

“It’s a bit silly, really – it’s just what I do – it’s the only option I have.”

It could also have something to do with the fact that the Superman of freestyle is articulate beyond his age, handling questions from the media with a coherence and thoughtfulness that takes many young sports people years to develop.

Photos: Michael Rayner. Imaging: Anne-Marie De Boni.

Photos: Michael Rayner. Imaging: Anne-Marie De Boni.

He is studying commerce at the Australian Catholic University, and though he says it’s not the most exciting of degrees, it will set him up for the future once his time in the pool ends.

“You almost have to assume that you’re going to get spat out the other end of the sport and have to start again, so you have to have that net to catch you and something to build on when you’re done.”

It’s this measured approach that has seen him develop and present, along with his coach Craig Jackson, leadership seminars for high-school kids.

“It’s just about sharing my story. I’m only three or four years out of school so it’s still relatable for them,” he says. “So many kids struggle with finding direction, and then if they have direction, knowing how to follow it; what to do next, how to set goals, how to find a process.”

Horton has accepted that kids are going to look up to their sporting heroes, and he wants to set a good example.

“You don’t really want to come out and say ‘I have a responsibility’ or ‘I am a role model’ or whatever – it’s almost a bit self indulgent. It sounds cliched, but I just try to be myself, I guess.”

It’s a philosophy that has landed him in hotter water than he’s used to, once or twice. He has come under scrutiny by fans of Chinese swimmer Sun Yang after calling him out at the Rio Olympics for being a “drug cheat”. Sun had tested positive for a banned stimulant at the Chinese Championships in 2014 and was banned from the sport for three months as a result.

Horton stands by his comments – crediting his parents for his ability to speak out on the subject.

“They basically said they don’t care if I had a gold medal or not, as long as I’m a decent human being,” he says. “It’s just backing yourself and knowing yourself and what you swim for and the values you have.”

Photo: Michael Rayner

Photo: Michael Rayner

Standing up and speaking out seems to come naturally to Horton – even if he might not be in the right. In June 2016, before everybody knew his name, Mack applied to contest a fine for running a red light.

By the time it was heard in court, he materialised into an Olympic swimming star, and a swarm of media awaited him as he left the Melbourne Magistrates Court.

“It was a weird experience ’cause I don’t really take in the fact that people know who I am. I remember walking out of the courtroom and there were heaps of cameras and I was like: ‘surely that’s not for me’,” Horton says.

In the end, it was found that he did run the light, and was ordered to pay $150 to The Smith Family charity and left court without conviction on a six-month good behaviour bond. Mack took to Twitter to express his regret, urging young people to be patient and drive responsibly.

“Now I’m a lot more careful – I drive like a nanny these days!” he says with a grin.

For Horton, working towards a goal, whether in swimming or setting an example for youngsters, is what keeps him grounded.

“It’s just about finding something you love doing and I was lucky that I found it when I was 10 – some people never find it.”

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