St Peters Lutheran College, Queensland’s largest private school, is so vast you actually need to drive between some of its facilities. Before dawn, parents drop off children from Audis and Range Rovers to various stadiums, but the school’s hallowed domain is its heated outdoor 50-metre pool. Members of the Australian Olympic swim team are training here in the lead-up to London. There is Leisel Jones, pumping her legs on an exercise bike. Stephanie Rice is doing crunches, shadowed by a television crew from 60 Minutes. And here, jumping rope furiously, is Nick D’Arcy: Australia’s best butterfly swimmer, a serious gold medal prospect, and the most loathed athlete in the country if magazine and online polls – not to mention Australian Olympic Committee sanctions following last month’s media beat-up over Facebook photos – are any indication.
There are legitimate reasons to dislike D’Arcy. In March 2008, shortly after qualifying for the Beijing Olympics, he knocked out fellow qualifier Simon Cowley, a triple Commonwealth Games gold medallist, at a Sydney bar. Cowley’s injuries were gruesome. X-rays revealed breaks to his jaw, eye socket, cheekbone and nose, as if a metal pipe had been rammed into his face, rather than a human fist. Most of Cowley’s teeth came loose.
D’Arcy was swiftly kicked off the Beijing Olympic team and barred from the 2009 World Championships in Rome. He pleaded guilty to recklessly causing grievous bodily harm and was given a suspended 14-month jail sentence. He did some searingly uncomfortable television interviews, which hardly helped his image in a sport not known for violence or machismo. In 2011, Cowley sued D’Arcy for damages. When the court awarded Cowley $180,942 plus interest, D’Arcy declared himself bankrupt.
Soon after he was expelled from the Beijing Olympics, D’Arcy stopped swimming for two months. As he puts it, he “ate a lot of shit” and experienced the fate of all swimmers when they suddenly stop training: he got fat. But that was then. At St Peters, he works his ripped body with the grim determination of a man possessed. Other swimmers are jokey – the men laugh goofily during circuit training; one of the women has arrived in pink pyjama pants – but D’Arcy pumps the stationary bike with teeth bared.
Michael Bohl is the head coach here, and trains between 15 and 20 swimmers in these morning sessions, nine of whom are on the Olympic team. As the swimmers dive into the pool one after another, Bohl calls out instructions or whistles them in at high frequency, like he’s training a pod of dolphins.
Bohl watches D’Arcy swim laps in the same lane as Rice. “Wouldn’t be too many people in the world with legs as good as Nick’s,” he says. D’Arcy’s weaknesses are what Bohl calls “skills”: his starts and turns. I mention it must be difficult for D’Arcy to maintain focus considering what’s happened to him over the past four years. Bohl is immediately wary and resorts to coach-speak. D’Arcy is an “incredibly focused guy” and “you can put up three brick walls but he’ll go through them”; he’s “very goal-driven” and has a “laser-focus resolve”. In any case, Bohl adds: “After the Olympics, that will be it for him.” D’Arcy already works part-time as a radiographer at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital. “And it’s very hard,” Bohl says, “to do medicine and to swim.”
For D’Arcy, Tuesdays and Thursdays are always like this. Circuit and lap training, breakfast at home, then more circuit training “at altitude” – in a room of oxygen-reduced air. He takes a nap, does some physio if there are any injuries (today, his shoulders are playing up), then it’s back in the pool. On other days, he crams in a hospital shift. Altitude training takes place at a specialist gym in Woolloongabba, where D’Arcy rides a stationary bike with fellow Olympic hopeful Mitch Larkin. Outside, the 60 Minutes crew waits for Stephanie Rice. “It must be nice to be in the background for once,” I say to D’Arcy. “Oh, I don’t want to be background, mate,” he jokes.
D’Arcy’s ease before the media is a blessing. Australia’s swimming alumni – usually such a quiet lot – rumble at his name. Kieren Perkins has an issue with D’Arcy’s lack of contrition. Michael Klim, too, wishes D’Arcy would apologise to Cowley personally. Since D’Arcy’s qualification for the London games, the media have treated his Olympic journey as a chance to redeem himself: “Redemption for D’Arcy” (ABC News); “Nick D’Arcy’s much-publicised tilt at redemption” (Sunshine Coast Daily); “Nick D’Arcy has earned a shot at Olympic redemption” (Herald Sun). D’Arcy doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t see how a fast swim in the pool can make up for what’s happened in the past,” he says. “They don’t cancel each other out. They’re two separate issues.”
Among all the static and noise, D’Arcy surprisingly finds it easy to focus on training. “You have to control the controllables,” he says. “When I’m swimming – when I compete and I train – it’s solely up to me. I can change this; I can improve that. Or I can slip backwards, depending on how I approach the session or meets. But some of the things that have happened weren’t under my control. So I feel very relaxed about knowing that there’s almost nothing I can do to change all that.” When I say he sounds almost Buddhist, he laughs and puts on a thick Queensland accent: “Yeeeah, I do consider myself somewhat of a philosophiser-er.”
Australians like their sport simple: success makes someone a hero. D’Arcy represents an interesting conundrum: should he win gold, how are we supposed to feel towards someone so talented, who has done something so bad? We’re hardly barracking for him now. Which raises another question: who does D’Arcy think he’s racing for?
“Well, for the family definitely,” he says. “Sometimes when you’re not really sure why you’re doing it, it’s always good to have those thoughts in the back of your head – that I’m doing it for other people. But I race for myself, too.” I point out that he hasn’t mentioned his country. “Really?” he says, looking surprised. “Well, it would be nice. But I suppose it’s more of a luxury, having the public on my side.”