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Sat 31 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Questions of sport

Former Olympic swimmer Kieren Perkins talks about SuperFish, life after sports, and Barack Obama.

From the winner's podium to a boardroom near you. Olympic swimmer Kieren Perkins has traded his Speedos for a suit, bringing the tricks of sports psychology to the workplace. He talks SuperFish, life after sports, and why Obama trounces Bush in the mental mettle stakes.

Australian Kieren Perkins has none of the wistful longing most former sportsmen have when looking back on a stellar career.

In fact, the twice gold-medal winning swimmer looks faintly embarrassed by the montage of sporting clips, backed by a stirring soundtrack, which precedes his arrival on stage. He later jokes that he rarely watches his highlight reel, because seeing himself at peak fitness is "just a bit depressing".

It's being Australian: we're trained not to show off. I'm not really a rah-rah kind of guy.

You wouldn't know it, standing in the lobby of a Dubai hotel, but Perkins is one of the greatest distance swimmers in history. Over a glittering career, he scooped every major swimming title on offer.

Outside of Australia he is small-scale famous, but in his home country he is lauded as a legend. (Literally: he is listed by the National Trust as a living treasure.) And as is evidenced by a line of jostling fans waiting for an introduction to their hero, even eight years after his retirement from the pool, the man once nicknamed ‘SuperFish' can still command an audience.

But along with the supreme self-confidence that landed Perkins 11 world records is a polite reluctance to brag. He claims not to know where his three Olympic medals are and downplays his heart-stopping win at the 1996 Atlanta games where, after scraping into the finals of the 1500m, he blitzed the field to take gold, finishing 15m in front of his nearest rival and breaking his own world record.

He snorts when reminded that he and his wife are referred to as the Aussie Posh and Becks. After two decades of training with his swim coach, Perkins still refers to him formally as "Mr Carew".

"It's being Australian; we're trained not to show off," he says straight-faced, in his broad twang. "I'm not really a rah-rah kind of guy."

Perhaps because of this, Perkins has made the transition to life after sports with a sureness that few ex-athletes have. After calling time on his career after the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he had a short-lived stab at being a pundit before realising he wasn't "the right personality for television work; I'm a bit direct," instead making a splash on the speaking circuit.

His aptitude as a keynote speaker led to tie-ups with Dr Clark Perry, a sports psychologist who had consulted with the Australian national swim team during Perkins' heyday.

The partnership eventually grew into the consultancy firm PSP Systems, through which the duo used the principles of sport psychology to coax companies into achieving their peak performance, working with blue-chip brands such as Lexus, Johnson & Johnson and Toyota. Perry brought the science, and Perkins had the Midas touch.

The firm was driven, Perkins says, by the realisation that sports psychology techniques are not just relevant to athletes. "Sport teaches you how to understand yourself," he says, gesturing expansively. "It has magnificent clarity around it - it's very black and white. There's no hiding in the process and the outcomes.

"You learn how to work in a team, how to succeed, fail, persevere, to set goals - all the life lessons you need to deliver success."It might sound fanciful, but it's a lucrative market. Mind coaches are a sought-after commodity in the sporting - and increasingly the business - world, with top names including the England rugby team and basketball giants the LA Lakers self-confessed converts.

The tricks translate to the workplace, and an increasing number of firms now hire out ex-sports stars to preach performance techniques to corporate players.

It has become a second calling for Perkins, who is near-evangelical about his work. "I believe there is genius in every person: the challenge is letting them exploit it," he says, lapsing into corporate-speak.  "I love helping people to do that. The reality is nobody has to be ordinary: we can all be extraordinary in our own way."

Most swimming coaches earn beneath the breadline and I’ve got a wife, three kids and a shares portfolio that doesn't look like it used to.

It also, he admits, fulfils his ambition to coach, a career move he skipped after his retirement from the pool. Is it something he would consider now? "Not really," he grins.

"Most swimming coaches earn beneath the breadline and I've got a wife, three kids and a shares portfolio that doesn't look like it used to."

Last February, his company merged with the performance development firm rogenSi, where Perkins is now a director. He is in Dubai to plug the firm - he is addressing the Australian Business Council - and, slightly more left-field, to speak about a psychometric test rogenSi has added to its books, to gauge "mental toughness".

While this sounds like some form of cerebral arm-wrestling, in fact the test is offered to corporate clients to identify whether they maintain Zen-like calm in the face of adversity or crumble under pressure. It's a concept more associated with sports stars than desk-bound office employees, but that, Perkins tells me, is set to change.

If it might sound a little politically incorrect to judge staff on their mental resilience, he is quick to add that the test is designed to help subjects "better prepare themselves to cope with everyday situations. It's not about rating them. It's about ensuring we can consistently make the right decisions, maintain our focus and do our job well."

In short, to teach the mental wallflowers among us that when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Perkins has taken the test, but declines to reveal his mark, as mental toughness isn't, apparently, about scores. I'm not convinced, so we embark on a quiz. Who is mentally tougher out of Obama and Bush? "No contest," he smirks.

"Obama. He seems - but we've gotta wait and see - a considered guy." And between Perkins and 14-time gold medallist Michael Phelps? "Me," comes the instant response. "Ego is a very important part of being mentally tough."

What can mere mortals do to become mentally tougher? "Every day, practise having a reason for getting up and doing what you do."  Does anyone really like synchronised swimming? Slight pause. "I don't dislike it."

Perkins is serious about the practise. He bridles at the idea that talent - and, I should add, mental toughness - is inherent; bizarre for someone who has made a living out of his natural abilities.

"It's a matter of will, of how hard you're prepared to work at it. All the research shows human behaviour can be learnt and trained if you're prepared to work hard enough at it," he argues, citing the Australian national swimming team as a case in point.

"We're a small, underfunded group of yobs, but we do it better, harder and more than anyone else, which is why we win."After two decades toiling in chlorine - a physio once drolly noted that Perkins had swum the equivalent of more than nine times around the globe in his training alone - he knows something about dedication. He started swimming at 9, after falling through a plate glass window and severing a leg muscle.

By 15, he was swimming nationally, and by 16 he'd landed his first sponsorship deal - a coup in an era before Beckham-style branding was commonplace.

"It was incredibly hard work," he says of the gruelling training regime. "Some mornings it's dark, below zero and the last thing you want to do is get naked and go swimming. But you focus on the bigger vision. I wanted to be a gold medallist."

Business was a learning curve too. Early on in Perkins' career, his father was quick to realise he had a highly bankable sporting commodity on his hands.

By his late teens, Perkins had himself become a brand, lining up endorsements from Nintendo, BMW and Microsoft.

His biggest deals in terms of longevity and dollars - with cereal brand Uncle Tobys and Australian airline Qantas - are still in place today. It taught him a lot, he says, about running a business.

"I was heavily involved in the management. I signed off every contract, I was part of the development of every advertising campaign and I was very involved in the decision-making process and in managing my brand, and who we associated with."

He also wasn't afraid to show his teeth. He registered his nickname, bestowed on him by a fawning Aussie media, as the trademark SuperFish in 1999 and woe betide anyone who now tries to adopt it.

Three years earlier, he sued Telstra, Australia's biggest telecommunications operator, for the unauthorised use of his image in an advert and won.

Still, Perkins is far from being all shove and no subtlety. He's dismissive of diva-style sports stars, and has publicly upbraided fellow athletes for bringing their sports into disrepute.

This is, after all, a man who will quote the portly coach from the Disney film Cool Runnings, on the dangers of putting too much stock in success.

"He said ‘if you're nothing without the medal, you'll still be nothing even if you've got it.' And it's so damn true. Being successful, wealthy, all that stuff doesn't make you a better human being."

Of all the medals, he maintains it was his second gold that was hardest to achieve - and as a result the most rewarding.

"The second is tougher," he recalls. "The first time around you're youthful, stupid and enthusiastic, whereas second time around you're old, wise and considered."

The same might be said about his lucrative second career. While his legend was established in the pool, it may be that Perkins' big payday comes on dry land, through his post-sports activities. Fortunately for the SuperFish, he doesn't look like floundering any time soon.

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