My Olympic dream began two years earlier at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, where I won two golds as an 18-year-old. My coach, Laurie Lawrence, sat down with me and said: “Are you happy with that?” I said: “Yeah, pretty happy.” “And are you ultimately happy with that?” he asked. I said I’d be ultimately happy if I got to Seoul and won there. He said: “And how are you going to do that, son?” I replied that I’d need to drop about five seconds. “Fantastic!’ he said. “I’ll see you at the pool at 5am.”
I was never going to beat the other guys for power, but I reckoned I could out-train them and then maintain a pace to burn them to cinders. But first I had to put on some weight – I wasn’t going to win with skinny arms and legs and no power through my back. So every day I’d swim 20 kilometres and eat 45 Weet-Bix, a Sara Lee cheesecake and a Lions Club fruitcake. I was 72 kilograms in Edinburgh; by the time I got to Seoul I was 86.
After my heat I knew instantly I was in lane six in the final, next to 100-metre world record-holder Matt Biondi, who’s 6’7” (2m). I also knew that I was going to drag off him because he’d be leading. It was back in the day when the lane ropes couldn’t hold a wave and those guys were producing almost a foot (30 centimetres) of chop. As long as I could find that chop he’d be giving me a full second without my having to work for it.
I knew I had to find Biondi’s trough in the first 12 metres or he’d be gone, so when I dived in I brushed the lane rope. When I came up and saw his blue togs I knew I was in the right spot.
So into the third turn I moved into the middle of the lane and had a cracking last turn. With 12m to swim I put my head down . . . 10 strokes to the wall! I knew I’d beaten the guy on my right. I quickly looked left and the water was still smooth. There was no one there.
Get an edge
Focus your prep not just on the event but the entire experience, says Armstrong. “When Laurie found out swimmers would have to walk up to three kilometres a day in tropical heat between their accommodation and the pool, he added six-kay runs to our training. Was it my running or my swimming that enabled me to break the world record?”
Train like Rocky
Well before CrossFit, Lawrence made his swimmers work out with steel objects sourced from scrap yards. “The heaviest one, ‘Big Bertha’, weighed 30kg and for half an hour we weren’t allowed to put it down or stop moving.” Smart move: time under tension is a proven muscle builder.
“Laurie manufactured tension on a daily basis and told you everyone else was a pussy. It was antagonistic, eyeball-to-eyeball stuff that toughened you up for competition.”