Cameron McEvoy likes to imagine himself standing on the blocks of the 100-metre final at the Rio Olympics. He imagines the feel of his body, burnished by years of training. He imagines the sound of the crowd, the noise reverberating off the steel roof. He imagines his energy, pent-up by weeks of tapering and now straining desperately to unleash itself on the water.
But at this moment, McEvoy’s perspective shifts. He doesn’t imagine himself diving into the pool, his body knifing through the water. Instead, he imagines aliens watching this spectacle from outer space. He imagines them observing these humans – these ostensibly intelligent life forms – diving into a hole in the ground filled with water and swimming up and down in a straight line. McEvoy smiles: “I imagine they would think this was the most bizarre thing they’d ever seen. I reckon they’d be thinking: don’t these humans have better things to do with their time? When you look at the Olympics like that, you suddenly realise it isn’t that big a deal in the universal scheme of things.”
No, this 22-year-old is not your average sportsman. Sure he looks the part, with big-money sponsors like Myer, Mercedes, Telstra and Speedo scrambling to be part of “brand” McEvoy. But he doesn’t fit the A-type mould. He studies physics at Griffith University and dreams of one day working as a theoretical physicist (“If I get lucky enough I could even work at NASA”). His heroes are NBA legend Kobe Bryant (“I love his above-and-beyond mentality”) and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman (“He was the kind of guy who found everything interesting”). His ideal holiday destination is Iceland (“I reckon seeing the aurora borealis would be awesome”) and his swimming cap is adorned by the signature of a gravitational wave created when two black holes collided.
Little surprise McEvoy’s squad mates call him “The Professor”. His broad smile and sunny disposition can’t hide the fact that he’s a deep thinker who’s lit upon some important truths in life. Primary among these: he knows that winning gold in Rio will not necessarily make him a better man. “What you achieve in sport is not what defines you as a person,” he contends. “And understanding that is important, because it not only takes the pressure off you, it allows you to be more confident within yourself if you don’t win.”
For a fresh-faced kid chasing gold in the 50, 100 and 200m free at Rio, this is an invaluable insight – particularly given the flameouts of fellow sprinters James Magnussen in London and Eamon Sullivan in Beijing.
Question is: what makes McEvoy so fast? He’s so poised, so measured, so nice. Where’s the snarl, the chest beating, the stuff-silver-we-come-for-gold posturing made famous by Laurie Lawrence?
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Watch, Do, Learn
McEvoy’s early days in the water were unexceptional. He was dragged along to the pool as a five-year-old when his brother Hayden, three years his senior, joined the Miami Swimming Club on the Gold Coast. For the first few months the youngster tooled about on the pool deck, whiling away the minutes till he could go home. Eventually boredom drove him into the water. He joined a junior squad, splashing around with the other kids.
It was during these years, however, that a peculiarity in McEvoy’s personality began laying the foundations for his future success in the pool. As the younger brother, his squad training would finish at 5:30pm – an hour earlier than his brother’s. And it was during this hour, as he sat on the pool deck waiting to go home, that he would study the techniques of the elite swimmers in the senior lanes, men like Hackett, Thorpe and Klim.
The youngster didn’t just gawk at the champions, jostling for a signature when they emerged from the pool. Instead, he analysed their strokes, noting how their bodies sat in the water, the point of entry for their arms, the angle of their wrists. He filed the information in his mind, imagining how it would feel if his body hung in the water like that, if his arm entered the water at that point. Then, when he was next in the pool, he would replicate that feeling and see if his stroke changed for the better or for the worse. “More often than not it changed for the worse,” he says. “But I could always pick up on that. And over a long period of time, I learned what worked and what didn’t work.”
It was, of course, the budding scientist applying his problem-solving mind to the issue of moving through H2O at maximum speed. It was an assiduous process of trial and error that has not only delivered McEvoy an easy stroke (his coach Richard Scarce describes him as having “a great affinity with the water”) but also a keen kinaesthetic understanding of precisely what his body is doing in the water.
Describing this process, McEvoy quotes the famed physicist Niels Bohr: “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.”
“And that,” says McEvoy, “applies perfectly to my swimming. It’s problem solving – something I’ve always loved. And that helped at that young age because I was able to churn through experiences. Each time I changed my stroke it would be a different experience, so I’d put that experience in my toolbox and move on. It was all about building that toolbox so when my natural strength started to develop, I knew exactly what worked.”
McEvoy’s first taste of serious competition came at the age of 12. The family had just moved to a new house with a 12m rectangular pool in the backyard. Here, the three McEvoy children – Hayden, Cam and younger sister Brittany – would contest the “McEvoy Olympics”. The Games were the creation of Hayden, who would spend hours at the family computer, compiling fake heats and finals, fictional records and champions. He would even print out gold, silver and bronze medals that were ceremoniously distributed after each race.
McEvoy, however, promptly quashes any suggestion that filial competition was the kiln that forged his competitive spirit. He had no interest in beating his older brother – his great ambition was simply to match the times Hayden was churning out. “I wasn’t sitting there going, right, <I>I have to beat my brother<I>,” he says. “I just saw how much faster he was and I wanted to be up there swimming alongside him. He was an idol to me.”
For a power athlete at the pointiest end of swimming’s chest-thumping events, McEvoy’s lack of cutthroat ambition is bewildering. Throughout his childhood he never once countenanced the thought of going to an Olympics. “I just never thought it could be a possibility,” he shrugs. It was only when he began besting Thorpe’s underage records as a 16-year-old that he realised he had a serious talent. And the prospect of winning Olympic gold? He frowns: “The first time I thought, you know, I could win an Olympic medal, was 2014. I was 19 – so it was after I’d made my first Olympics at London . . . ”
It’s a laissez-faire approach that’s reflected in McEvoy’s race-day routines. Sitting in the marshalling area in the minutes before a race, he’s so calm, so composed, coach Scarce calls him “the Iceman”. While other swimmers brood beneath headphones or slap their chests red raw, McEvoy is invariably kicking back looking for someone to chat with.
Before the 100m final at the 2013 World Championships in Barcelona, for example, he was so entranced by the noise of the crowd that he found himself startled when a whistle summoned him on to the blocks. He finished fourth in that race, a bare 0.17 seconds off the win. “Yeah, it was a surprise,” he says. “At that stage I had all this speed, but I still didn’t really know how to ‘race’ the 100 free. I was just doing it in a way that felt natural to me.”
Over the past three years, the gradual refinement of McEvoy’s “race” strategy has seen his PBs plummet, a process that culminated at the National Championships in April, when he notched an historic “treble”, becoming the first Australian man to claim the prestigious 50, 100 and 200m freestyle titles in a single year. Again, it was a performance that left McEvoy wide-eyed with shock. “I mean, I knew I was capable of going that fast at some stage in my career, but I never thought it would come this soon.”
And so to Rio, where there are whisperings he could bag as many as six medals. Yes, he admits to feeling a pinch of fear at the prospect of failing to medal – especially after a close-quarters’ view of the lashing Magnussen received after failing to win gold in London.
But like the good scientist he is, McEvoy conquers this fear with reason. “Looking at it rationally,” he says with careful emphasis, “if I get to the 100 final in Rio, swim a PB, but finish eighth – I’ll be over the moon.” And this, for McEvoy, is the key. This is why he swims. “That feeling of getting out of bed when you’re the fittest you’ve ever been, then you dive into the pool and swim the fastest you’ve ever swum – that feeling is indescribable,” he says, a smile stretching across his face. “It’s that striving for personal improvement that fuels me. It’s never about getting in the pool with the intention of beating everyone else. It’s all about expanding the radius of what I think I can reach.”
Prepare to Power Up
McEvoy’s fluid stroke allows him to glide through the water with apparent ease. A recent barrage of strength training, however, has supercharged this stroke, leading to a string of breakout swims that have established McEvoy as Australia’s premier sprint swimmer. Follow his workout to add power to your game. Do four sets of eight reps for each movement.
Grip a chin bar with an overhand grip, your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. From a dead hang, raise your chest to the bar, keeping your body straight. Too easy? Hook a dumbbell between your feet.
On a set of Olympic rings, hold your body weight with your arms by your side, your elbows locked. Slowly raise your legs until they’re parallel with the floor. Pause, then slowly lower back to the start position.
With a barbell across your upper back, push your hips back and bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Drive up, recruiting your glutes and quads. Worried about your back? Do front squats with a pair of kettlebells.
McEvoy likes to use a trap bar for his deadlifts. Push your hips back and bend your knees to grab the bar with an overhand grip. Clench your glutes and thrust your hips forward to drive up to a standing position.
Lie facedown on a bench and grip a barbell with an overhand grip, your arms at full extension. Pull the bar up towards your chest. Pause at the top of the movement, then slowly lower to the starting position.