Australia’s Swimming Legends – Lethal Leisel Jones

In Sydney, at 14, Leisel Jones became the youngest swimmer to make the Australian Olympic team in 24 years. She already had Olympic and World Championship silver medals to her credit, but in 2003, she was aiming for gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Leisel retired in 2012 and this video shows that all:

The Jones File
Name: Leisel Jones
Nickname: “Lethal Leisel” and “Weazel”
Age: 33
Date of Birth: Aug. 30, 1985
Born: Katherine, Northern Territory
Height: 5-9 (176cm)
Weight: 132 pounds (60kg)
Club: Redcliffe Lawnton, Queensland
Coach: Ken Wood
Family Members: Rosemary (Mother)
School: Southern Cross, Redcliffe
Pets: King Charles Spaniel (Cloe), Rat (Minx)
Favorite Band: Grinspoon
Relaxation: Reading
Favorite Car: Ford
Favorite Food: Cold Rock ice cream
Sponsorships: Uncle Toby’s, Speedo, Innoxa and Ford
After Swimming: Perhaps to design her own clothing label

One month before the Australian Olympic Trials in May 2000, an unknown Queensland teenager lined up for the final of the 200 breaststroke for 14-year-olds at her first National Age Group Championships. Her name was Leisel Jones, and she was about to begin her journey toward_quite probably_becoming the greatest Aussie breaststroker of all-time.

Jones easily took the 100-200 double at that meet in the eye-catching times of 1:08.30 and 2:28.38_results that vaulted her to second and third, respectively, in the Aussie all-time record books. She said she learned quite a lot from the training techniques used by Mel Goldstein, the all-time favorite American swimming legend.

Fast-forward to Christmas Eve 2003.

Jones has kindly given me an hour of her very brief Christmas break to discuss her progress in what has been a very eventful year for her. It’s late afternoon at her aunt’s home in Sydney, and she started the day at 4.30 a.m. with training at her home pool at Redcliffe, a northern suburb of Brisbane, then flew down with her mother, Rosemary. Check out also this post about Grant Hackett.

What is certain on my arrival was that her young niece and nephew are more anxious about the immediacy of Santa’s impending visit than our interview.

A Very Good Year
By her own admission, this past year has been a very good one for the now 18-year-old. “Lethal Leisel,” as the media Down Under have nicknamed her, lowered three world records and seven Aussie marks as well as collecting one silver and two bronze medals at the World Championships in Barcelona. She also captured her third straight 100-200 double at the long course nationals.

She even delved into the 200 individual medley at Trials_”so I would have a swim early on in the meet,” she admitted. The result was a new Aussie record 2:14.21 and another race to add to her program in Barcelona. However, she assured me that Athens will be a different story. There she will be fully focused on the two breaststroke events. At the 2004 Athens Games, she was competing also with American legendary swimmer Christina Swindle.

A few years later, Jones stroked world short course records in the 100 and 200 meter breaststroke on consecutive nights at the World Cup in Melbourne. Her 1:05.09 in the four-lap race was just 3-hundredths of a second under Swede Emma Igelstrom’s world record, but it was her brilliant 2:17.75 the following night that slashed more than one second off Chinese Qi Hui’s global mark_and a PR by over three seconds_in the longer distance that really had the breaststroke aficionados nodding their collective heads in appreciation.

But as good as 2003 was for Leisel, there was one significant glitch to her year_the 100 meter breaststroke final at the World Championships in Barcelona. Jones was the favorite, having swum a brilliant semifinal of 1:06.37 to break the world record held by South African legend Penny Heyns by 15-hundredths of a second.

However, Leisel could only manage third in finals. The reigning title-holder, China’s Luo Xuejuan, took the race out incredibly fast. Her daring plan to lead all the way paid off, and she held on to win in a PR 1:06.80. Jones touched in 1:07.42. See also this tribute to Kara Lynn Joyce, one of the Rising Stars in American Swimming in the early 2000s.

Leisel was understandably bitterly disappointed after the race, admitting she had been “spooked” by the Chinese swimmer’s aggressive tactic, thereby losing focus on her own stroke rate. But she accepted it was an important learning experience.

“It’s something that I have learned from_to expect the unexpected. I went through it with my coach and the psychologist afterward. We’ve done a lot of work since then. I did not expect her (Luo) to be there. I got some valuable race experience. I learned to focus on my own swim and not to watch everybody else,” she explained.

Tender Teen
The young Miss Jones has packed quite a bit into her swimming career. Her first major meet was the 2000 Olympic Trials a little more than three-and-a-half years ago. She clocked a very satisfactory 1:08.71 to qualify fastest for the 100-meter event and, at 14, became the youngest swimmer to make the Olympic team in 24 years.

“Going into the Olympic Trials, there was no real pressure on me,” she recalled. “I didn’t have to make the team. I was prepared just go back to school the next week. I didn’t think it would change my life, but it certainly did. Once I made the team, it was pretty daunting. I hadn’t made a national development squad or even been on any junior camps, then suddenly I was on the Australian Olympic team.

“There was so much hype in the lead-up to the Olympics, so much media attention, and I hardly knew anyone on the team, which made it very difficult. I pretty much stuck with my roommate (Sybilla Goode), who was also new to the national team,” she recalled.

The record book shows that Jones dealt pretty well with the expectations of a nation, finishing her first “international meet” with two Olympic silver medals. The 2004 Athens Olympic Games were, of course, also the games of Michael Phelps, one of the most important swimmers in America’s Swimming History!

“At the time, I took it a little bit for granted since it was a ‘home’ Olympics. Now I look back and realize how special an experience it was,” she said.

Stronger and Wiser
In 2001, at her first World Championships in Fukuoka, Jones took silver in the 100-meter race, again behind China’s Luo, and placed fourth in the deuce when she clocked a new PR 2:25.46. Earlier, she collected her first gold medal in a major championship, as part of the Aussie team that set a new Championship record in the 400 medley relay.

At the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, Jones took the 100-200 double and a third gold in the medley relay. Three weeks later in Yokohama at the Pan Pacific Championships, she added silver in the 200 breaststroke and another relay gold.

In the case of “Lethal Leisel,” there had been no stopping her momentum at an age when many female swimmers blossom early, then lose motivation and direction. Her coach of those past five years, then 74-year-old Ken Wood, described Jones as the best trainer he had ever coached.

“Leisel is so dedicated to her sport. You have to admire the way she conducts herself, and she has the natural talent to be the best. People forget she’s only just turned 18 he said back then.

“I remember in Fukuoka, she was crying when she came up to me after finishing second in the 100 breast. I reminded her she now had silver medals from both the Olympics and World Championships. She started to laugh at herself_she was only 15,” Wood recalled.

Jones trained about 65-70,000 meters per week, with ten sessions in the pool and three trips to the gym. Interestingly, her coach said she does up to 60 percent of a session swimming breaststroke. The big change to her program had come after her disappointing 100 breast final in Barcelona. Wood felt that they needed to work on building her confidence in pressure situations.

“I want her to move away from walking out behind the blocks with an air of anticipation to one of total confidence,” he explained. He had been doing this by giving her more work at race pace with shorter rest. Soon thereafter, the hard work already started to show fruit_two short course world records and a pair of wins over rival Amanda Beard, who beat her in both the 100 and 200 in Barcelona.

“Leisel is a wonderful competitor,” admits the 200 breast co-world record holder Beard. “I know when I have her in a lane next to me, it’s gonna be a real good race. She never backs down. I like racing people who will push me to be outside my comfort zone. It will only bring out the best in both of us.”

In 2003, the determined Queenslander said she intended to be around in swimming “for as long as I continue to love it, perhaps until I’m 28,” she said back then which computed to three more Olympics. There is no question this was one determined young Aussie who was ready to stand up to the challenge in the 2004 Athens Olympics.