Gold medal-winning swimmer Mack Horton calls time on Olympic career

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Gold medal-winning swimmer Mack Horton calls time on Olympic career

Mack Horton is retiring from competitive swimming with something more precious than his Olympic gold medal. After enduring for 17 years a torturous training regime, after all those laps, after the countless hours of repetition in the hope of doing the same thing fractionally quicker, he still loves it.

As of Monday, Horton will start working as an account man with Melbourne advertising firm Clemenger BBDO. It is the first day job he has ever had and, in the shadow of this year’s Paris Olympics, Horton’s first big plunge into post-sporting life.

He says he would have liked to go to Paris and a third Olympic Games. Until recently, that was his plan. But having decided to end, on his own terms and in his own time, a swimming career that at its peak created waves not only in the pool but in global sports politics and Australia-China relations, Horton is both content and grateful.

“It has never been about the gold medal,” Mack Horton says of his celebrated Olympic career.Credit: Luis Enrique Ascui

“When I think back to when I was younger and how I wanted to end my career, I always wanted to love swimming at the end,” he tells this masthead over an early morning coffee at a cafe near the Albert Park pool that for many years served as his second home.

Where some Olympians reach the end of their career never wanting to swim another lap – Kieran Perkins once said he loathed the idea of diving into a chlorinated pool – Horton still enjoys feeling the water surrounding his body and the pain that comes from pushing through it.

“I still love swimming,” he says. “You never feel bad after a swim. You always feel better, you feel cleaner and fresher, the mind feels better. It’s the perfect way to start the day.”

Revealing his decision not to compete for a spot in the Australian team for Paris, Horton explains that he largely knew in June – when he didn’t qualify at the national trials for last year’s world champions – that his international swimming career was over. Not only had he swum slower than he needed to make the team in either the 400m or 200m freestyle events, he couldn’t see a way to go any faster.

“Usually when I am not satisfied with a swim, I’ll touch the wall and there is clarity – ‘This is what I need to fix, this is what I need to do’ – and I’m really motivated to do it. I touched the wall and for the first time ever, I had none of that. I had done everything that anyone has ever asked of me. I had tried as hard as I can and I just didn’t know if I could go faster.

“Up until that moment I believed my best would still beat the best in the world. And then it just kind of clicked. I’m an all-in kind of guy and I can’t level down that belief. There is no point doing it if I don’t believe my best is going to win. That is all I know.”

Horton’s protest against drugs in sport made waves in Australia-China relations.

Horton’s protest against drugs in sport made waves in Australia-China relations.Credit: Getty Images

For the past six months, Horton has gradually withdrawn from his Olympic-level training regime, reducing a twice-daily swimming load to three or four sessions a week at the Griffith University pool on the Gold Coast, where since the Tokyo Games he has worked with coach Michael Bohl.

He has also stayed in regular contact with Craig Jackson, the Melbourne coach who started working with him as a boy and took him to two Olympics, three world championships and three Commonwealth Games.

He didn’t seek the advice of either mentor about what he should do and only told Bohl two weeks ago that he had decided to quit. He reflects that Bohl would have known anyway from his absences from the pool — he just gave him the space and time needed to be certain.

Horton used that time to begin exploring ideas for what a 27-year-old with no regular work experience might do with a general business degree. Late last year, he took over as president of the Australian Swimmers’ Association from fellow Olympian Bronte Campbell. The Clemenger job offer came after he spent a few days at the agency learning what was involved. He’ll start as a business manager.

“I have had no exposure to what an actual job is like,” he says. “I drive through the city and I’m like, ‘What are all these people doing in all these buildings?’ Because I have been tapering out of training I have been slowly finding that new balance.”

Horton laughs that he’s no Don Draper – he hasn’t even watched Mad Men – but after so many years of working through familiar sporting problems, he’s excited about starting on the bottom rung of something new. He is also happy to be returning to Melbourne with his long-term partner and new wife, Ella Walter, a neonatal intensive care nurse who has just secured a job at the Royal Women’s Hospital. The pair married last September.

Horton’s public persona will forever be shaped by the gold medal he won in the 400m freestyle at the Rio Olympics and the international ructions he caused before the race by calling defending champion Sun Yang, one of China’s most celebrated Olympians, a drug cheat.

Horton makes his protest as China’s Sun Yang poses during the 2019 FINA World Championships medal ceremony in Gwangju, South Korea.

Horton makes his protest as China’s Sun Yang poses during the 2019 FINA World Championships medal ceremony in Gwangju, South Korea.Credit: Getty Images

That episode had a dramatic sequel in Gwangju, South Korea, at the 2019 world championships, when Sun Yang beat Horton and Horton staged a silent protest by refusing to share the medal dais with him. One of Horton’s national teammates, Shayna Jack, was sent home from the same championships after failing a drug test.

Since then, Sun Yang has served a lengthy doping suspension for interfering with a drug test. Horton has never claimed Sun Yang’s ban as vindication for his own actions, which he said were a protest for clean sport – not against Sun Yang. Asked whether he wishes he had kept his mouth shut in Rio, Horton replies he wished he never had to open it.

Should athletes have more faith in the anti-doping system today than they had in 2016, when the full extent of Russia’s state-sponsored doping regime was still coming to light? Horton pauses at the question. “I’d like to think so, but I just don’t know. I’m sure there is science we don’t even know about. Everyone is always looking for an edge; it is just where you draw the line on what that edge is. In Australia, we hold quite a tight line. Elsewhere, maybe not.”

The low point of Horton’s swimming career came in 2020, when the pandemic prompted the Victorian government to shut all public pools and order everyone to stay in their homes. While Horton rigged up a makeshift gym inside his South Melbourne apartment to try to keep fit, being stranded out of water for 11 weeks drained his preparation for Tokyo, where he qualified only for a relay race.

The high point may come as more of a surprise. “It has never been about the gold medal,” he says. For Horton, his Olympic gold from Rio, one of 16 major championship medals he won, is a symbolic prize that sits atop stuff that matters more; the relationships he has made, the obscure little swimming events he entered, the people he got to race against, the support and commitment of his and other families and what he learnt about himself along the way.

“If you are trying to figure out what success is in swimming or sport, maybe it is getting uncomfortable, getting to know yourself and exposing yourself,” he says. “To be able to race, you are fully putting yourself on the line because, when you fail, it can be quite confronting.”

Australia has produced other great swimmers, but few have put more on the line.

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