Mack Horton’s secret weapon
WORLD-class athletes are a breed of their own: fiercely competitive, highly motivated, intensely focused, determined and driven.
Victorian swim star Mack Horton is no exception. When he dons his trademark prescription goggles and hits the pool deck, all sights are set on victory.
But away from the pool the swim sensation, who is one of Australia's gold medal hopes in the Commonwealth Games beginning on Wednesday, leads an understated and relatively "normal" life.
In fact, he attributes much of his success to finding that delicate balance between the substantial commitments and pressures of the swimming world with a grounded, full and active life outside it.
"I think it's all about balance really. I try and really not get too focused and caught up in swimming and try to do other things to keep me busy or take my mind off swimming and to have fun," Horton says.
His girlfriend of three years, Ella Walter, is a key part of that, a grounding force who knew the swim star long before he became a household name.
While they are reluctant to admit it, theirs is a love story that goes back, way back in fact, to their first days in primary school as fresh-faced five-year-olds.
"We don't admit it to too many people, but yes, to be honest I'd had a big crush since the age of five. It's awful, but I'm not even kidding," Walter says laughing as she recalls their early interactions.
"It's so cringe, but it was the same for me," Horton says.
While they met in prep, and went through all of primary school together at Caulfield Grammar, they didn't actually become friends until grade 6 when Horton was school captain.
"We knew each other but we didn't hang out together until grade 6," Walter says.
But they lost contact for a few years in the early stages of secondary school when Walter moved to MLC, before returning to Caulfield Grammar in year 9. While both harboured feelings for each other, they never acted on them until their final exams of year 12.
"I went years and years thinking it will never happen. Then we were walking out of exams and we decided to go for brunch," Walter says.
The 21-year-olds have been inseparable ever since, despite the demands of Horton's swimming career and Walter's studies to become a nurse.
The loved-up pair still live at home but spend as much time together as their schedules allow and are looking to buy a house together.
Clearly happy and relaxed in each other's company, they bounce off each other, laughing and poking fun during a photoshoot for Weekend.
"It (the relationship) works because Ella is not competitive at all, and she's not a swimmer, so it's a breath of fresh air. It's separate to swimming, which is good," Horton says.
Walter adds, "And I think Mack is so calm all of the time so that's very helpful for me when I've got 100 things going on and I can sit down with him and it's all under control and we just get through things day to day."
While elite athletes have to be careful with the activities they participate in outside their sport, Horton can't sit still and loves to surf, sail and sometimes even ski when he's not in the pool, though he only admits to that after the fact.
"I think about what I'm doing and I'm cautious, but sometimes I tell people after I've done them," Horton says.
Winning a gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics was enough to propel Horton into the spotlight with the Australian media, but he swam into a sea of controversy after accusing Chinese rival Sun Yang of being a "drug cheat", catapulting him to a whole new level of global attention.
Horton said at the time he had "no time or respect for drug cheats", referring to Yang's three-month suspension in 2014 for testing positive to a banned stimulant. As a result he was bombarded with hundreds of thousands of hate messages on social media and savaged by Chinese fans and press.
"Initially when it happened there were so many comments, it was like 570,000. You can't take
it in and relate to it, whereas if it was 10 or 15 comments, that would probably be more personal," Horton says. "It was such a crazy number it was like, yeah whatever."
While he still receives hate messages, it hasn't deterred him from continuing to speak out.
"I still feel free to say whatever I want to say," he says.
Walter, who has also received negative feedback, supports Horton's outspoken position: "Absolutely, I feel proud of him for saying what he thinks. I still get messages, I don't really take them in. They don't know us."
But Horton isn't letting increased media attention affect him, in or out of the pool.
"It doesn't really change anything, the training environment is the same, with the same people and it doesn't matter to them who I am," he says. "And it's the same with life at home and with Ella. They don't care if I win a gold medal or whatever, that's all solid and stays constant, it's just outside noise really and that's easy to ignore when everything else is so solid."
They tend not to read articles written about Horton, unless his proud dad Andrew forwards him something he deems worth reading.
The Horton and Walter families will be poolside next week when Horton takes to the water for the 400m freestyle, 1500m freestyle and 4 x 200m relay.
"It's awesome, it's pretty rare to get a home Games of any type, even a world championship throughout your career, because they don't typically last that long," he says.
While they are separated until after the Games, Walter will send Horton her usual encouraging text message hours before he competes: "I send some emojis, and it's usually hours before he races that I message him, he knows I'm in the stands."
Then she will take her place alongside his family to nervously and excitedly watch him perform his pre-race rituals before taking to the blocks.
"I think once you find a routine and it's worked, why change it?" Horton says. "Once I get to a pool for a competition I like to keep my routine fairly similar at that pool, put my bag in the same place, take the same route walking out so I can just get into the groove."
Walter says, "How you walk out on to the pool deck is always the same, you always have a jumper and towel around your neck."
Horton replies, "It keeps my neck warm."
"Yes, and emptying half of the pool before you get in is definitely a ritual for you. You hear people in the stands say, 'Ah, Mack's emptying the pool again'."
Horton shoots back, "I like to get down and splash my suit. The officials behind the block always say something, because I usually end up soaking them."
"I've seen a few of them actually step back, they're ready for it," Walter jokes.
A bee sting almost derailed Horton's Games preparations 10 days ago, when the bite and a suspected allergic reaction left his arm so swollen he couldn't see his tricep or elbow.
"I put my arm up on the edge (of the pool) during the main set sucking in oxygen and it's gone bang," he said of the sting.
While he arrived at pre-Games staging camp in Brisbane with a protective sleeve on his right arm, he is expected to be in fine form when competition kicks off on Wednesday.
While Horton rates winning Olympic gold as one of his greatest achievements, he has a less high-profile victory that rivals it.
"Winning the Olympic medal obviously was amazing, but winning APS (Associated Public Schools) finals for school was up there, too. We hadn't won it in seven years and it was my last year of school. I was the swimming captain and we finally won it. We broke St Kevin's seven-year winning streak."
Horton says beyond the Games he will continue to study commerce at La Trobe University via correspondence and has his sights set on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
"The Pan Pacs (Pan Pacific Swimming Championships) are at the end of the year in Tokyo, the same pool as the Olympics, so I'll do that and then because trials are now five weeks out from competition, we won't race a serious comp from August until about July next year," he says. "I'll probably do a bit of world cup racing and train for a bit and then have some time off over Christmas and New Year. We'll do something fun. I haven't had a proper Christmas off in a very long time, like 10 years, which will be really nice."