- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2008

BEIJING — Grant said he will turn down a chance to carry his country’s flag if offered.

Libby said it will be an honor just to meet Dara Torres.

Leisel said she’s a different person than the one who moped through the Athens Games.

And Stephanie and Eamon said they remain friends after taking a “break” from their two-year relationship last month.

Eventually Tuesday afternoon at the Main Press Center’s auditorium, the members of the Australian Olympic swim team talked about, well, swimming and didn’t do their best imitation of “The Hills.”

Well, sort of.

Grant Hackett said he wasn’t offended his team had to go through a crush of people to board its bus at the airport while the U.S. team whisked through a side exit.

And coach Alan Thompson said he had yet to hear why there was a ring of haze near the ceiling of the “Water Cube” during the Aussies’ workout Monday and added that the IOC had sold out to NBC.

Such is life for established swimmers - and their coach - Down Under. Aside from six-time gold medalist Michael Phelps, most of the U.S. team could walk down Constitution Avenue in the District and not be gawked at, stopped for an autograph or photographed by a pedestrian’s BlackBerry.

The Aussies treat their swimmers differently.

Without as many pro sports as the United States, Australian stars are royalty. And with celebrity comes gossip pages, questions about relationships and playing the role of second-class citizens to the U.S. team.

Several U.S. reporters looked to see whether the Australian media would plant any seeds pertaining to the Americans, the air quality or the IOC’s decision to contest most of the finals in the mid-morning hours.

The Aussies didn’t disappoint.

Hackett on the airport fiasco: “What any other team is doing and the treatment they get is no worry or focus for us.”

Hackett on those predicting the United States will win the medal count: “In Australia, we’re not going to talk and speculate. We like to get in there, do the job and then talk about the results.”

Hackett is the two-time defending gold medalist and world-record holder in the 1,500-meter freestyle. He leads a men’s team that includes Eamon Sullivan (50 and 100 free).

Speaking of Sullivan, reporters asked what’s up with him and Stephanie Rice, who sat to his right.

“No change to that - we’re still friends,” he said.

Where the Aussies will rake in the medals is on the women’s side.

Libby Trickett, on facing Torres: “Me at age 41? Probably with kids and probably not swimming.”

Trickett, who has aspirations of becoming a journalist, holds the world record in the 50 and 100 freestyle and also swims the 100 butterfly.

The women’s team could be dominant. Rice will challenge Katie Hoff in the 200 and 400 medley, and Leisel Jones could sweep both breaststroke races. Jones was Ms. Perky - one colleague joked she must take Prozac. That’s how different her mood was compared with four years ago.

Even with world-record talent on both teams, Thompson doesn’t consider the swimming competition a two-nation race between Australia and the United States. He also said the IOC erred in moving the finals to the morning.

“My problem with the change is money [trumps] tradition,” he said. “Whether the finals are in the morning or not doesn’t really matter to us. It’s about performance. In this day and age, loyalty is very lacking in sport. Money talks too loudly, and when it comes to issues like that, certain traditions in the sport need to be followed.”

The final premeet salvo comes today when the Americans get their turn in the auditorium and - surprise, surprise - the format will be different. Phelps and Torres get their own session, followed by six swimmers for 30 minutes.

Maybe that will create animosity to spice up the Olympics’ opening week.



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