When you see him on the block, with his pale, close-shaven head and his determined stare, Michael Klim looks quite formidable. Powering through the water he looks more formidable still. But goggles off, the 19-year-old Australian is surprisingly soft-spoken, and as personable as the boy next door.
Originally from Gdinya, a Polish town on the Baltic Sea, Klim came to Australia in early 1991. His father's job as an import/export trade agent took the family to Germany and Canada before actually settling Down Under. Klim says that while he speaks Polish at home, by now he feels "pretty much Australian" and plans to stay there.
After making his first junior national team in 1993, Klim applied for Australian citizenship. It was at the end of that year that he went to train with Gennadi Touretski, the coach of Russian sprint star Alexander Popov, and at that time head coach at the Australian Institute of Sport. "It took me a couple of years to get used to it there," he says, "I found it hard to get used to the training and to understand his philosophy," says Klim.
How does he define that philosophy?
"Gennadi finds an individual way for every athlete to go," Klim continues. "He tries to develop strengths for every individual, mental strengths as well as physical, to help them create their own image, because obviously everyone has their own competitive image, their own self-image."
"I'm still working on a lot of those things but I'm becoming a better mental competitor," he adds modestly.
Touretski's tailored-to-fit approach has paid off for Klim, whose characteristic straight-armed freestyle has put him on top of the world rankings. At the Australian Nationals in December he swam 48.38 in the 100, the second fastest time in the world this year. His 200 time of 1:45.34 at the World Cup in Gelsenkirchen ranks him first.
"It's very new, actually," says Klim of his stroke. "For the first few years I was always trying to imitate Alex's stroke, with a very soft recovery and very high elbow, but it didn't really work for me because I was always over-kicking and sort of catching up."
"Gennadi suggested trying the straight arms just for a drill and I felt very comfortable with that. I find that with a straight-arm recovery it gives me more time to finish my stroke and get a better catch. I'm still relaxed, it just doesn't look as pretty, but the same principles apply. The timing is the same in that the start and finish of the strokes are simultaneous."
Klim had a decidedly brilliant World Cup tour, competing in Beijing, Malm, Glasgow, and Gelsenkirchen. He put fear into the hearts of his competitors by consistently swimming events from two categories, and rarely fading. He dominated the Sprint Freestyle category and finished second in the Butterfly. In Glasgow he missed the world record in the 100 butterfly by 2/100 of a second. His time of 52.09 is second only to Pankratov, and ranks third on the all time list.
"It was tough having the 200 free and the 100 fly so close together, but it was a tough challenge," says Klim.
"It's all building up to the World Championships in Perth," he goes on, "and everything on the way is to establish myself as a seasoned racer. I haven't competed against a lot of the people here (at the World Cup), but it's been good because I'm up there, and if I do things correctly I can come through and win."
"What I wanted to do this year was to be in a position where I could race anybody, and be able to beat them," he adds.
Klim's reflection is well thought out, mature. Coach Touretski's policy of exercising mind and body has taken root.
"He's (Touretski) a very well-rounded person," says Klim, his voice and manner showing profound respect. "He's very well educated and he tries to give us that (value) as well. He makes sure that we are well-rounded, into the behind-the-scenes stuff and not just the pool and swimming."
And then: "Gennadi doesn't accept it if we don't study or do something."
Taking that condition to heart, Klim is to start university in April. Despite a busy competition schedule, he plans to take some language courses (German and Spanish) in view of a Social Sciences degree.
And does it help to train alongside Alex Popov? "Oh absolutely," affirms Klim. "I think anyone would benefit from being around Alex, he's just so professional in everything he does."
Perhaps the understanding between Touretski and his two star swimmers is helped by their Slavic origins? Klim nods, "I think we might have a similar mind set."
And if he has his way, he's not through innovating.
"What I'm developing now is freestyle with a dolphin kick. I'm not at the competitive stage yet, but it's something I'm working on. You can use your whole body as a big fin, and not just your legs. I'm going to try it," he smiles.