A household name at just 14 years of age when she rocketed from 144th in the world to selection onto the Olympic team for a home Games at Sydney 2000, Leisel Jones, a pioneer of the race pool who dominated women's breaststroke in the middle of the past decade, today announced her retirement at a function in Brisbane.
Now 27 and with a treasury topped by three Olympic gold medals, Jones will leave the water as one of the most successful breaststroke aces in swimming history, the grace and poise with which she showed the way into uncharted waters in the middle of the decade past a model of a sport that, when suits are left to suits, relies heavily on technical excellence.
She set 12 individual long course world records in her time and this summer past raced at a record-breaking (Down Under) fourth Olympic Games in London, where she was a silver medallist in the 4x100m medley relay.
Having started swimming at 2 for safety, Jones is ready to move on: “I have a natural competitive drive and I think that will carry through into whatever I do after swimming. Of course swimming will always be a big part of my life but I am extremely proud of my achievements. To represent Australia at four Olympic Games is something that is very humbling and each one holds different memories and significance for me.
:I’ve basically grown up as a member of the Australian Swim Team, travelling the world competing, and I feel very honoured to have had so many wonderful opportunities and so much fantastic support along the way.”
Dolphins Head Coach Leigh Nugent said Jones’ attitude and enthusiasm over the years has been inspiring. “Qualifying for her fourth Olympic Games was an outstanding achievement and just another milestone in a what has been a remarkable career for Leisel,” he said through Swimming Australia.
“She is probably one of the fiercest competitors that we have ever seen, and her dominance at national and international level has been terrific. Leisel has inspired a whole generation of athletes with her success and hard work, and her contribution to swimming in Australia, especially breaststroke, will be her lasting legacy.”
Jones won nine Olympic medals including three gold, 10 Commonwealth Games gold medals and 11 in total, seven World Championship gold medals and a 23 national long course titles as one of the greats of Australian swimming.
A whirlwind tour:
Racing at Sydney 2000, 15-year-old Leisel Marie Jones, rocketed from beyond the top 100 to take Olympic silver in the 100m breaststroke. Silver remained the colour of her career for a while: second place in the 4x100m medley in Sydney; second in 2001 behind world 100m champion Luo Xuejuan (CHN); second at Worlds in 2003 behind the same rival after a world record of 1:06.37 in the semis, and second over 200m behind Amanda Beard (USA); second at the 2004 Olympic Games over 200m behind Beard, a month after having set her first 200m world record (2:22.96). In the 100m in Athens, it was bronze behind Luo and teammate Brooke Hanson, though she claimed gold in the 4x100m medley. After Athens, Jones left mentor Ken Wood for Swiss coach Stephan Widmer and in 2005 claimed the World Championship 100m crown (1:06.25 falling 0.05sec shy of the world record set in the semis by Jessica Hardy, USA) and 200m titles (2:21.72 world record). In her new guise as “Lethal Leisel”, Jones powered to 1:05.09 and 2:20.54 world records in 2006 and retained her world crowns in 2007.
When American Megan Quann, a 16-year-old from Puyallup, Washington, claimed the Olympic 100m breaststroke crown on September 18, 2000, the closest competitor to her was 15-year-old Jones (AUS). She had started Olympic season ranked 144th in the world. The teenagers kept at bay Penny Heyns (RSA), double Olympic champion of 1996 and a woman who in 1999 established 11 world records in the space of three months.
Jones took down the global standard over 100m that had stood to Heyns since 1999: 1:06.52 to 1:06.37 - in the semis at the world championships in Barcelona, 2003. A day too soon: in the final a nervous Jones struggled to believe that this was her moment. She tightened and clocked 1:07.47 for bronze, behind 1:06.80 for Luo Xuejuan (CHN) and 1:07.42 for Amanda Beard (USA), who went on to claim the 200m crown three days later by equalling the world record with a 2:22.99 effort ahead of 2:24.33 for the Australian.
A 2:22.96 world record in the 200m breaststroke sent expectations soaring Down Under. But Jones was to swim through choppy waters and endure criticism at home by the likes of legendary sprinter Dawn Fraser and some media commentators as the girl who could not live up to expectation when at Athens 2004 she finished third in the Olympic 100m final and second in the Olympic 200m final. The latter came a month after she had set her first world record over the longer distance to stand as double world record holder - 100m and 200m - for two days (Beard hit back at US Olympic trials two days after Jones's record swim). Back home, she made a break with the past, physically, metaphorically and, in time, in terms of how she measured her self worth. She left long-time mentor Ken Wood for Swiss coach Stephan Widmer, who advocated that she work not only on developing in water but developing her personality and life interests out of it. Jones did not go home from Greece godless: the Australian women's medley quartet is the first in history to win the Olympic crown, and does so in a world record of 3:57.32. The names on the sheet: Giaan Rooney, Jones, Petria Thomas and Jodie Henry.
In 2005, a more confident, self-assured Jones claimed the world titles over 100m and 200m (2:21.72 world record). It was a turning point not only in form on the big occasion but confidence too: she now believed that she was a winner: "Lethal Leisel" was born.
In her new guise, Jones powered to 1:05.09 and 2:20.54 world records in 2006. No-one came close and Jones . Not unfair to say she axed, shattered, smashed and took a sledgehammer to standards. her 1:05.09 maelstrom came off a 30.83sec split, which would have won her the silver behind her own gold in the 50 metres straight at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games. The Queenslander said: "I got the turn a bit wrong - it could have been better". Right! She had shaved 0.62sec off the mark she set at Australian trials in January. "I was going for the world record … but I wasn't feeling my best all week, so it was hard to determine what would happen. I could not believe it [the time]. I went into shock. I'm still in shock. I don't think I'm unbeatable - nobody is." So it would prove - but not for a while. Jones's effort was Beamonesque, her "secret" technique: Jones, and Widmer, had perfected the art of reducing the dead zone in breaststroke to a negligible level: she was smoothness personified. Later that year, Jones set world short-course records too, taking the 100m down to 1:04.12 in semis at Aussie nationals and then blowing the head off that with a 1:03.86, via a 30.43sec split, in the final.
"Between 2000 and 2004 was probably the toughest for me. But I just learned so much out of it that I would never take it back," Jones said heading into the 2007 world championships in Melbourne. "The things I learned then I will take into life after (swimming). If I didn't go through it I would probably be a shy little 21-year-old and not have the confidence to do anything. Now I am a lot more comfortable in my own skin." She retained the world titles over 100 and 200 in dominant fashion, ownership of her events among the most solid in world swimming, her story speaking to the proverb "if at first you don't succeed, try, try, again".
What a joy to see the turning of the cirle for a woman who at 14 had helicopters landing on her school lawn as the Aussie media cranked up for a super-talent who was going to take the world by storm. In Beijing, over 100m, Jones, well into a long season of dominance and having established world records that have left the rest of the world far behind, coped with the nerves and provided an awesome display of poise and technical brilliance on her way to a 30.63 split (no-one within half a second of her) and a gold medal in 1:05.17, an Olympic record. "It's been a long journey, a long eight years," said Jones, by then coached by Rohan Taylor. At 22, Jones was at her third Games. "I was probably as low as you can possibly get after Athens," Jones recalled after coming in for some serious stick in the wake of a bronze medal in the 100m. "As swimmers, we have once every four years a major competition and when you are told before that you are the best and you can't be beaten, and then you are beaten, it's devastating ... It was still fresh after Athens, I was still hurt and a little low. I was still searching for myself and finding my self-worth and learning to believe in myself. I learned so much there. In terms of personal experience and personal growth that was more important than this. To overcome the difficulties there, because I was still copping criticism and I was still learning ... that was the first time I enjoyed racing. I think I have gone from a naive 14-year-old to an under-pressure 18-year-old to a 22-year-old who's relieved." It showed and many a tear welled in the eyes of some of the hardest-bitten hacks in the room where she spoke so eloquently. Over 200m, she settled for silver as a new name to leave them all entered the ring: Rebecca Soni (USA).
Leisel Jones - born 30/08/1985 in Katherine, Northern Territory - thanks for a thrilling career. We wish you all the best for the future