Justin Norris was an Australian swimmer who on debut won a bronze medal in his home Olympics at the Sydney 2000 games. In this race, he has the claim to fame also of beating the now greatest Olympian ever in Michael Phelps! He also went on to win triple gold at the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games. Justin talks about these incredible achievements and what he did after swimming, in this fun and interesting interview.
What are the best and worst aspects of being a professional athlete?
Best parts – feeling fit, winning stuff, trying to be the best at something.
Worst parts – disappointment of missing out on results you wanted, getting up early and longing for a sleep in.
Tell us what age you got into swimming and how Justin?
I guess I was around 4 or 5 just down the local outdoor pool in summer – Stockton Pool. I was going to local swimming club when I was 6.
Just after your 18th birthday in 1999 you moved to Canberra after being awarded an AIS scholarship. How was this change for you? Scary at times?
No, I wasn’t too scared – it really felt like the right thing to do at the time. I had just been a part of the Australian Team for the 1999 Pan Pacs in Sydney and I felt I had to be training with my rivals at the AIS from then on.
The year after you made the 2000 Sydney Olympic team for both the 400-metre individual medley and 200-metre butterfly. How was the feeling of knowing you had been selected for a home games particularly?
Yeah, that was a big shock. The first event I won the 400IM I knew I had trained really well leading up to it and all signs pointed to a new best performance but I didn’t think I would go that fast to make the team. My attitude going into that meet was to make everyone else ‘earn’ their spot and not make it easy for them.
What expectations did you have leading into the games?
I thought a final would be good enough to make me feel satisfied. I also didn’t win the Australian trials in the 200Fly so that gave me motivation to not be the second highest placed Australian.
Once in Sydney, you didn’t swim your best in the 400-metre individual medley. Knowing you had one event left, what was your mindset after this result?
Haha good question. Yes, it changed my mindset. I actually made the final and came 6th but I didn’t swim my best time ever in the final. I remember doing the heat and going absolutely 100%, not holding anything back because I didn’t want to be one of those people who could have swum faster but missed the final. But I just couldn’t recover for the final, that was hours later. It was really hot in the athlete village and we had no air con in these little portable cabins, so not the ideal preparation.. no excuses but I just had nothing more to give that day. After I finished that race I was totally spent and I had the 200 Fly heats the very next morning so I thought “oh well, I may as well go as hard as I can and hope I make it”. I was really flat but I got through the heat and made the semi. Then I had a good rest and made the final and felt strong. The next day I felt really light and relaxed because I had been so low, the only place to go was up!
Now to the 200-metre butterfly, where you made the final. In this final, you attacked the race so hard that you were up with the leaders in the first 100 metres. You managed to hold on for the bronze medal, with the crowd going nuts. What do you remember from this race now?
Yeah, that was not usually my style. I think in the semi I was like near the back of the field with 50 to go and ended up surging the last 50 to make the final. In the final, for some reason I just decided to not think and I felt really light and fast, like really on top of the water. In the warm up, I just felt amazing which was a nice feeling as usually you don’t but you hope to! I kept up with the guy next to me who went out very fast in the first 100m but I felt good. Then at the last turn I had gone past the guy next to me but my legs fully locked up on the last turn and I was dead, I thought ‘uh-oh’ but knew I just had to not think and keep it together. That’s why I was so happy when I got a medal because with one lap to go I just had to put my head down and hope.
Afterwards I am not sure if I have ever seen anyone so happy to win a medal!! Explain the emotion if you can?
I think the first feeling was just that feeling of hoping, hoping, hoping but not expecting. Like when you really hope for an amazing Xmas present as a kid but don’t really think you have a chance of actually getting it but there might be the smallest chance. Then you open it and it is actually the present you hoped for!
2002 saw you achieve the remarkable feat of winning triple gold in the 200 and 400-metre individual medley and the 200-metre butterfly at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. You must have felt onto of the world? Did you feel unbeatable here and can you explain what this feeling is like?
That was a weird meet. I swam well but my competitors all swam poorly. So they made me look good! Ha! In the end, I felt that tired but still won the 200IM (the last event) – it felt like a school swimming carnival where you are that tired but you still win.
IMAGE BY Gerry Penny Via http://www.gettyimages.com.au/detail/news-photo/australian-justin-norris-poses-with-his-gold-medal-after-news-photo/51530851.
You made the Athens 2004 Olympic team but unfortunately failed to qualify for any finals. How much of disappointed was this? Why do you think you weren’t able to produce your best form looking back?
That was really disappointing. Probably the first time in my swimming career that I was baffled initially at the result and didn’t have a reason straight away. Usually, if you don’t swim well there would be a reason – like a disrupted preparation, or illness, or mistake with strategy etc but I just couldn’t see a reason initially. I was just so flat but my training has been the best ever leading up to it. I remember being with my coach after the 200 fly semis in the event I had hoped to challenge Phelps for the gold and we were both just standing there and looking at each other not knowing what to say. Looking back I think I as too tense for many months before it and probably should have kept my life in balance more in the lead-up and not been so single minded. Should have had faith that I was doing the training and it was ok to have more fun in my break time (have a beer, chocolate bar, go for a surf, etc etc).
Not too long after these games, you decided to retire. You were still pretty young, so what was the main reasoning behind this decision?
My wife was pregnant and we moved back to Newcastle where we are both from. I still swam for a little bit but then ended up not really swimming anymore once my daughter was born and we started out swim school business.
Since then you have had 4 children and started the swim academy. This must all keep you very busy? Can you explain the joy you get from all this and how different life is from when you were swimming?
It’s different. I can’t imagine doing all the training I used to do. I remember being an athlete and thinking it would be so much easier just getting up in the morning and NOT having to get in the water and just be a coach. But even now that seems really hard! I guess I enjoy seeing the kids do well at stuff and feeling like I’m a part of their success in some way.
Your daughter Sabre made headlines last year making her debut in the Sydney Pro at Cronulla for surfing at just 11. On top of this, she appeared on the Ellen show and various other media outlets. It appears Sabre and your other children Sockie, Biggy and Naz are very much into surfing. Are any of them keen on swimming as a possible career like their father?
No, not swimming. My son seems to have some natural talent for swimming and they have all swum since they have been born. Swimming’s important for their surfing but I can’t see them being Olympic swimmers.
Lastly some quick fire questions-
Best race? Hmm, best result would be the 200 Fly at the Olympics but the funnest would be 400IM at the 2002 Commonwealths, just because I was kinda hating life until the last 50 Freestyle and stole victory.
Toughest race? Probably 200IM when I was 14 years old at National Age titles – I just got second but really thought I was a good chance to win. Tough to lose.
Toughest competitor? There’s a few – internationally, Phelps of course. In Australia, I would say Travis Nederpelt, Grant McGregor.
Favourite memory from swimming? Sleeping with my Bronze medal after I won it in Sydney Olympics! And the food hall afterwards – just eating as much as we could.
Toughest training session? Been a few – I would say when I was 13 we did a set of 10 x 400m at best effort timed. If you did under a target time it counted as 1, if you did under a faster target time it counted as 2 and if you did slower than the first target time it didn’t count at all. It was a good challenge and I swam all mine under the best target time. I’ve also swum 3KM butterfly time trial.
Are we catching the drug cheats? I’m kind of out of the loop but it would seem likely that I swam unknowingly at the time against people who were on drugs that weren’t caught at the time. I hope we are catching them now.
How is the future of Australian swimming looking? I think it’s looking good. My favourite on the team is Thomas Fraser-Holmes as I swam with him when he was 13.
Finally, what do you do to relax? Now to relax I like watching the surfing contest webcasts, and skateboard competition webcasts. Just watching the latest surfing videos and web clips. And watching reality TV.