20 NZ Olympic Moments: No. 7, 'Quiet assassin' set swimming world on fire

By David Leggat

In the mid-1960s, colourful swimming coach Duncan Laing told an audience of Otago officials that his job was to produce an Olympic champion.

They laughed at him. Laing was furious and stormed out of the meeting.

It took 30 years but he got the job done at the Atlanta Olympics when a 21-year-old ponytailed Danyon Loader won not just one gold medal, but two for good measure.

Loader was 17 at the Barcelona Games in 1992 and won the butterfly silver medal. Even so, four years later, although renowned as a quality swimmer, he wasn't expected to set the swimming world on fire in Atlanta. After all, New Zealand's only Olympic swimming medals (excluding Malcolm Champion as part of the winning Australasian 4 x 200m freestyle quartet at Stockholm in 1912) were Otago woman Jean Stewart's bronze in the 100m backstroke at Helsinki in 1952, and Paul Kingsman and Anthony Mosse, both at Seoul in 1988 in the 200m backstroke and butterfly respectively.

First up, Loader had his 200m freestyle. He surged to the lead at the final turn, going on to win in 1min 47.63s, touching just 0.45s ahead of Brazilian Gustavo Borges. The country rejoiced.

Three days later, he was again top of the dais, having won the 400m freestyle in 3:47.97, a blink over a second ahead of Britain's Paul Palmer.

The day before the second final, this writer was talking to Laing beside the training pool. What were Loader's chances was the gist of the conversation.

A large, amiable man, Laing ummed and aahed, scratched his head, shrugged his shoulders. Then, when gently pressed, he fixed a beady eye on the questioner through the mesh fence and said: "I'll tell you this: if he's within a length of the lead when they turn for home no one will catch him."

Loader did it far more easily than his coach's estimate.

Adulation poured down on the quiet Otago student, who always referred to his coach respectfully as "Mr Laing".

They first met at a Central Otago swimming camp. Loader was 12, and Laing told him if he didn't buck up "you'll be swimming with the girls". He bucked up and the relationship stayed strong.

The spotlight didn't sit easily on Loader,'s shoulders, not helped by smart alec behaviour by then Minister of Sport John Banks standing up at a post-final press conference in the front row and lauding him, and New Zealand.

Shyness meant Loader was reluctant to pose with his medals. He was in tears when speaking in public up on his return home.

Loader went on to a third Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur two years later before moving on with life. He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2003.

He was Halberg Supreme Award winner in 1996 and New Zealand's athlete of the 1990s.

Prominent Australian coach Don Talbot called Loader "the quiet assassin". Laing, who died in 2008, put it like this: "Beneath the laid-back exterior is a steely determination. He does not speak of it, he just does it."

- NZ Herald

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