Leisel Jones, who launches her fourth Olympics assault tonight, talks to Michael Cowley.
A LONG time ago, and after way too much angst and anguish, Leisel Jones made a decision. There was no point caring about what other people thought of her.
It came after the Athens Olympics. Jones was photographed on the dais after winning bronze, sporting the look of someone who wanted to be anywhere but where she was. The teenager had wanted gold, was disappointed she didn't win, but says the look was simply a typical one of blankness.
To say she was criticised would be like saying Michael Phelps can swim a bit. Even Dawn Fraser chimed in with a sledge.
"Of course it's tough when everyone is saying those things about it," Jones told The Sun-Herald.
In an interview before she left Australia for her fourth Olympics, and before media reports surfaced last week that she may be out of condition and carrying a bit of weight, Jones said: "'It's hard enough in the schoolyard when someone says this person doesn't like you, but it was there for everyone to see. It was an extremely difficult time to have to deal with it. I was only 18. But you learn about yourself as well, and before that I had no idea who I was as a person.
"I'm probably thankful I went through it actually. I don't think I would be in this position now if I didn't go through the Athens experience. It was very public, though. If I had given up at that, said this is not for me ... it would have been very weak of me to give it all in."
Asked if she cared what people thought about her, Jones said "no".
"It took me a long time to learn that. I used to care ... what people thought about me, and doing the right thing and all that stuff, but now I know that does not bring anybody happiness, no matter who you are.
"You've got to learn to accept who I am. I'm a bit quirky, I'm a bit different, I get told I'm weird at training all the time - probably because I dress differently, and have interest in other things like fashion and beauty, and they couldn't care less about it and think it's strange. But that's OK, I don't care. I've embraced that and to be who I am ... I can only be true to myself."
Tonight (at 7.30pm Sydney time) Jones will begin her fourth and probably final - "retirement is always in the back of your mind but I haven't decided anything yet" - Olympics in the 100m breaststroke. A medal in London would be her ninth and she would equal Ian Thorpe as our greatest medal winner. It is the event where it all began 12 years ago when a precocious 14-year-old stunned the likes of Samantha Riley and Brooke Hanson by winning at the Australian trials. Four months later she won silver at the Sydney Games.
"That seems a lifetime away. I am a different athlete now, not as naive as I used to be. I was pretty much blindfolded going into that.
"For me, the Olympics were just a swim meet. I was going back to school after it. It didn't matter what I did. There was no financial pressure on me. I had no sponsors, no expectations ... I was so, ditzy, so like, 'la, la, la'. I was probably more concerned about what colour my nails were going to be than if anyone was trying to psyche me out. ... It was bit of a blur. You win two silver medals [she also won one in the medley relay] and you have to go back to school."
After three attempts, Jones finally "got it right" in China, winning individual gold in the 100m breaststroke. Was it all it was cracked up to be? "No, it wasn't, and if you read any athlete's autobiography, they all say the same thing. It's more of a relief that you got there: 'Ah, thank God.' "