Once an Olympic champion, a hero becomes mortal
The Olympic medallist Scott Miller once rubbed shoulders with James Packer and shock jock Alan Jones.
Twenty-six hundredths of a second. The difference between gold and silver. Scott Miller, at 21, stands on the sliver medal dais for Australia at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. His second placing in the 100-metre butterfly is a towering achievement. Miller is devastated.
"He feels as if he let everyone in the team down. He shouldn't," one of his mentors, the 1964 Games butterfly gold medallist, Kevin Berry, tells a reporter after the race. "He's a great swimmer. A guy had to break a world record to beat him."
That guy is Denis Pankratov, the Russian "submarine" who swam about 35 metres of the first lap underwater. Miller will describe the blur escaping from him, and he will suggest the underwater start be banned for the butterfly, in line with other strokes. Sure enough, this race will force a rule change to curtail the Pankratov technique - which certainly gave him an advantage - to 15 metres underwater.
Too late for Miller's big shot at gold. He blames himself, in any case. "I really didn't go out early enough. I was behind and I stuffed my turn." He finished with a personal best and Australian record of 52:53 seconds, a whisker from the submariner's new world record of 52:27. It is the first time two men have broken 53 seconds in the same race.
But Miller has carried the weight of public expectation into this race. He has broken an Olympic record to qualify fastest, ahead of Pankratov. He has won the 100-metre gold at the 1995 World Championships and golds in the 100-metre and 200-metre butterfly at the Pan Pacific Championships. He has been building to these Olympics since he was 15, when he became the youngest person drafted to the Australian Institute of Sport.
Berry reckons Miller is resilient.
He'll get over it. The kid's only 21, after all. He might have two or thee Olympics in him yet. He's leaving Atlanta with a second medal, a bronze for the medley relay. And when the brash Pankratov claims he might break 50 seconds in the 100-metre fly, Miller's larrikin reply gives us reason to hope. "Well," he says, "I'll just have to go 49 then."
It is late August 2009. Scott Miller is on another podium, once again disappointed with himself, once again facing his public. "I feel ashamed," he tells Sydney's Downing Centre Local Court. "This is as low as it gets."
Miller, now 34, is at his sentencing hearing, having pleaded guilty to supplying ecstasy. He has admitted giving a birthday present of 12 pills to his mate Mark Catchpole, son of the Wallabies legend Ken Catchpole. They were caught with a pill press but there is no evidence Miller used it to make drugs for commercial gain.
Miller tells the court drugs have ruined his life. "It was to numb the pain of being finished," he says. He is talking about his swimming career. He came to that realisation when injury halted his attempt to represent Australia at the 2004 Olympics.
"Just since 2004, my career was over and I didn't know what to do with my life," he says. He spent most of the previous 14 years - "five hours a day" - focused on the black line at the bottom of the pool. He finished his career with no "clear pathway" to what would come next. He became a binge drinker.
He used cocaine, marijuana and ecstasy. Much of the backstory since Atlanta is missing, but the headlines have kept the public informed: Miller's new life as the social butterfly; his crowning as Cleo Bachelor of the Year in 1997; his time living at the Newtown home of his mentor, Alan Jones, the broadcaster, while he tried to focus on training; his whirlwind romance, at 23, with the 30-something TV and magazine fashion commentator Charlotte Dawson - after an introduction by James Packer at a Cleo event; his expulsion from the Australian Institute of Sport after a nightclub fight in Canberra; his suspension from swimming's international body after testing positive to marijuana; his loss of fitness and gain of more than 13 kilograms; his promising comebacks; his brief cyclone of a marriage to Dawson.
She will write in her 2012 book, Air Kiss and Tell: Memoirs of a Blow-up Doll, that she agreed to abort their baby because her due date would clash with the 2000 Olympics. "Who needed a developing foetus when a gold medal was on offer, eh?"
Amid his 2000 campaign, Miller boasts he owns a Gai Waterhouse-trained filly, For A Lark, in partnership with Jones and Packer. His coach, Brian Sutton, boasts that Miller can beat world record holder Michael Klim and Commonwealth champion Geoff Huegill to win the 100-metre butterfly title at the selection trials. It isn't to be. Miller finishes sixth. He falls down the stairs at home and breaks his foot, Dawson writes. He doesn't make the Olympics team.
Dawson will successfully sue Woman's Day for its cover story, "Charlotte left me bleeding and in tears". On the comeback trail again in 2002, Miller will tell The Sun-Herald: "I had a really bad outlook. I f---ed up my marriage, my sponsors were leaving and I was getting injured at the wrong times." And so he will again in 2004.
Miller tells the sentencing hearing in 2009: "I realise now that my commercial value is finished. My value in the community has been massively tarnished."
Judge Greg Woods accepts that injuries since the Atlanta Games have slowly strangled Miller's career and caused the onset of chronic depression. He sentences him to 100 hours' community work and a two-year good behaviour bond. The court hears Miller is now drug-free.
About 11pm last Saturday, police searched Scott Miller in Kellet Street, Kings Cross. The Edgecliff resident, now 38, was allegedly carrying 7.75 grams of methamphetamine, otherwise known as ice. He was charged with supplying an indictable quantity of a prohibited drug. Miller, still in custody, is expected to seek bail on Tuesday.
Ten days before his latest arrest, Miller had faced Waverley Local Court where he pleaded not guilty to stolen property and drug charges. Police had arrested him on June 18 at Mascot when he was allegedly carrying three small, resealable bags containing a total of 1.04 grams of ice. Police allege he was carrying $1900 in cash and they found another $14,700 in a vehicle at the Mascot address. He is accused of either stealing the money or obtaining it by illegal means.
Miller's troubles refocus attention on the debate over elite athletes and their use and abuse of drugs - and the intense public scrutiny that follows them. It was the gold medal Olympic cyclist Stuart O'Grady who this week admitted taking the performance-enhancing EPO before the 1998 Tour de France. He lamented that this one horrible mistake would tarnish his entire career.
Miller's story is very different. As an athlete he had been caught only with the performance-depleting marijuana in his blood. On his own account, his drugs of choice added ruination to a life already shattered with his swimming dream.
Don Talbot was the head coach of the Australian Olympic swimming team in 1996. He thought Miller was extraordinary. "I liked the guy," Talbot said this week. "He was a hell of a swimmer." But all elite athletes faced pressures, Talbot said. Many had had to deal with disappointments. "It's a question of how they handle it. But you can't wet-nurse these people their whole lives. It might sound a bit harsh, but I believe the athlete has got a big role to play here. They've got to take responsibility for their own careers."
Sport psychologist Jeff Bond recalls the controversial men's 100-metre freestyle at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The coach for the American champion Rowdy Gaines had been aware of the starter's inclination to pull the trigger as soon as the swimmers mounted the blocks. "The Aussie bloke, Mark Stockwell, was left on the blocks," says Bond. Gaines got about a metre's advantage over the field. "Mark almost mowed him down. It was a photo-finish but Gaines got the gold and Mark got the silver." Stockwell lodged a protest to no avail.
"But he was such a stable and robust personality that, as much as he hated it, he was able to get on with the rest of his life and not succumb to other distractions of the kind that have obviously plagued Scott Miller."
Bond adds that elite sport selects and often encourages risk-takers. "For some high-risk personalities, you add the weight of expectation, you add them falling short of where they'd like to be, then you've got a recipe for trouble. It's almost inevitable."
In an interview before the 2000 Games, Miller mentioned his dream of turning to racehorse training after swimming. "I have been training my own body all my life. From what I have learnt the horse is similar to the human body in how it adapts to workload."
He added: "My whole life I have always done what I wanted to and got away with it.
"I don't know if that is good or bad. I guess only time will tell."
Time, indeed, has told.