How ‘draining’ break up changed Mitch Larkin

 

He's among one of Australia's best athletes and he's hungry for gold. As we welcome in an Olympic year, Queensland swim champion Mitch Larkin shares his hopes to make his third Olympics and why he's feeling the strongest he has in years. Alongside Larkin, we share the amazing stories behind Queensland's Olympic hopefuls Hayley Raso, Genevieve Gregson and Georgia Godwin.

MITCH LARKIN, 26, SWIMMER

As a little boy, he'd be glued to the television for hours.

He couldn't get enough of the screen, or more specifically, what was on it - the Sydney Olympic Games. A six-year-old Mitch Larkin begged his mum to stay home from school so he wouldn't miss a thing. And he didn't. He was right there watching history happen, soaking in the power of some of Australia's greatest athletes as they gave their all to claim gold.

Ian Thorpe. Michael Klim. Grant Hackett. Susie O'Neill. Larkin was mesmerised. Their passion, pride and strength. He wanted in.

"I was in absolute awe … I recorded every event, I watched everything, I was that crazy sporting kid," recalls the Australian champion swimmer. "I remember saying to Mum, 'I want to be there one day'."

Now Larkin, 26, is the one inspiring the next generation as a two-time Olympian, six-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist and world champion swimmer.

Swimmer Mitch Larkin prepares for a big year ahead with hopes of becoming a triple Olympian and claiming gold in Tokyo. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Swimmer Mitch Larkin prepares for a big year ahead with hopes of becoming a triple Olympian and claiming gold in Tokyo. Picture: Mark Cranitch

Yet despite the medals, the records and the titles he's claimed, there's one thing missing and he's hungry for it.

"Olympic gold is the only medal I don't have … It's very much in the front of my mind … I'd love to do that in Tokyo," says Larkin, who won silver in the 200m backstroke at the 2016 Rio Olympics and a bronze in the men's medley.

With the Australian Olympic swim team officially named later in the year, Larkin hopes to swim at his third Olympics.

"I don't want to go for the free uniform, I definitely want to be a contender and represent my country with the most pride that I can and do the country proud."

Larkin knows the drive and dedication it takes to be a triple Olympian. With at least seven hours of training a day and extra gym sessions throughout the week, Larkin's regimen is intense. It needs to be and there's no room for error. Not anymore, he says.

It's been no secret the last two years have been a rocky ride for Larkin. The swimmer made headlines in 2018 when his relationship with fellow swim champion Emily Seebohm broke down amid allegations he was cheating on her, which Larkin vehemently denies.

The news broke just before the Pan Pacific Championships in July and it took a toll on Larkin as the break-up played out very publicly.

"It was a constant niggle … it was always in the background and it (was) a lot of drain on me physically and emotionally, which meant the sessions I was showing up to in an afternoon, which are our main quality sessions, I was just fatigued," he says. "Being a world champion does take a little bit of hard work and if you're fatigued with other aspects from your life, they can certainly have an effect on how you perform."

But Larkin described the break-up as a "fantastic learning lesson" and, as a result, he is keeping his new relationship with girlfriend Sinead Cronin, a law student, under wraps.

"My swimming is open to everyone but my personal life is personal and I'm going to keep like that," he tells U on Sunday. "I'm going to protect not only her (Sinead) but the ones I love and probably myself as well."

Mitch Larkin is feeling stronger than ever and is chasing gold at the Tokyo Olympic Games this year. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Mitch Larkin is feeling stronger than ever and is chasing gold at the Tokyo Olympic Games this year. Picture: Mark Cranitch

Larkin says once the dust had settled from the messy break-up, a weight had lifted and now he's feeling fitter than ever.

"I certainly am a lot freer with swimming and a lot more energy has returned. I can focus purely on swimming and what I need to do rather than, I guess, other aspects that detract from what I need to focus on.

"I feel the best I have in the water and I'm enjoying it the most I have, which is a really positive mind space to be in."

Last year Larkin returned to peak form when he broke his own national record in the 200m individual medley at the Australian Trials in Brisbane and swum his best 100m backstroke since 2015.

"It's been about two years since I've been at the top of the world in terms of rankings so that was a massive moment for me in my career," he says.

"I had a period where I was off my game for a little bit but to finally get back and post those times was a massive confidence boost. It was reassurance that I'm not a has-been and my ship hasn't sailed, I am capable of swimming that fast again.''

Larkin says if he makes it to Tokyo, he'll be giving everything he has - for himself, his family, his country and the kids watching.

"When you get any medal … it's a massive honour and you know there's plenty of kids back home dreaming of standing there one day. It goes to show that if you have a dream and you can work hard towards it, you can make anything possible."

Meet more Queensland's Olympic hopefuls as they share their extraordinary stories behind their road to Tokyo.

HAYLEY RASO, 25, SOCCER PLAYER

Hayley Raso is lying face down on a football field in Washington.

She's motionless, confused and in the worst pain she's ever felt.

The Gold Coast footballer has fallen to the ground in agony after being (unintentionally) kneed in the back by the opposition's goalkeeper while trying to head the ball.

It's August 25, 2018 and Raso is playing for the Portland Thorns in the National Women's Soccer League in the US against Washington Spirit.

Her teammates run towards her and they, like the crowd which has fallen eerily quiet, think Raso will be back on her feet any minute now. But Raso isn't moving.

It would be months before she'd comfortably move again.

It's been almost 18 months since the horrific collision where Raso broke three vertebrae, fearing she'd never walk or play a game of soccer again - a sport she'd played since she was eight, had dedicated her life to and was her heart and soul.

Brisbane Roar player Hayley Raso speaks of her extraordinary comeback to the sport after a life-threatening injury. Picture: Mark Cranitch
Brisbane Roar player Hayley Raso speaks of her extraordinary comeback to the sport after a life-threatening injury. Picture: Mark Cranitch

"I think when you hear the words, "You've broken your back", you assume it's a really serious injury and you can't recover from that," recalls Raso, who began her career with Canberra United in 2011, when she was in Year 11, before joining the Brisbane Roar in 2013.

"The pain was so bad for me they would try to get me out of bed to walk and I'd end up passing out.

"I lost all my independence, I couldn't go to the toilet, I couldn't get changed, I couldn't shower.

"It was a really scary time for me and I didn't know if I'd be able to return to the game."

The trauma is still raw for Raso who is still haunted by that day.

"It's hard to talk about, reliving that," says Raso, who is also studying to be a paramedic.

"I knew something really bad had happened, I fell to the ground and screamed for somebody to help me.

"I don't think anybody knew what happened but they realised the severity and the amount of pain I was in."

Raso's road to Tokyo has been tougher than most but it's clear she was, and has always been, a fighter. With two older brothers, Jordan, 30, and Lachlan, 27, Raso learnt how to

be tough. Nothing, not even a debilitating and life-changing injury, was going to crush her. She'd worked too hard to lose everything, having made her international debut for Australia in 2012, at 17.

Soccer player Hayley Raso is hoping to make her first Olympics. Pictures: Mark Cranitch
Soccer player Hayley Raso is hoping to make her first Olympics. Pictures: Mark Cranitch

So, it makes sense Raso, of all athletes, would make an extraordinary comeback to the game.

Only six months after breaking her back, Raso played with the Matildas in the 2019 Women's World Cup and scored a goal in the first 18 minutes.

It's unbelievable she's here now, back to peak condition, playing fearlessly with the Brisbane Roar and hoping to make it to the Tokyo Olympics when the Matildas announce the team later

this year.

"I'm feeling really good. I think my injury showed me how badly I wanted to be out there," she says.

"It's been a dream of mine for a really long time to go to the Olympics … it's something I'm really striving for."

GENEVIEVE GREGSON, 30, TRACK ATHLETE

Genevieve Gregson has learnt the hard way that the bigger you dream, the harder you can fall. And those falls are all too familiar for Gregson, whose career has been plagued with bad luck and poor timing.

It's almost like clockwork for Gregson, who right before any major competition, in the crucial months of training, will be struck down by injury.

Ankles, pelvis, hamstrings, tendons, feet, Achilles, the list goes on.

"I'd heal one and rehab it and then I'd develop a weakness in another part of my body," says Gregson, whose main event is steeplechase.

Genevieve Gregson (nee Lacaze) has had a career plagued by injury but she’s feeling fit and ready to chase a medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Picture: Annette Dew
Genevieve Gregson (nee Lacaze) has had a career plagued by injury but she’s feeling fit and ready to chase a medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Picture: Annette Dew

But the one that hurt the most for the two-time Olympian was two years ago, when months out from the Commonwealth Games in her hometown on the Gold Coast, doctors told Gregson she'd need months off to heal a broken bone in her foot.

It was the same bone she'd broken earlier that year right before the World Championships in 2017. It took her off the tracks for four crucial months, leaving her only three months to get fit enough to race at the Commonwealth Games.

Gregson rattles off a long line of injuries, beginning in 2013 when she broke an ankle, revealing the harsh reality of how damaging it can be when you push your body to the limit.

"I wasn't kind to my body and my body broke down in more areas than one," says Gregson, who is now based in Melbourne with her husband and fellow athlete Ryan Gregson.

"I had to step away and not even consider racing for a long time … I had to recover mentally and physically. It was draining."

But Gregson, who is the Australian Athletics team co-captain, says despite it all, she's never once wanted to give up.

"Even my husband says I'm such a beast when it comes to training," she laughs.

"When I get my most mentally focused and determined is when I face adversity … when I pick a path to follow, I put all my energy into it." She chose that path early on when she left home at 18 to train at a college in Florida. She's gone on to compete in the London and Rio Olympics and, after a top 10 finish at the World Athletic Championships last year, will be a triple Olympian when she heads to Tokyo with hopes to finish in the top five of the 3000m steeplechase event.

"I'm in the best shape of my life right now and being six to seven months out from the Olympics, I think this year could be my best year to date," she says.

"I've had glimpses along the way to know what it's like to feel so fit and strong … I wouldn't sleep at night if I quit before I finished this journey.

"There's so much I want to accomplish and I know I can."

GEORGIA GODWIN, 22, GYMNAST

Her hands are covered in white chalk. Her body wrapped in a colourful leotard, sparkling under the bright lights of the stadium. Then, she lifts her feet and starts to run.

With the elegance of a feather floating in the wind, Georgia Godwin, 22, takes flight as she twists and flips her way across the room. Then, incredibly, she sticks her landing like she's hit a bullseye in darts.

The Gold Coast-born, Brisbane-based gymnast makes the complex dismount look effortless. But for every bullseye she lands, there have been brutal injuries, disappointments and ruthless sacrifices.

Gymnast Georgia Godwin has a confirmed spot at this year’s Tokyo Olympic Games. Pictures: Mark Cranitch
Gymnast Georgia Godwin has a confirmed spot at this year’s Tokyo Olympic Games. Pictures: Mark Cranitch

There's also been a life to balance as Godwin juggles up to 30 hours of training

a week alongside her day job working in admin at the Princess Alexandra Hospital and studying criminology. But this year, she says it will all be worth it when she lives out a childhood dream and competes at her first Olympic Games.

Godwin, who lives at Manly West, in Brisbane's east is one of a handful of Australian athletes across all sports who have a confirmed spot at the Tokyo Games.

After an impressive performance at the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in October last year in Stuttgart, Germany, Godwin placed 19th in all-around (which combines points from all events), securing her ticket to the Olympics where she'll compete in the all-around event.

It will be made even more special for Godwin who has Japanese heritage, with her mother, Mari, born in Fukuoka.

"Not many people know my Japanese background," says Godwin, who trains with Delta Gymnastics in Kedron.

"My first language was Japanese … Mum's side of the family is from Japan and we have extended family there."

Godwin's obsession with the sport started when she was three, when Mari and her dad Gene bought her a trampoline. They couldn't get her off. By six, she was competing in the sport.

One of her greatest successes to date came in 2018 at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast when Godwin won an individual silver (in the all-around) and bronze in the uneven bars and as part of the team competition.

"I can't really put into words how awesome it was being on home soil in front of a home crowd, it was amazing. You had to be on the floor to experience the noise and the atmosphere," she says.

She believes every setback or disappointment she's been forced to overcome has led her to this moment as she prepares to fly on the world stage.

"There were two-three years where I was constantly trying to come back from injury … but that is the part that builds character, resilience and determination," she says.


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