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Tumours and torment - Zac Stubblety-Cook's wild ride to becoming a household name

Olympics

Australia’s new rocket man Zac Stubblety-Cook knows he can no longer be the invisible man of the Olympic pool after his dazzling late swoop for gold in the 200m breaststroke – but he reckons his triumph has only made him hungrier for more glory.

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The Brisbane-based 22-year-old was left reflecting on his problematic route to the top of the Tokyo podium which saw him overcome both the removal of a tumour from his shoulder in 2015 and a “depressing” two-month spell out of the water last year when he couldn’t access facilities in the pandemic.

Yet the man who also reckons he once used to hate the pool reckoned those setbacks lay as the inspiration behind his surge to victory over the last lap in Thursday’s thrilling race – the first at the discipline won by an Aussie since Ian O’Brien in the last Tokyo Games in 1964.

“It was a tough period,” mused Stubblety-Cook, a student at Griffith University, reflecting on his 2015 shoulder surgery.

“The tumour was a benign growth, about the size of a golf ball. We still don’t know what it was, but it was something that caused a little bit of pain, and we had to get rid of it.

“It was like last year, when I got everything taken away from me. It makes you hungry, when the thing you love the most, the thing I’ve done since I was 10 was taken away.”

The pandemic hit his preparations hard in 2020. “The first thing we found out was the Australian government wouldn’t send a team, and then that the Tokyo Olympics would be postponed,” he reflected.

“Not knowing whether this would happen, it was pretty depressing. It definitely made a lot of people think about why they do this sport. It made me think about why I do this – and it’s about having fun.

“We took around three months out of the water – it was an interesting time. We were still training and trying to do all we can. I was training in the garage with a stationary bike, that’s what we had for a couple of months. It was humbling.

“Yet it made me realise that I wanted it more than ever.”

That desire translated into this year’s terrific form which saw him shoot from relative obscurity until racing to the fastest time of the year at last month’s selection trials.

“You can only be the underdog once,” smiled Stubblety-Cook, recognising he’ll be a marked man now.

“We only have three years until Paris. Five years ago, I wasn’t even in the Australia farm to make the team. I’m happy where I am – and hungry for more.”

Not bad then for a guy who admits: “I grew up like a lot of Australians swimming for water safety, and I actually used to hate the pool and hate the water.

“I used to get scared of the deep end.

“Definitely past that now!”

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