Despite her stellar status in the Australian swim team, Libby Lenton is respected for her modesty and sportsmanship. Jannene Howse tells why
From her 2003 swimming debut, a mere three years ago, 21-year-old Brisbane girl Libby Lenton has fast become one of Australia’s brightest hopes for Commonwealth gold. Highlighting her sensational career so far—she was crowned Australian Swimming Discovery of the Year at the 2003 FINA World Cup, and the Australian Short Course Swimmer of the Year in 2004—she became the Swim Australia Ambassador, then she tied for first in an Australian poll of sportswriters as sportswoman of the year of 2005. And after setting a new world 100-m freestyle record at the Games qualifiers in January, Libby has Commonwealth gold and the Beijing 2008 Olympics firmly in her sights.
What is the story of her dizzying assent to the top, and what goes on behind the dazzling smile of one of Australia’s newest golden girls?
Launching her into the elite ranks of Australian swimming in 2003, the then 17-year-old Queenslander broke the Australian record when she won gold in the 50-m freestyle at the 2003 Telstra Australian Championships, qualifying her for the senior Australian swim team.
Her Midas touch quickly became apparent when she cracked the 25-second barrier—the first Australian woman in history to do it—at her International debut at the Indianapolis “Duel in the Pool,” breaking the Australian freestyle record and her own in the 50-m freestyle, and winning the 100-m freestyle. She went on to win her first major individual international medal at the 2003 Barcelona World Championships, claiming bronze in the 50 m freestyle. On her return to Australia, she broke the Australian record in the 50 m at the Australian Short Course Championships, and broke the Commonwealth record in the 100 m.
In 2004, Libby qualified for her first Olympic Games by blitzing the field at the Australian Olympic Swimming selection trials. She set a world record in the 100-m freestyle, set the second fastest Australian time ever in the 100-m butterfly and broke the Australian record in the 50-m freestyle. On the opening night of the Athens Olympics swimming, Libby and her team-mates set a world record, winning gold in the 4×100-m relay. She added a bronze to her collection of individual medals by winning in the 50-m freestyle, claimed her first individual world crown by winning gold in the 100-m freestyle at the 2004 World Short Course Championships and swam the fastest 100-m freestyle split on record, anchoring the 4×100-m freestyle relay team to a new world record and gold.
Cementing her position among the world’s top swimmers, Libby hit the mark at the 2005 Montreal FINA World Championships by reeling in gold in the 100-m medley relay and gold in the 50-m freestyle, then setting a new Commonwealth record to win silver in the 4×200-m relay. She won silver in the 100-m butterfly, which recorded the fifth fastest time in history, and was clearly the most successful member of the Australian swim team at the World Championships. Then again, at the Duel in the Pool, she pulled in three more gold: 100-m freestyle, 200-m freestyle and in the 4×100-m freestyle.
Back in Australia, her Olympic coach, Stefan Widmer, gave Libby two chances to break the record at the Telstra Australian Short Course Championships. At her debut location, Libby excelled, setting a new 100-m world record of 51.91 seconds, which she promptly broke the next night with 51.70 seconds, 0.47 seconds ahead of the former world record holder, Therese Alshammer of Sweden.
“Stefan posed the question that I could have two chances to break the world record if I went out after it tonight so I decided to give it a shot,” said the ever-smiling Lenton. “To become the first woman under 52 seconds just shows what can be achieved and I actually swam faster than some of the guys in the squad, so that’s pleasing.”
Leading up to the Commonwealth Games, the girl with the Midas touch has been making life difficult for Widmer. Prioritising her training program for the Commonwealth Games is just not that easy when she is a 50-m freestyle, 100-m freestyle, 200-m freestyle and 100-m butterfly competitor. Is it possible to do all that at a world-class level? he must wonder. At the Queensland swimming titles in Brisbane in December 2005, Widmer decided to rest Libby recognising more value in her intensive training than performing at that early lead-up to the Commonwealth Games.
Widmer says Lenton at 20 is nowhere near her potential, and like previous swimming champions should improve over the next seven years, an awesome thought, considering she is currently breaking the times of previous and current world record holders. She is a swimmer of enormous talent and ability with a fun-loving, hard-working and optimistic attitude and a radiant smile that lights up a room! Now a world champion herself and a member of the Golden Girls, she has cemented her place as one of the most versatile members of the Australian team. Libby epitomises the Aussie winning spirit.
Sports coaches say “it is estimated that up to 90 per cent of success in sports is due to mental and psychological mastery.” This may give us insight into Libby’s winning strategies. Libby carries a handmade book of quotes to her competitions to focus her thinking, Her favourite TV show is Dr Phil, which airs between her training each day, so she can watch it. Evidently she adds all the life-coaching she can find to her mental arsenal.
“It kind of does put pressure on you when you swim well one night and then come back to swim again,” Libby says. “You learn from all those races, whether it’s a disappointment or a massive achievement. I can handle backing up after a disappointment but am still learning how to back up after a success.”
Libby’s inspiring story exemplifies winning life strategies.