It is lucky for James Magnussen that he is blessed with broad shoulders and a giant arm span like the wings of a bird.
Not only does it enable him to slice through the water as smoothly as a dolphin, but it also helps him to carry the burden of his country’s Olympic expectations.
As the reigning world champion for 100m freestyle, the Australian, who stands 1.95m, is the favorite to win gold in London, but the pressure on him to deliver is overwhelming.
The 100m freestyle is the blue-riband event of swimming, but it is also a race that can be decided by the length of a fingernail.
The last Australian to win Olympic gold was Mike Wenden, at Mexico City in 1968. For a country surrounded by water with a long and proud tradition in Olympic swimming, the wait has been unfathomable.
Magnussen is aware of the enormous expectations on him to win, but is comfortable in the spotlight and confident about his prospects.
“When I stay in a positive mindset, things tend to fall into place for me,” he told a news conference on Monday. “When I’m in that state I’m able to ignore things around me, just have fun and get the job done. I want to keep that going.”
Adding to the pressure on Magnussen, the 21-year-old from Port Macquarie is also the key swimmer in the Australian 4x100m freestyle relay team, which is also strongly favored to win the gold.
Traditionally, teams saved their fastest swimmers for the final anchor leg, but conventional wisdom is to send them out to build a lead and give other team members clear water, free of waves.
For Magnussen, that will mean going head to head with Michael Phelps, who will lead off the US team.
“I can’t see how we are not the team to beat coming off the world championships, but there are no guarantees,” Magnussen said, sporting a beard that is sure to be shaved off before his racing. “But we’ll have a fight on our hands to come out of it with a gold medal.
“We are aware of the Americans’ ability to come from behind and forge an upset like that,” he added.
While Magnussen is full of self-belief, the same cannot be said about the rest of the Australian team.
The only other member ranked number one in their event heading into the Games is Stephanie Rice, who won three gold medals in Beijing four years ago, and holds the fastest time this year in 200m individual medley.
Yet Rice has been plagued by shoulder problems and was reluctant to talk up her chances of adding to her golden stockpile.
“It wouldn’t be high-pressure preparation without something going not to plan, but I feel like I’m really capable of handling things like that at the moment,” she said. “I’m going to put everything on the line. It hasn’t been the perfect prep, but we will see what happens.”
Australia has won at least five gold medals in swimming at each of the last three Olympics, but the expectations for gold are lower this time.
“As far as medals go, we could get somewhere between 13 and 15, but I can’t give you a color breakdown,” head coach Leigh Nugent said.
“I think all teams go up and down and you’re never going to stay the same so you have to be prepared for that,” Nugent said.