Leisel Jones ended a long, sometimes tormented journey when she won the 100 metres breaststroke at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. It was a journey that lasted eight years, since she burst into the international spotlight, aged 14, at the Sydney Olympics. Some saw it as evidence that she had finally beaten her toughest, most difficult opponent: herself. She won by more than a body length - a rare margin in a 100-metre event - in 65.17 sec, the second fastest time in history, behind her own world record.
Jones was destined to become the world’s greatest female breaststroker from her stunning debut as the Sydney Games, when she won the silver medal in this event. She reached her low point in Athens in 2004, as world record-holder and gold-medal favourite, when she was beaten into third place by China’s Luo Xuejuan and Australian Brooke Hanson. Unable to conceal her disappointment, she was branded a choker, and Dawn Fraser called her “a spoiled brat”. She later swapped coaches from Ken Wood to Stephen Widmer, who saw her problem as one of self-esteem.
She went on to win her first of seven world championships, and moved to Melbourne from Brisbane, joining a new coach, Rohan Taylor. She spoke openly after her Beijing win about her transformation - aided by her mother Rosemary, fiancé Marty Pask and coaches Widmer and Taylor - to an athlete who no longer equated self worth with success in the pool. Jones won silver in the 200m breaststroke, and was a member of the winning 4 x 100m medley relay team in Beijing. She had also won medley gold in Athens.
London 2012 was a historic Games for Jones as she became the first ever Australian swimmer to compete at four Olympic Games. She lined up as the defending Olympic Champion in the 100m breaststroke where she finished 5th in the final behind gold medallist Ruta Meilutyte of Lithuania. The placing defied her lowly rank heading into the Games, highlighting her ability to swim beyond expectations on the Olympic stage.
Although having lost her national title at the 2012 Australian Championships, Jones was the highest ranked Australian in the 100m breaststroke earning her a start in the 4x100m medley relay final. Lining up alongside Emily Seebohm, Alicia Coutts and Melanie Schlanger the Australians helped add Jones ninth Olympic medal to her personal tally as they finished with silver behind the world record breaking team from the USA. The medal ensured she would write her name in the record books alongside Ian Thorpe (also with 9) as having won the most Olympic medals by an Australian.
Harry Gordon, AOC Historian