James Magnussen is one of the most recognised swimming athletes globally. His elite swimming journey has been defined by success over a long period. He won two gold medals in the Men’s 100m freestyle at consecutive World Championships; only the fourth man in history to achieve that feat. His total medal haul from major international competitions includes seven gold, five silver, and three bronze, spanning Olympic Games, World Championships, Commonwealth Games, and Pan Pacific Championships. He is, without doubt, one of Australia’s most successful athletes of all time.
Before 2011, High-Performance folk at Swimming Australia had James Magnussen pegged as a long-term relay swimmer. His prodigious talent was evident, but they didn’t see the Port Macquarie junior unseating the top one or two fastest male sprinters in Australia; much less the world.
By the 2011 FINA World Championships, having just turned 20 years of age, James Magnussen was ready to emerge from his support role in making his mark. He was the lead-off swimmer for the Australian Men’s 4x100m gold medal-winning relay team, blitzing American rival Michael Phelps and recording the fastest ever split over the distance in a time of 47.49s. Four days later he became the first Australian man to win the 100m freestyle at a World Championships. Unbelievably, his best individual performance of the meet was still to come. Swimming the freestyle leg of the 4x100m medley relay, Magnussen redefined benchmarks for the blue riband event, recording a split of 47.00s.
The media gave him ‘The Missile’ moniker and all of a sudden this shy, quiet-achiever from a regional beach town on the NSW North Coast had transformed himself into the most prolific swimmer in the world. In a way, the brash confidence and bravado which has crept into his public image in the years since is wholly manufactured. James to some degree felt he needed to wear the armour to match the title. His physicality played into that narrative and made for an easy distraction away from the quiet, unassuming country boy described by those who know him best. James stands 6 feet 4 inches with a hulking athletic physique, crystalline blue eyes, and a masculine, tapering face. Of course, it was a good problem to have from a commercial standpoint as he was thrust onto the radar of luxury brands to become the global face of marketing campaigns for Hugo Boss and Maurice Lacroix.
By 2012, James Magnussen was the overwhelming favourite for a gold medal going into the London Olympic Games. At the time, he had high profile partnerships in play with Samsung, Commonwealth Bank, Coles, Mitsubishi, Arena, jac5, FOXTEL, Sanitarium, Subway, and The Complete Dairy. He was the most commercially successful athlete in Australia of his time, because, on balance, James combined performance, presence, aspiration, and influence better than anyone. It was to be James Magnussen’s first experience with major disappointment after he was touched out by 0.01s in the Olympic final in London.
The following year the world was watching to see if James Magnussen could shake off the disappointment of London to regain his number one ranking at the 2013 FINA World Championships. Again he showed a cool head under extreme pressure to win his second consecutive gold medal at a World Championships in the Men’s 100m freestyle. That victory became a career-defining moment for James Magnussen.
His ascendancy in the sport was as rapid as his longevity has been awe-inspiring. His legacy as one of Australia’s best swimmers of all time is a testament to his training discipline, competitive mettle, and his sustained success at the very top of world swimming. James Magnussen in 2019 is a worldly, mature man who openly contends that his career has brought him the highest highs and some confronting lows. He’s had the full breadth of media and public sentiment. And it’s all fed into the layers of his person.
His success story is evident, but there is light and shade which resonates with people. There is a refreshing realness to James Magnussen’s story which is rarely found at the lofty end of elite sport.