Danyon Loader ended one of the continuing debates in New Zealand sport with his superlative swimming at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Before Loader carved himself a niche in swimming history by scooping the 200m-400m freestyle double at Atlanta, there was much discussion about who had been New Zealand’s greatest swimmer. Malcolm Champion, Jean Stewart, Pip Gould, Gary Hurring and Anthony Mosse all had their backers.
But Loader rendered such discussions pointless. Not only did he win two gold medals, but he won both races in the grand manner of a Peter Snell, biding his time until near the end of the finals, and then storming home.
At his first Olympic Games, at Barcelona in 1992, Loader had defied the world rankings and his international inexperience to win a silver medal in the 200m butterfly. When his Olympic successes are added to his 1994 world championship silver medal and two bronzes, and his six Commonwealth Games medals, his standing is unarguable.
Loader was always a quiet individual who didn’t chase headlines and publicity. He worked assiduously under the eye of Dunedin swim coach Duncan Laing – whom he always referred to as Mr Laing - from when he was aged 12 and their pairing became one of the most successful in New Zealand sport.
They met when Loader attended a swimming camp at Cromwell. “It was eye-opening for me,” said Loader. “One thing Mr Laing said to me there was that either I had to train harder or I had to train with the girls. Being a naïve young fellow, I took that as a warning and I trained harder.”
At the age of just 14, the pony-tailed Loader got an invaluable early taste of the big-time when he represented New Zealand at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games, though he made little impression in the 400m and 1500m freestyle events.
At Barcelona in 1992 he showed the benefits of that experience. On previous results, Loader shouldn’t have been a factor, but, swimming in the same event at which Mosse had won the bronze at Seoul in 1988, he turned the pre-race predictions upside down.
Loader improved his personal best by a staggering 3.36s in the final to win the silver medal behind world record-holder Melvin Stewart, of the United States.
After Barcelona, he simply kept on improving. At the Victoria Commonwealth Games in 1994, Loader was the one New Zealand swimmer capable of matching the awesome Australian team. He won the 200m butterfly gold medal and took silver in the 400m freestyle and bronze in the 200m freestyle. In addition, there were two freestyle relay silver medals.
At the world champs in Rome that year he went way beyond what any other New Zealander had achieved in such elevated company by winning three medals.
He motivated himself during the Atlanta Olympics by assuming underdog status. “I was this wee fellow from Dunedin in New Zealand,” he said. “There hadn’t been a lot of kudos for New Zealand swimmers, and I had a ‘don’t count me out’ attitude throughout the event. I used that to keep myself going.”
The 200m came first. The important players were expected to be Brazilian Gustavo Borges, Australian Daniel Kowalski, emerging Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband and experienced Swede Anders Holmertz.
Loader tended to begin and end the 200m quickly, so he concentrated on getting more speed out of the third 50m leg, when swimmers are gathering themselves and waiting for the charge home. He did this so well that he overtook the leader, Holmertz, just before the final turn and charged home well clear, winning in 1min 47.63s, nearly half a second ahead of Borges.
He felt with 25 metres remaining the gold was his for the taking: “There’s a lightbulb-going-off sort of realisation, but then you know you’ve got to knuckle down and finish the job.”
In the 200m butterfly the next day, Loader swam below his best and failed to progress, finishing only 19th.
But he bounced back a couple of days later to dominate the prized 400m freestyle, winning it even more decisively than the 200m. His winning time of 3min 47.97s put him well ahead of the Briton, Paul Palmer, 3min 49.00s, and Kowalski.
Three months before the Olympics it seemed the gold would be disputed by Kieren Perkins, of Australia, and American Tom Dolan, but Perkins didn’t make the Australian team in this event and Dolan didn’t get past the preliminaries in Atlanta. Perkins watched the race and said: “I knew by the 200m mark that Danyon couldn’t be beaten. He can beat any swimmer in the world if the field isn’t more than half a body length ahead at that stage. Danyon is so good you can’t afford to give him even a sniff over the final stages.”
Palmer described the New Zealander as “a phenomenal swimmer”. “He has the best finish I’ve seen. He is amazingly strong. I’d hate to think what work he does in training.” And Dolan said: “He’s a one-in-a-million swimmer. He’s casual and seems laid-back, but in the water he’s a killer.”
Loader carried on competing for several more years, winning a relay bronze medal at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games. By then he was struggling with his motivation and he drifted out of swimming soon after. At the time of his retirement, he held nearly 50 New Zealand records.
Despite his desire to stay out of the limelight, Loader earned many honours. He won the New Zealand Sportsman of the Year trophy and the Lonsdale Cup in 1992. His efforts at Atlanta four years later won him both awards again, and also the Halberg Award. He was awarded an ONZM medal in the New Zealand Honours in 1996. In 2000 he was named New Zealand Sportsperson of the 1990s and in 2003 he was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, the first New Zealander to be so honoured. He was inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.
Off the water, Loader showed he was willing to give things a go. After the 1996 Olympics he enrolled at Berkeley University, San Francisco, where he studied and swam for two semesters. On his return to New Zealand he trained as a territorial soldier. After quitting swimming he settled for a time in Christchurch and had a spell bartending. Then he was employed as a commercial scuba diver.
More recently he has moved back into the public arena. He has worked as a Wellington-based mentor with Swimming New Zealand, and during the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games was a popular host at New Zealand House. On his return home he surprised even his friends by appearing on the Dancing with the Stars television programme. Shortly after, the New Zealand Olympic Committee appointed Loader its first Olympic ambassador.
Loader was employed by the New Zealand Olympic Committee and as sports ambassador for SPARC. He managed the New Zealand team to the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, India.