[INTERVIEW] Mack Horton, 'I like to think it set an agenda for the (Olympic) games'

If Mack Horton is the Clark Kent of the Australian Olympic Team, then it stands to reason he’s some sort of Superman in the pool, and he proved it by becoming Australia’s first gold medallist at the Rio Olympics in August.

‘After touching the wall and winning the 400 m freestyle, I wasn’t immediately sure if it was real and if it had just happened,’ he tells Warcry exclusively. 

‘Once that had passed I was on to the next thing. I had a long week also competing in the 4 x 200 and 1500 m freestyle.’ 

The 20-year-old caused waves before the now iconic 400 m freestyle race. Not just because he beat swimming great Grant Hackett in the qualifying heats, but also due to his strident comments about doping in the sport.

Calling out China’s Sun Yang for his alleged use of a banned substance (his actual words were ‘I don’t have time for drug cheats’), Mack set the bar high for the games. And if the nation wasn’t already on edge due to his heart-pounding win, they fell to the floor when, during a post-race interview, Horton singled out Yang again. 

However, he says he didn’t do this intentionally. 

‘I’m not sure I chose to do this. I had a line ready just in case the media asked about our relationship, but I was never sure I was going to actually say it. I am glad I did though, I like to think it set an agenda for the games,’ he says.

Despite calling it a ‘win for the good guys,’ the fallout was palpable and two-sided for the Melbourne-local. 

On one hand, the Sydney Morning Herald called him ‘the face of the anti-doping crusade at the games’, painting him as an Australian sporting hero, while on the other, the Chinese media were outspoken in their rage and Horton’s social media accounts were filled with a barrage of hateful words—something that could have had an enormous effect on him personally and as an athlete.

‘I am a self-confessed social media addict,’ he says. ‘I scroll through social media to relax so it had an effect on me, but only for all of three seconds, because I couldn’t let it affect me when there was still so much of the week to get through.’

This attitude carried Mack through the competition, but it stems from more than his rigorous six-days-a-week training schedule, it also comes from his upbringing and family values. 

‘My mum’s parents have been in The Salvation Army their whole life so I have experienced and tasted the Salvo culture,’ he says. ‘I only saw my family for a short period of time after each race, but it was great to know that they were in the stands supporting me and [Australian swimming team] the Dolphins all the way through the week.’

Currently completing a commerce degree at Australian Catholic University, Horton has big plans for the future—aside from making it to the 2020 Olympic Games, of course. 

‘Studying commerce has been challenging, but ACU has been very helpful in finding a balance,’ he says. ‘I’m probably doing the slowest commerce degree in the world but it’s worth it to be able to do what I do and still have time to live a life.’

Planning to save his $20k winner’s bonus from Australia Post and invest it in a house, Horton may be at home in the water, but he’s firmly grounded when it comes to living a balanced lifestyle. 

After a well-deserved break in Europe, he’s back in the country preparing for the future, and getting accustomed to being one of Australia’s favourite sons.

‘Now that we have four years until the next Olympics we have taken a step back so that we can build back into it,’ he says. ‘This means next year is World Championships as well as in 2019, and in 2018 there are the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. All of these meets will be stepping stones leading into the 2020 Olympics.’

Things are on the up-and-up for Mack and this includes his health (recently Horton was in the news thanking the eagle-eyed fan who’d spotted a cancerous mole on his chest which he quickly had removed), and while he’s on the front foot of international swimming, he continues to use his platform as a force for good, embracing team camaraderie, staying disciplined and advocating for clean sport.

There’s still time to celebrate though, and that’s exactly what Mack has planned over the holiday season when he sees his Salvationist grandparents.

‘Nothing beats the yearly “Our Christmas gift,” he laughs. ‘It’s a highlight every year!’