Bygones: Adrian Moorhouse recalls that golden moment 30 years ago in Seoul

The moment of triumph as Adrian Moorhouse becomes Olympic champion in 1988.
The moment of triumph as Adrian Moorhouse becomes Olympic champion in 1988.
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Adrian Moorhouse’S reaction said it all after he became Olympic breaststroke champion 30 years ago.

“I’m a Tyke...we never give up,” declared the superstar swimmer after the fingertip win by 0.01 seconds.

Swimmer Adrian Moorhouse.

Swimmer Adrian Moorhouse.

And then the tears started to flow as he made the emotional walk around the Seoul swimming pool in 1988 to receive his gold medal.

Four years earlier, he’d been in the depths of despair after missing out on an expected medal at Los Angeles – a despondent Moorhouse nearly quit the sport.

Now the Yorkshireman was standing on top of the world after the added despair of being denied a World Championship win in 1986 when accused by a pernickety official of making an illegal turn.

Unlike recent Olympics when Team GB has enjoyed unprecedented success, Moorhouse was one of the country’s few genuine gold medal hopes in South Korea and he was one of the first to put his reputation on the line.

The question was if I had left it too late. I just had to keep doing what I knew I could do. You bill it down to a two-length race against seven people. That simple. I’d raced them all before and beaten them.

Adrian Moorhouse

In an exclusive interview with The Yorkshire Post, Moorhouse, now 54, said that he felt the pressure of expectation from home and because of the fact that he headed to the Olympics as the fastest breaststroke swimmer in the world. The question was whether he could perform on sport’s greatest stage.

For this, he drew inspiration from the despair of Los Angeles where a fourth-place finish by the then 20-year-old was considered a failure in a sport that had seen David Wilkie – Moorhouse’s inspiration – and Duncan Goodhew prevail in 1976 and 1980 respectively.

After progressing seamlessly through the sport – the Bradford-born competitor actually started swimming with the Aireborough Dolphins at Guiseley’s leisure centre – he concedes his expectations, given his novice status, were probably too high prior to Los Angeles.

History, he vowed, was not going to repeat itself. “If I was going to do it, I was going to get myself into the shape to cope with everything that was going to be thrown at me,” he recalled. “Not only did I want to be the best swimmer but the best all-round athlete.”

Adrian Moorhouse was a schoolboy swimming champion.

Adrian Moorhouse was a schoolboy swimming champion.

Back at the then Olympic-sized pool in the centre of Leeds, Moorhouse – and his coach Terry Denison – looked at all aspects of swimming from his technique, and the importance of gliding through the water, to nutrition, psychology and physical training on dry land.

Looking back, this was transformative. Moorhouse was among those who believed that you effectively needed to swim more lengths to get quicker. Now he was effectively pioneering the ‘marginal gains’ strategy that cycling coach Sir Dave Brailsford, and the rest of Team GB, have taken to a new level more recently.

“You don’t know which bit made the difference, but it did,” says the swimmer who adds wistfully “it doesn’t feel like 30 years – that’s more than half of my life”.

And so to Seoul where the former Bradford Grammar School pupil’s cheerleaders in the crowd included his proud parents Clifford and Kath, from Bingley, and his brother Stephen.

Adrian Moorhouse is now a BBC swimming commentator with his best friend Andrew Jamieson.

Adrian Moorhouse is now a BBC swimming commentator with his best friend Andrew Jamieson.

The Yorkshire Post had no doubts. The Sports Monday banner headline on September 19, 1988, was ‘Moorhouse in golden form’ and reported that ‘Bingley’s Adrian Moorhouse, 24, was set to win Britain’s first gold in Seoul this morning’.

This follows an impressive swim in the late night heats in which Moorhouse surged clear in the second half of his race to “destroy the opposition” and qualify fastest of all in 62.19 seconds.

Yet, by breakfast time, Yorkshire – and the rest of Britain – was waking up to one of the most dramatic races in Olympic swimming history in which the home hope recovered from sixth place to win by the slenderest of margins.

More resilient mentally, Moorhouse did not panic when he was one of the last into the water.

“It’s a one minute race. You’ve got time to think and look,” he said.

Yet, at the turn after 50 metres, Moorhouse was a distant sixth – and seemingly out of contention – while his great rival, the Russian Dimitri Volkov, was clear and on world record pace. Yet, in the past, the Yorkshire swimmer might have panicked.

He did not. If he’d started rushing his stroke, he said he would have lost speed. “I knew his (Volkov) tactics but he was a bit further ahead than I thought,” said Moorhouse who is now a much respected BBC swimming pundit and management guru.

“The question was if I had left it too late. I just had to keep doing what I knew I could do. You bill it down to a two-length race against seven people. That simple. I’d raced them all before and beaten them.”

Yet, as Volkov begin to tire and Moorhouse started producing one of his trademark late surges, he was oblivious to the challenge being thrown down by the Hungarian swimmer Karoly Guttier.

And, as the competitors touched the wall, the Yorkshireman’s winning time of 62.04 seconds was one hundredth of a second faster than the second-placed Guttier, with Volkov third and the Canadian champion Victor Davis, a long-time nemesis of Moorhouse, back in fourth.

Only when he looked up, and saw his name in the gold medal position on the electronic scoreboard, did Moorhouse realise that he had triumphed in the race of his life and raised his tired arms aloft in celebration.

Swiftly taken to an ante-room to prepare for the medal ceremony, Moorhouse was still sweating profusely as he dried off, and donned his tracksuit, before breaking down as he prepared to receive his sport’s ultimate accolade.

The previous four years had taken their toll, but he had won the 14th – and most important – major championship medal of his career and the victory margin did not matter.

Runner-up to snooker champion Steve Davis in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Moorhouse says he was fortunate that he had been inspired at such a formative stage of his life by the aforementioned Wilkie’s Olympic triumph in 1976. Role models, he says, do matter.

He says that he was lucky to learn to swim at the pool in Guiseley, where the triathlon titans Alistair and Jonny Brownlee later began their own journey to sporting stardom, where there was good quality coaching. He believes instructors need to learn from the best if their young swimmers are to excel.

And he is glad that he doesn’t have to compete against the likes of Adam Peaty, the Olympic champion whose recent world record mark of 57.1 seconds was five full seconds faster than the time recorded by Moorhouse 30 years ago.

“I’m privileged because I get to commentate on all of his races,” added Moorhouse. “He’s naturally talented and works his socks off. If you compare Wilkie with me and Peaty, we have similar hip movements in the water. But that’s where it ends. He’s just bloody good at everything and it’s great we have another swimmer maintaining this country’s breaststroke tradition.”

‘I almost quit the pool after 1986 worlds’

Adrian Moorhouse was only the fifth British swimmer since the war to win Olympic gold.

Previous victors included Yorkshire’s Anita Lonsbrough who prevailed in Rome in 1960. She was commentating at poolside in Seoul for BBC radio alongside the legendary commentator Peter Jones.

And, in the aftermath of his last gasp victory, Moorhouse explained to The Yorkshire Post how he came close to quitting the sport after being disqualified at the 1986 World Championships.

“I almost packed in swimming there and then,” confessed Moorhouse, who was pictured on the front page of the newspaper on September 20, 1988, raising his right arm in triumph.

“After two days in which I was in almost perpetual shock, I decided I was going to show them. After all, you cannot sit down and let everything get on top of you. If I had retired after the worlds, I would never have known what I could do.”