Picture this: you’re 23 years old, one of the world’s best distance runners, and charging towards the finish line in what is – by some distance – the greatest race you’ve ever run.
At the moment your 5000m personal best is 13:19.96, but you and those around you know that doesn’t remotely reflect your ability, and the proof is there on a clock, which, as you empty all remaining energy into your legs and sprint towards the finish, is showing the numbers you’ve been waiting a decade to see: 12:59, 13:01, 13:02…
All pain is anaesthetised in those final moments, the realisation setting in that you’re entering new territory as an athlete, and as you cross the line in 13:05.23, a 14-second personal best, you have one single step to enjoy it before your face meets the track, before your shoulder pops out of its socket and you’re left there, lying on the ground in all kinds of agony.
“It was so sore,” says Stewart McSweyn. “I wasn’t in any pain at the end because when I looked at the clock I knew something special would happen, but once I fell down, yeah, there was a lot of pain.”
It was at the IAAF Diamond League final in Brussels, late August, and the Australian had just made the giant leap from also-ran to world-class athlete, an achievement he would love to have enjoyed in that moment if he could only get his shoulder back into place.
Twenty minutes – that’s about how long it was before a doctor in the stadium eventually managed to pop it back in after several failed attempts, and that time hurt a whole lot more than the 13 minutes he’d spent out on the track. Afterwards, with his arm in a sling, he had to recruit coach and agent Nic Bideau to put his shoes and socks on for him.
Once the pain subsided, McSweyn could only laugh at his lapse in concentration.
“I was clock-watching a little bit because I knew I was in low-13s and as I was falling forward a little, I just tripped,” he says. “It hurt a lot, but if it had been a bad race the shoulder would have hurt a lot more.”
Nine days later, McSweyn was back on the start line in Ostrava with a heavily strapped right shoulder, ready to close a memorable season at the IAAF Continental Cup. The men’s 3000m was run as an elimination race, with the athlete at the back with 1600m, 1200m, 800m and 400m to run forced to step off the track.
Running towards the front, McSweyn utilised his impressive 1500m speed – he clocked a PB of 3:34.94 four weeks earlier – to avoid all the eliminations, though the constant surging took its toll on the final lap as he came home fourth in his Asia-Pacific colours in 8:02.01, a race won by Olympic silver medallist Paul Chelimo in 7:57.13.
“I was trying to stay at the front because that way you put the faith in your own hands, but it ended up stinging me as I was kicking for that last lap and I ran out of wheels,” he says. “But I’m happy how I put myself out there.
“With that kind of field, eight of the best guys in the world, it makes elimination hard. Everyone is so good there’s no easy laps but that’s what’s good about it – you hear the crowd every lap getting so excited instead of everyone waiting for that last lap. It’s a good concept and hopefully they keep it going.”
McSweyn has now got personal bests to mark himself as a live threat in any race, but to truly get among the greats at championships he knows he’ll have to master that key skill in middle-distance running: the ability to change gears.
Ambitions find their path at Melbourne Track Club
But it’s one he’s gradually mastering, and if anything his career has been a testament to the value of persistence.
As a teenager there was little indication of his world-class talent. McSweyn had been an Australian rules footballer, but at the age of 13 a PE teacher took him aside and told him he was too small, too skinny, to ever make a real impact in the sport and that he should try running.
And so he did.
McSweyn grew up on King Island, population 1500, which is located in the Bass Strait between Tasmania and Victoria, and on the family farm there he’d log miles in his teenage years and soon come to realise he had a talent for distance running.
His results were nothing to shout about, with success hard to come by even in national underage championships. “I was always a small kid but I was competitive enough that I stayed in the sport even though I wasn’t getting medals,” he says.
His big breakthrough came in 2016 after joining the Melbourne Track Club, McSweyn lowering his 3000m best from 8:16.67 to 7:54.43 and closing the year with an impressive 28:29.65 at the Zatopek 10, which doubles as the Australian 10,000m Championships.
As a third-year student of teaching at university, he combines his studies with a typical weekly training load of 100 miles/160km per week. In Melbourne he trains alongside a horde of Australia’s finest distance runners under the guidance of Bideau, who in recent years has helped McSweyn re-align his ambitions.
“There’s not many better people that know how to get athletes to believe in themselves,” says McSweyn. “That’s been the big difference since joining this group; training with the quality of guys he has, you learn to compete against guys not just in Australia but on the world stage.”
In his late teens McSweyn’s progression was hampered by injury problems as he went through growth spurts, but the key this year, he says, was consistency – his body now much more robust at the age of 23.
'I’ve taken a big step forward'
And while the men’s 5000m has now reached a new level – McSweyn finished 12th in that breakthrough race in Brussels, which was won by Selemon Barega in 12:43.02 – the Australian believes he can be a contender at future championships.
“I’ve taken a big step forward,” he says. “I’m at the level where I can compete from 1500m to 10,000m on the world stage and the next step is to be able to compete in these races, to be higher up and compete for the win.
“It’s been a dream come true this season but I still have to work harder and get better to achieve my goals.”
Back in Australia, a three-week teaching placement awaited his end-of-season break, but after that McSweyn said he’s planning to work even harder, come back even stronger, ahead of the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019.
“I’ll definitely want to do the 5000m and I’ll see about the double, adding either the 1500m or 10,000m,” he says. “The aim is to get there and be as competitive as I can. You never know in those kind of races – people step up and win medals who shouldn’t so I just have to improve and get a bit better.”
He thinks back to the Commonwealth Games in 2006, watching on TV at the age of 11 as Craig Mottram ran 12:58.19 to finish second in the men’s 5000m final to Kenya’s Augustine Choge.
“I remember thinking, ‘how does someone run that fast?’” says McSweyn. “For me to get pretty close to it in Brussels was a big moment and it opens your eyes that there are a lot of different things you can do to improve. I can get really close to 13 minutes. That’ll be the goal for 2019.”
Do that, he knows, and he could well follow in the footsteps of Mottram, who earned a bronze medal over 5000m at the 2005 IAAF World Championships in Helsinki.
“If you can run the time you’re in the market and once you can get it right on the day you have a shot at a medal,” he says. “I know I have the speed to compete in the big races but I have to keep moving forward and getting better. I’ve got to focus and step up.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF