In a special feature for PlayTrue magazine, WADA caught up with Matthew Dunn, the Australian former Olympic freestyle and medley swimmer, to talk about life as an elite athlete and his current involvement in promoting clean sport as a FINA Board member and member of WADA’s Athlete Committee.
Matthew Dunn grew up in Leeton, a small country town in New South Wales emblematic of Australia’s passion for sports. Come weekday or weekend, it wasn’t uncommon for Leeton kids to participate in three or four different sport competitions.
As a young boy Matt was no different, except for having to battle chronic asthma.
On doctors’ orders, Matt added swimming to his sport activities to increase the volume and capacity of his lungs.
With the nearest indoor heated pool more than 30 miles away, morning swims required waking up at 5 a.m. While his parents chatted, Matt usually fell asleep in the back seat.
Going the distance in swimming paid off, as Matt gradually became stronger. By the age of 10, he was winning multiple school competitions and, as a result, his parents encouraged him to focus on swimming and to cast other sports aside.
The once sickly child was growing up rapidly, and was well on his way to becoming the “iron man” of Australian swimming.
At what point did you become aware of doping in sport?
MD: I suppose doping first came to light when I trained at the Australia Institute of Sport in Canberra and began to qualify for open competitions. The Australian Olympic Committee and the Australian Sports Commission were very proactive in promoting anti-doping education. We had a very good support network around us. The doctors, physiologists and coaches were also very well educated in all matters anti-doping.
Did you ever feel team pressure to dope?
MD: Throughout my entire career I was never exposed to individual or team pressure to dope.
Do you think the pressure to dope exists in other sports?
MD: Certainly. Probably the most recent examples of this were the various accounts of doping pressures within cycling which culminated in the Lance Armstrong case. I’ve also spoken with some members of WADA’s Athlete Committee about their experiences with team pressure to dope and it seems that these influences are more prevalent in certain sports. Pressure to dope may exist in swimming, but it is not something I have experienced.
You achieved a great deal in your career as an elite athlete, but likely went through times where you were frustrated or had doubts – what would your advice be to young athletes just starting to compete at this level?
MD: Whenever I had doubts, setting goals was the priority. I would review my goals and preparation to determine where I needed to be at a certain point in time.
Towards the end of my career, I had built up a level of confidence and capacity that comes from years of training. But there are certain points when you know you are in a bad cycle.
I’d always try to do something a little out of the norm in my training or preparation in order to break the cycle. For example, coming into an Olympics, you’re very focused on eating all the right food and doing all the right things. Part of breaking the cycle might actually be going out for a nice dinner or having a weekend away as opposed to overloading your mind on getting back on track.
Sometimes it’s about taking a step back, readjusting your mental state and not over-thinking everything.
Given the level of athleticism in your family, any or all of your sons may grow up to be elite athletes - what would your advice to them be?
MD: The advice I’d give them today: get the best out of yourself. If you come in last, but have done the best you could, and tried your hardest, then be happy. We’ll encourage you and support you. But, if you don’t try or don’t put in the effort, then you’re wasting your time and everyone else’s. This approach obviously needs to have a foundation of enjoyment, especially in the early years.
How did your rigorous training and discipline carry over to your life after sport?
MD: It’s always a difficult transition. I was quite fortunate. I kept my hand in university all the way through my career, even though my travel commitments were quite onerous toward the end. When I retired from sport, I had two strategies: there was Plan A and Plan B. The first plan was to get some experience in the workforce. If I found something I loved within two years, I would do it. Otherwise, I’d go back to university and complete my tertiary education, which I did. The education process effectively gave me enough of a foundation and understanding to know what I wanted to do.
My advice to young athletes would be to get that foundation while they are still competing. I know this would have saved me a lot of time and energy, and I would have been more comfortable in my career. But it’s very difficult to educate athletes just by talking to them. They really need the context of their own life to fully understand such advice, and this will be further supported if it is part of the culture within individual sports
What is your involvement with FINA and WADA, and why is it so important to you.
MD: I started on the board of Swimming Australia, and was fortunate to be named on FINA’s Athletes Commission and later nominated and elected to the FINA Board. FINA then nominated me to WADA’s Athlete Committee, which has been a great experience, and an opportunity to give back to the sport, and potentially have some influence.
You were among the athletes who participated at the World Conference on Doping in Sport in Johannesburg - what did athlete interventions bring to the table?
MD: Athletes collectively contributed to the endorsement and support of the new Code as well as the overall review process conducted by WADA. Particular focal elements of this support were ensuring the protection of clean athletes and that as many loopholes as possible would be closed in order to make it difficult for any doping or potential doping from members of an athlete’s entourage. It became very evident that nearly all stakeholders had similar views and that there was a very united view throughout the entire conference. The athletes’ support, through the interventions at the conference, was possibly the icing on the cake prior to the formal approval of the new Code.
What changes do you see as being the most effective deterrents to doping?
MD: The main deterrent will be the four-year sanction, which hopefully will capture many career-high events. The other big change will be capturing the entourage, which can eliminate and protect the athlete against systematic doping.
Above all, however, the Code is a document that really has no teeth unless the governments and federations of the world use it to its full effect. If they can do that, and are well funded and supported, then the Code will be a very effective tool and we will start to see its impact.
Three-time Olympian, Four-time World Record Holder
1994: Announces his arrival on the world stage at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, defeating Curtis Myden in the 400m Individual Medley and setting a new Commonwealth record. Also wins Gold in the 200m Individual Medley and the 4x200m Freestyle Relay.
1996: Representing his country at the second of three consecutive Olympic Games, Matt smashes the Australian record in both the 200m and 400m Individual Medley, finishing fourth in both finals.
1997: Wins seven gold and five silver medals, and lowers the 100m and 400m Individual Medley Australian records. Later that year at the World Short Course Championships, Matt strikes gold in the 200m and 400m Individual Medley and the 4x200m Freestyle.
1998: As part of ‘The Fab Four’ alongside Michael Klim, Ian Thorpe and Daniel Kowalski, Matt takes home the gold at the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games and breaks the 4x 200m Freestyle Relay World Record in the process.
2001: Retires from competitive swimming.
2004 - 2011: Having achieved a Master of Commerce from Sydney University prior to setting up his own real estate development company, Matt is named a member of WADA’s Athlete Committee.
2012: Appointed to the FINA Board of Directors.