Kyle Chalmers keeps his crocodile in the garage. “Cock the Croc” is a baby freshwater measuring about 40cm. The species’ unique anatomical make-up means he cannot yet tell whether Cock is a male or female, but he does know that he/she is growing, and could reach three metres in adulthood.
Chalmers estimates up to 500 reptiles have passed through this garage over the past five years. “At the moment,” he says, “it’s probably down to about 40 given I’m in training for the Olympics. But I’ve got crocodiles, pythons, frill necks, you name it.”
The Rio Olympics 100m freestyle champion wagers that, apart from the pool, where he has been preparing for this weekend’s start of the Tokyo 2020 trials in Adelaide, he spends much of his time with his scaly companions.
The collection is something of a throwback to his childhood in rural South Australia, where he chased lizards with his grandfather. They also serve a key purpose. “It gives me that healthy adrenaline hit that I need when I go out there and open an enclosure and a snake wants to jump out and bite me, or a crocodile latches onto my finger and takes a bit of blood,” he says. “Sitting in my reptile room for me is equivalent to going out for a few beers with my mates. They have definitely helped me away from the pool.”
Ensuring he has healthy distractions from the “massive mental grind” of swimming is one of two major lessons Chalmers has gleaned in the five years since his 2016 triumph as an 18-year-old – he is now one of Australia’s older team members at the ripe age of 22. The reptiles, and dinners out with friends four times a week (healthy choices and no alcohol – he is superstitious), are small things that keep his sense of self in check.
“It’s very easy to get caught up in being a swimmer or an elite athlete, and just kind of defining yourself by that,” says Chalmers, whose journey to Japan is captured in Amazon Prime Video’s four-part documentary, Head Above Water. “But for me, because we train 50 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, it’s very hard to have a job or study at uni. So swimming’s my life, and I know that if I don’t have distractions away from the pool I burn out quite quickly. It’s probably been my biggest learning.”
The second is his discovery of who his real friends are. “The people who love you for Kyle Chalmers, rather than Kyle Chalmers the swimmer,” he says. “Those friends that I had five years ago are starting to pop up in my message requests and stuff at the moment – now we’re getting close to the Olympic games they want to be my friend again.”
Chalmers is not an impulsive character. A thought process precedes every action, everything in his life right now is there for a reason, and it irritates him when professional athletes “aren’t professional”.
“When they don’t reach their potential,” he says. “We’re so lucky to be professional athletes and earn money from doing sport. You have such a short window at the top of being an elite athlete, so why not take advantage of it and do everything you can to make sure you stay at the top? My body is my money maker, and I do everything I possibly can to do it right.”
A left-field example of this might be the smoothie he knocks back every morning after training. “It’s really gross,” he says, before listing the ingredients of this half-litre concoction as spinach, kale, broccoli, turmeric, black pepper, raw eggs, ginger and water. “I feel like I’ve achieved a bit by doing that.”
A lot of the day is spent eating. At the peak period of training he is swimming 50km a week – 5,000 times the distance of his pet event – and burning up to 4,500 calories a day. A protein bar before training, yoghurt, muesli and berries and the infamous smoothie for breakfast, beans and rice for lunch.
“It’s been refined over the years and as I get older, my metabolism is starting to slow down a bit, so I can’t get away with things I used to get away with. In 2016 I used to go to Maccas twice a week with the boys for breakfast, then have a big schnitty on a Friday night and constantly be snacking on lollies and bad food.”
On top of the swimming there are three gym sessions per week, pilates, yoga, massages and physio, and too many hours prehabbing and rehabbing the shoulder on which he had surgery late last year. In between is as much sleep as possible.
“You just kind of just get used to living that lifestyle,” he says. “And I know when I get taken away from me, like Covid last year, it becomes quite stressful.”
So, will the Games go ahead? “My thoughts are that if it was going to be cancelled it would have been well and truly cancelled by now. It’s probably, in my day-to-day life, the most frustrating question someone could possibly ask me. I get asked by three to four people a day – by family members or people in the grocery store. I have to believe it’s going ahead, otherwise there’s no point of rocking up to training tomorrow.
“It’s finally starting to become a whole lot more real now for me. It’s been a very, very long build-up. Five years is a very long time to wait for anything, so I’m really looking forward to the trials.”