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Duncan Armstrong OAM: Olympic Legend Still Inspires

Olympic Legend Still Inspires Duncan Armstrong OAM

He became a household name when he claimed one of only three Olympic Gold medals that Australia won at the Seoul Games in 1988.

The victory also broke the 200 freestyle World Record to win Australia’s 100th medal in Olympic competition.

Today, Olympic swimming legend Duncan Armstrong OAM is still setting the pace in work and life.

MIGAS's Host Quarterly Magazine dived at the chance to chat to Duncan recently about where life has led him following his inspirational presentation to the winners and finalists of MIGAS’s annual MiScholarship Program.

HQ: What does work, family and life look like now for you?

Duncan Armstrong: I’m happily married to Rebecca and we have three children still at home – Ava 17, Noah 15 and Isaac 12 and live on the beautiful Sunshine Coast. I also have two amazing young men from my first marriage Branston 32 and Tomas 31. I have many different types of work and have also had a variety of activities across many different industries.

Currently I’m the Stakeholder Manager at Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA). I have my own communication consultancy named Peak Impact and I do a range of different media activities including health documentaries and sports commentary.

What are some recent goals achieved or personal highlights?

My family is my real focus and it makes up most of the inspiration and goals in my life. Developing my ideas about fatherhood and how to make my children capable to pursue their own goals and careers and ultimately their own families.

I have health goals and career goals which are pretty standard. I guess my biggest life goal right now is based in my drive to be authentic. Authenticity in relationships, in different environments and especially with myself through action. This occupies a great deal of my planning and time.

What are you most looking forward to? What’s next?

I’m fascinated to view the growing momentum around the build-up to the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Queensland. I’m so looking forward to seeing what we, as Aussies, can deliver to the Olympic and Paralympic Movement.

I know it’s 8 years away but I was living in Sydney during the build-up and delivery of the spectacular 2000 Olympics and Paralympics so I know what’s coming and I’m really looking forward to it.

On a family level, I’m enjoying working with my son Tom on a television project and my daughter is in her last year of high school so it’s decision time for Ava and what she would like to embark on next.

What do you look back on most fondly and positively with regard to your time in elite swimming and as an Olympian?

It was a special time – yes, Bruce McAvaney special! I swam for Australia for 10 years and it was a great decade of my life. I dreamt of being an Olympian since I was six years old growing up in Rockhampton, so it was a dream come true to wear the Green and Gold.

I was able to swim with my heroes and I was just such a fan of swimming I wanted to do it forever. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to join the Laurie Lawrence squad because it was an environment that taught me everything I needed to know about how to win races consistently and become a champion.

The training was so tough and hard but that’s what made it all worthwhile when you stood on the blocks and swam for Australia. Without the grind and disappointment, injuries and losses, you can’t make to it the very top of the podium. 

In the dark, with no watching, lap after lap after lap is where the winning is actually done. The racing is the fun!

My memories will always remain very clear about that time in my life when swimming was my whole life. I’m grateful for all the people who invested their time and effort into my swimming career.

Olympic Legend Still Inspires Duncan Armstrong

Duncan’s passion for swimming continued as a Channel 7 commentator at the Beijing Games.

What do you know now that you wish you knew then to help you navigate being thrust into the international spotlight with competing demands and expectations?

I wish I had a bit of perspective into how long things take to become critical. When I was a young bloke and circumstances changed, I would almost panic that things were getting out of control and I had to fix things immediately.

I burnt a lot of energy unnecessarily chasing results that I had no control over. I wish I knew what I do now about how consistently most circumstances change and how you can sit back and go with it.

My ego had me in a mindset that I could control everything and get the result that suited me most. Life doesn’t work that way and I had a lot of disappointment along the way until finally I learnt this very cool life lesson.

Things always look different 24 hours later, and not even in the ballpark a week later, so why spend so much time stressing about it?

Make your best decisions with what is presented to you now and don’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow. 

Swimming and achieving elite athlete status takes tremendous self-discipline – what practices do you commit to keep yourself on track, and how do you develop that level of discipline?

Swimming is like any other pursuit in life, there are rules and behaviours that demand your attention if you’re going to be a winner at it.

Swimming is all about turning up to do the hard work every day to improve your times, fitness, ability and handle the pressure. I had to commit to 11 sessions of swimming every week, swimming a total of 400 laps of 50m pool six days a week.

The laps had to be intense at times, race speed at other times and simply grinding at other times. I had to eat every 90 minutes or I would ‘bonk’ in training and not be able to make it.

I had to understand the pressure of the Olympic Games and prepare myself to handle being in those races and not freaking out and missing my chance which only comes around once in four years.

To commit to all this disciplined behaviour I knew I had to be around people who understood the work, the pressure, had goals like mine, and were just as determined to get the job done. If I was to hang around people who didn’t share this type of vision, I wouldn’t have been able to perform at my best and wear the Green and Gold for Australia.

Part of the science of being a winner is picking who you’re spending time with. The calibre of people you surround yourself with determine how far you get towards your goals.

I wanted to be an Olympic Gold Medallist for Australia, so that’s who I hung around. That sounds fine, but if I was going fit into that type of high performing group, then I had to have no excuses and get the job done!

I did the work and it paid off for me.

Even today I have a daily and weekly fitness, eating and wellbeing routine that serves to have me at my best at the age of 55. I know it supports what I want to get out of life and when I show discipline and consistency I can tackle anything I have a go at.

You pursued an “adult apprenticeship” – tell us about that choice, how it came about and what you’ve taken away from the experience?

I married into a family of builders and tradesmen and at the age of 44, after being out onsite with them over many years as a labourer, I thought it would be good to be qualified, so my father-in-law and brother-in-law put me through my time as a carpenter. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the environment onsite and the community of tradesmen and women who I worked with. The lessons I learnt in the pool certainly were evident on the building sites in regards to honesty, integrity, hard work and authenticity.

To have something to show for your hard work at the end of the day as you go through constructing building is very satisfying. 

I don’t think I’ve found that feeling in any other career I’ve had. It’s one of the parts of my life I’m proud of, that I decided to do a trade.

Doing a trade has certainly set me up to be more pragmatic and practical in other parts of my life.

What’s your message to young people who are just starting out on their apprenticeship journey?

Work hard to find the most professional crew you can work with. Beware of ‘stories’ from others that might not be true but sound so good!

When you’re starting out on your journey in the trades, it can sometimes feel unfair and you being singled out by the older more skilful and experienced people around you.

When I was going through my trade, I still had to do all the pack up and set out, sweeping, labouring and mundane low-skill work. I didn’t want to do it day-in-day-out, but my low skills onsite made me dangerous until I figured out those boring jobs.

When you’re trying to keep up and cope with all the new things you’re learning onsite it can seem overwhelming, but just keep showing up. If that’s all you can do today is show up, then it’s a good effort to get that part done. 

Once you’re through your time you’ll be very glad you stuck with it and the choices you now have will what you’ve worked so hard for.

Would you share your most memorable anecdote, story or life lesson that you think others can take away something from?

Always try to find people who are better than you at something you want to be good at, then ask them questions about how they achieved it. I’ve spent most of adult life getting answers out people who are better than me, and I love the hunt!

When people get good at something it’s usually through blood sweat and tears from hard work. These are the people you want to be learning from, so get some precise questions together and engage with them.

There’s risk in this no doubt, and you may be rejected which will hurt. But the upside of these conversation is all about you and where the answers can take you. 

Your curiosity is the jet fuel to make things happen for you. People always say find your passion, but I like to encourage people to be curious and ask questions. 

Not everyone has an equal start in life. What’s your message to those who’ve experience more than their fair share of life difficulties? How do you change your outlook on what life has to offer?

Turn your tough start into fuel and move into the challenge. The only two days we can’t do anything with is yesterday and tomorrow. Make today count and don’t look back.

When people say you can’t do it, they are usually interrupted by someone getting on with it. A person’s value doesn’t decrease just because someone can’t interpret your worth. 

You determine your worth.

Why do you feel apprenticeships are a worthy and important career pathway? What are your tips and insights for those considering doing an apprenticeship, or hiring an apprentice into their business?

Australia needs smart and determined trades to make this country’s future secure. We need trades to ‘get shit done’, period.

Doing a trade is an honourable career, to help you raise a family and be part of community. I encourage you to pursue a trade as a great career choice and for the self-respect that comes from setting a goal, committing to the years of training and achieving something significant.

If you’re hiring an apprentice, I congratulate you for investing time and effort into young Australians who we will be depending upon for our future.

The younger generations always seem to get a bad wrap in the media, however I have meet literally thousands of young people who blow me away with their intelligence, drive, passion, and willingness to work hard.

Sometimes all a young person needs is someone to believe in them and give them go.


Published 27/05/2024

In the spirit of reconciliation, MIGAS Apprentices & Trainees acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respect to their Elders past and present and emerging, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.