Coming into this season Stewart McSweyn’s times across multiple events had progressively improved, backed by his experience from the World University Games, World Cross Country and World Championships. However, it wasn’t until he won the Zatopek 10k in December, his first Australian open title, that he started to grow in confidence. That belief and form set him up for a successful international season in 2018.
Aged just 22 at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast he finished an impressive fifth in the 5,000m. That was off the back of a personal best (13:19.96) to finish third at Trials. He was also the best placed Australian at the Gold Coast Games in the 10,000m (11th).
After a short-break to complete a university placement and freshen his legs, he round off preparations with another few weeks of hard base work before heading to Europe. Amongst other strong performances he was third in the 3,000m at the Rabat Diamond League mid-July. Not only did his time of 7:34.79 move him to second on the Australian All-time list behind Craig Mottram, he passed Olympic and world championship medallist Paul Chelimo (USA) in the final metres. And his season is far from over!
“This year has opened my eyes that you’re not far off the best guys and you can compete – that’s going to be the goal going into these last couple of races,” McSweyn said, from London where he is based with his Melbourne Track Club squad and coach Nic Bideau.
“I’ve improved a lot this year so overall I’m pretty happy with it, but I want to try and make sure I conclude it well with these last couple of races.
“I want to make sure I’m competitive at the Diamond League Final in Brussels (over 5,000m) at the end of August and then obviously the Continental Cup as well, to top off the good European season I’ve had.”
Now 23, he has set personal bests in 2018 for the 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m. He is prominent on the Australian All-Time list and holds every Tasmanian record from 1500m to 10,000m, including the steeplechase. But it isn’t just on King Island in the Bass Strait and the Australian running community where he will soon be known.
“Once you’ve got a taste, you start going from trying to make teams to try and make sure you are doing well on the big stage. I definitely want to give 2019 World Champs and the Tokyo Olympics a good shot."
Coach Bideau is pleased with McSweyn’s progress so far and knows he is capable of more.
“This has been a breakthrough season for Stewart,” Bideau said. “[There’s been] no major success but he is now understanding what his maximum capability is if he can line everything up.
“He has a fantastic engine and great rhythm. He gets through all the training well and it gets him to the line just able to run a lot easier than many of his rivals. In the 10k in Oslo this year (28:05.37) he looked like he was jogging for much of it.”
The man behind many successful athletics careers and the Melbourne Track Club, knows he is capable of a lot more.
“He has the physical capacity to win at the top level. But still needs to learn how to compete and believe in himself a lot more.
“From day one it was obvious that if you could just get him really super fit and strong he had a bit extra - even if he didn't know it. He was so weak, like Bambi. The engine was there but he had nothing to change gears with. Now he is starting to put it all together and is starting to dream about major success.
“When he arrived, I am not sure he could spell Olympics - now at least success there has crossed his mind.”
Which distance/s will he target?
McSweyn achieved the qualifying standard for the 5,000m at the 2017 World Championships but with three Aussies ahead of him a roll-down position in the steeplechase was where he got his start. With success from 1500m to 10,000m, even with the tremendous depth in Australian middle-distance running, he looks to have plenty of options for future majors.
Commonwealth Games 800m bronze medallist Luke Mathews referred to him as ‘Australia’s most versatile athlete’ on social during his breakthrough season.
“I like the 5k and 10k but I definitely want to run a lot more 1500s because I’ve only run one this season and that went pretty well (3:34.82). I think I’ve run five in my whole life so I definitely want to start running a few more,” McSweyn explained.
“I feel like if I get pretty fit I can still run good miles and 1500s. If I’m fit I don’t get tired and I can close races pretty well.
“I’ve always had a good engine and that speed has just developed now that I am training seriously and doing a lot more work. Definitely my anaerobic speed has improved a lot over the last 12 months.
“I’m just lucky that I don’t need to train a lot of speed. I think all the events help each other a bit so I’m happy doing them all.
Steeple is still an option and I still do some hurdle work. I’m not done with steeple. One day I’ll go back and have a decent crack at it.”
Bideau sees no need for him to specialise just yet but has a feeling where he is most likely to succeed at the 2019 Worlds and Tokyo 2020.
“It will most likely be 5000m. But not ruling out 10,000m or even 1500m. Steeple has been put on hold for now.
And long term?
“Gut feeling is 5000m. But he will work that out for himself. No need to pigeon hole him now.
McSweyn is excited by the idea of running a marathon later in his career once he feels he has fulfilled his potential on the track.
Sub-13 for the 5km is the one time he is chasing
McSweyn focusses on ‘putting everything into training and give it your best on race day and the results hopefully will come.’ But there is one goal he has against the clock.
“There is one time I would like to break though. I’d love to try and get close to that 13min for 5km. There’s only one Australian (Mottram, 12:55.76) whose been able to do it so far.
“It would be pretty cool to one day be the second guy to go sub-13, which is a pretty magical barrier.”
Melbourne Track Club influence
McSweyn moved from King Island in the Bass Strait off Tasmania, to boarding school in Ballarat in central Victoria with his twin brother when he was 13. He continued to make steady progress with his running but the big improvements came in 2016 when he made the move to his current squad and started taking training seriously.
“Definitely the biggest influence has been joining the Melbourne Track Club and training under Nic Bideau,” McSweyn said.
“I owe a lot to the guys I train with every day and also Nic. I definitely wouldn’t be close to what I have done so far this season without them.
“We are pretty lucky. Everyone is pretty good mates in the group so it’s not as bad going overseas and travelling for a few months of the year because you get to hang out with a fair few of your best mates which makes it a lot easier, especially in the hours when you’re not training.”
McSweyn is definitely never bored. He has managed to keep studying full-time throughout his busy year and as soon as he gets off the plane from Europe he’ll go straight into a teaching placement as part of his third-year secondary teaching degree in physical education and English.
“It’s a bit full-on but I’m managing to get it done so it’s not too bad.”
Popular, humble and chilled out (#beansingit)
“He is well liked and good fun,” Bideau said. “He is a low-key guy who is close to family but wants to get on well with all. Certainly, a thinker. But lack of success up to this stage has meant he is not used to feeling like he should win big competitions. But this is changing.”
Bideau and the MTC squad are happy to see their mate have success.
“We generally have an approach where each athlete demands the best of themselves consistently with guys like Birmingham, Gregson and Robinson setting the tone over the last few years,” Bideau explained.
“The level Stewy has run at this year is ensuring that our standards remain high. But his results are no surprise to those that have trained with him the last two years. Everyone is happy to see him doing it in races now and not just on the training track and it is pushing others in the group to keep pace.”
McSweyn is a pretty chilled character on and off the track. Summed up by his #beansingit tag on his social posts.So, what does it mean and where did it come from?
“When I was at school one of my mates used to always say ‘beans’ if it was a situation that was pretty easy going or chilled. Somehow when I was 18 and decided I was going to do an Insta post that I needed to think of a hashtag for my first post and it just came to me, and I’ve been doing it on my posts since then.
It just means chilled or cruising and a few other people get around it, so it’s not too bad.”
Idols and the family farm growing up
‘Because I went to boarding school in Ballarat I really looked up to Collis Birmingham and also I remember when I was younger Brett Robinson was a guy I looked up to when I was coming through,” McSweyn recalls.
“It’s kind of weird when they go from being your idols to guys you start racing.”
McSweyn is a proud Tasmanian who always loves going back to King Island and the family beef and sheep farm. He is sure his childhood has helped him become the athlete and person he is today.
“Growing up on a farm at a young age you become quite a strong person and you grow up pretty quick, doing stuff around the farm from a young age. You learn a lot about routine which I think has transferred to my running.”
He is often referred to as the #kingofkingisland or Mayor of King Island on social and local media.
“I love going back and living on the family farm, and I’ve still got all my school mates down there that keep track of what I’m doing so it’s always good to go back and catch up with those guys and family.”
Having his family and friends able to be part of the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games journey was an unforgettable experience for him.
“It was pretty crazy how many of my friends and family either watched the race or got in contact.
“Compared to any other race, it is the most people following you on the journey into it and then for the two races on the Gold Coast. It’s pretty surreal, I don’t know if we’ll ever have it again in my lifetime, to have a home major, so to be on that Team was pretty cool.”
Closing out 2018 in style and looking beyond
McSweyn is determined to stay healthy and in form up until the Continental Cup in Ostrava from 8-9 September, to give his family and fans plenty more to cheer about.
Bideau has several members of the Melbourne Track Club to keep in shape until September before the athletes can have a break back in Australia. The Olympics are still two years away but always on the coaches mind.
“Even this far out the main focus is getting ready for Tokyo 2020, working out how we can prepare best to be really ready for that. Whatever we do is driven by that at this point.”
Andrew Reid for Athletics Australia