By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Encouraging performances at the Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific Championships have continued the resurrection of Australian swimming, but head coach Jacco Verhaeren is reluctant to declare that the sleeping giant has awakened.
Australia finished the four-day Pan Pacs at the Gold Coast on Sunday with 10 gold from 26 medals, second only to the United States' powerful team which reaped 40 overall, including 14 gold.
Coming weeks after a predictably dominant showing in the Commonwealth Games pool in Glasgow, Australia's swimmers have lapped up the acclaim, with no less than the country's Olympic chiefs declaring them as "world beaters".
The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) gave the team a glowing report card halfway through the Games cycle, saying they would snatch 18 medals, including eight golds, from the Rio pool in 2016 based on current world rankings.
The "virtual" medal tally is a far cry from the solitary title won at the London Games, which sparked scathing reviews and a clean-out of team management last year.
Dutchman Verhaeren, installed in October as part of the shake-up, is also optimistic, but backs away from claims the team has regained its "mojo".
"Hearing the feedback from coaches and athletes and staff involved, I think everybody's very happy where we're heading," the 45-year-old, who coached Olympic champions Inge de Bruijn and Pieter van den Hoogenband, told Reuters in a phone interview on Wednesday.
"We made great steps in the team and in performance and especially transferring great results in trials in April to the major events this year, so that was a big step forward.
"At the same time, it was the Commonwealth Games and the Pan Pacs. We're facing serious competition at the world championships and Olympics the following year, so I still think it suits us to stay humble."
Australian swimming has had to eat a surfeit of humble pie in recent years, with their spectacular flop at the London pool the biggest serving.
The nation's swimmers have long been relied upon to grab a swag of golds at the Olympics and inspire their team mates outside the pool, but failed to win a single individual title in London and slumped to their lowest medal tally in 20 years.
The disappointment led to a series of reviews, one of which reported allegations of drunkenness and bullying among team members and management failure to nip problems in the bud.
A scandal involving the men's 4x100 meters freestyle team taking prescription sleeping tablets, which had been banned by the AOC, heaped further embarrassment on the team, which subsequently had its government funding cut.
Repairing the culture of a team bruised by failure and riven by conflict has been a meticulous process, with leading swimmers charged with enforcing standards in tandem with coaches and sports psychologists.
Verhaeren praised world 100 meters freestyle champion Cate Campbell and Thomas Fraser-Holmes, who won the 200m freestyle gold at the Pan Pacs, for being key agents of change.
"The athlete leaders have done a great job in re-establishing the team culture," he said.
"I always believe that when change or improvements are coming from within, it makes it a lot stronger.
"It is fair to say, all together, we succeeded in doing that. This is the first and really biggest gain this year. And from this it was possible to perform very well at the Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacs."
Boasting powerful 100m freestyle relay teams and the reigning individual world champions in Campbell and James Magnussen, Australia can look ahead to next year's world championships in Kazan and the 2016 Rio Olympics with hope of regaining its former standing as a swimming superpower.
They can also look back at London as a reminder of the dangers of hubris. As raging favorite to win the 100m freestyle, Magnussen's pre-Games warning to rivals to "brace themselves" came back to bite him when he was pipped for the gold by American Nathan Adrian.
"At the stage where swimming in Australia is now, it's wise to not count the medals too much but to try to make the medals count," Verhaeren added.
"I'm not working with numbers. I'm working with people. Every medal, whether gold, silver or bronze has its own story and history... Sometimes a bronze medal can feel like a gold and sometimes a silver can feel like a loss.
"The essence of sport and elite sport is to be at your best at the moment that it counts and I do believe we still have some steps to make this progress."
(Editing by John O'Brien)