I was born in the bustling, tropical, exotic location of Rockhampton in central Queensland.
“It was a wonderful place to grow up with my two brothers and two sisters. My dad was a ‘bank Johnny’ and my mum was a ‘stay at home’ mum.”
“We lived the almost quintessential Queensland upbringing in beautiful Rockhampton. We lived on the outskirts of town with plenty of room to play near a lagoon and rugby fields.”
“I just ran and played cricket and footy and went to Allenstown state school and Rocky High up until grade 8.”
“Then we moved down to the ‘big smoke’ so I could continue my swimming.”
This Olympic gold medallist, media commentator and corporate speaker, came to international prominence at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.
It was there he broke the world record to win the gold medal in the 200 metres freestyle. An overnight sensation, yes – but of course this achievement did not happen overnight.
Well, being in Rockhampton we swam all the time. Rockhampton is one of those great country towns that has a huge amount of sporting facilities.
“It almost bats above its population weight in terms of sporting facilities. And if you’re recognised in Rockhampton for your sport then it’s a pretty good day,” said Duncan Armstrong.
“That’s all I wanted to do. With rugby league and cricket, and especially swimming.”
I fell in love with swimming
“I started on Wednesday nights with the rest of the family at Rocky Amateurs – a wonderful club, very family orientated and I just fell in love with swimming and fell in love with being in a club like Rocky Amateurs.”
“That really lit the fire and I met a couple of Olympians early and I watched television and saw Steve Holland and a couple of other Olympians doing great things around the world with swimming at such a young age.”
I finally built myself up until I was leading in Central Queensland. I would go to swimming meets in Bundaberg and Gladstone and Moura and Mt Morgan. You name it.
“We would travel away on weekends with the swimming club and compete against other kids my own age. And dad saw the potential in me so he moved the 800 kilometres..got a transfer in the bank.”
“We found a house in Carindale (Brisbane) which was 8-minutes from the Chandler swimming pool where there was a quiet, short, hairy coach down there called Laurie Lawrence.”
Laurie had a habit of producing champions much like Wayne Bennett or Craig Bellamy or other great coaches who we know.
“Laurie had a powerhouse squad at Chandler pool of about 65 kids and he’d place about 10 of those kids in each national team wherever it was going that year.”
“Whether it would be world championships or Commonwealth Games or the Olympic Games, Laurie had a fantastic record of placing young, hopeful Queenslanders on those Australian teams.”
“Dad saw that. He wanted me to be part of that. So at the age of 14 no pressure – everybody changed schools or changed jobs and away I went with Laurie Lawrence.”
A tough initiation
“That was a 9-year relationship professionally with Laurie and I’ve had 30-years of therapy (sic) because of it.”
“Laurie was a fantastic leader, a fantastic general, a wonderful coach and a great man. A wonderful influence on me from about 14 on to about 24. So I was in the Laurie Lawrence swim team and very proud of it,” Duncan said.
It was a tough initiation and such a high standard compared to Rockhampton and it took me about 2-years before I came out of a fatigue fog.
“But slowly with hard work and determination I slowly grew in the squad until I was a contender and made the Australia team when I was 18 after being in the squad for 3-years.”
“I was off to the Olympics at 20 and got a gold medal there as well. I was very fortunate and basically lived a swimming dream that I used to dream about at Rockhampton.”
“I was very, very fortunate to have the winners surrounding me and the culture that was created in that team,” Duncan shared before heaping more praise on swimming’s super coach Laurie Lawrence.
“I don’t think Australia has ever seen a personality like Laurie Lawrence before. So when he does become unhinged and unleashed and completely euphoric and in the moment, it really is a spectacular sight.”
But come post-Olympic stardom and having to try and find his place in the real world, it was Duncan who became unhinged.
There was drugs and sex and booze and rock ‘n roll as I chased the media dream and things like that. A marriage that folded after 2-years and I met this girl.
“There were the big houses and cars and moving interstate and overseas and chasing a wholeness I just couldn’t find.”
“Then about the age of 35 and about to go through the cycle again, finding another partner, finding another house, a boat and a big car, and it wasn’t working out for Becky and I.”
Couple with a deep faith
“We’d been together for a while – I didn’t want to get married and she wanted to get married.”
“Then Becky started going to church in Brisbane and I was living in Sydney, so I moved back to Brisbane to basically chase Becky.”
I was missing her after she’d left our place in Sydney. And Becky had met this couple who were very deep in their faith and had a strong marriage.
“And I really liked the bloke Ian, or ‘Biggy’ as he was known and whom I got to know. My idea of mateship was basically to befriend a very strong guy who’s got more than you…”
“…and over time to just wear him down and get in front of him and compete, compete, compete and compete.”
Toxic mateships…until ‘Biggy’
“And then when you’ve got more than him you basically walk past him on to the next mate.”
“My idea of mateship was completely toxic,” Duncan confessed.
So ‘Biggy’ went to church and so did his lovely wife Barb. So I went to church one day.
“It was very entertaining. It was a ‘happy clappy’, Pentecostal church and everyone’s clapping along to the tune, and they had the karaoke board and the band.”
“I just mocked it and mocked it and mocked it…” But six visits later.
“I’ve had this unbelievable encounter with God. This weight landed on me, I was almost hyperventilating, and there was this purity of love I’d never felt before.”
The crying began again
“It’s hard to articulate it 15-years on, but at the time I didn’t know what was happening because my idea of love was very skewed and wrapped up in competition and status and all the things that love is not,” Duncan testified.
Duncan said he burst into tears as he had this unbelievable encounter with what he now knows was the Lord.
It lasted a couple of minutes and then it lifted and I couldn’t believe the flavour of it, the taste of it, the feeling of it, or the depth of it, and then the crying began again.
For Duncan Armstrong the crying would go on for a year.
“Every time I thought about Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for us and the overwhelming love He has for us.”
“Every time I’d touch on that I’d burst into tears, which is problematic for a guy.”
A very humble thing
“We’ve got three beautiful kids together now Becky and I and our lives have never been deeper or richer or more colourful or more loving than ever before.”
“Jesus has become my absolute rock in the way I approach my life and the people in my life,” Duncan confirmed.
Sharing His Word and sharing His love in one of my favourite things to do. It’s a very humble thing we get to do as Christians and followers.
“We get to share the Good News about Jesus Christ and the overwhelming passion He has for us and the depth of His love.”
It was at this moment Duncan admitted he once again was fighting to keep his emotions under control.
If you would like to listen to the full audio interview click play below
Duncan Armstrong OAM
Success is a process. You learn how to achieve – and then make it happen.” Duncan Armstrong approaches everything with the same zestful attitude – the very one that helped him win gold at the Seoul Olympics and has inspired countless others to achieve their highest personal goals.
Raised in the Central Queensland town of Rockhampton, Duncan Armstrong rose to national and international fame at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 when he broke the world record to win the Gold medal in the 200 metres freestyle. Duncan formed a winning relationship with madcap coach Laurie Lawrence which spanned 10 years, collecting Gold at the Commonwealth Games, Pan Pacific Championships and numerous national and international competitions.
During his career Duncan also won a host of honours out of the water, including Young Australian of the Year and an Order of Australia Medal. After representing Australia at two Olympic Games, Duncan retired from the pool in 1993 to pursue a career in media and corporate coaching. Duncan is currently contracted with Fox Sports and presents all their swimming coverage, as well as hosts Fox Sports Central on Sundays. He also owns his own business called Smith and Sons.
Duncan has had the pleasure of working alongside some of Australia’s biggest corporations to motivate their staff and clients, using tailored seminars in leadership, success, embracing change, teamwork and more. Using all the tools he employed in his march towards Olympic Gold, Duncan provides a detailed roadmap designed to motivate students to achieve better results.