The
Inspiration
Project

WITH BRENDAN CORR

GUEST Duncan Armstrong

Episode 09

Duncan Armstrong: Episode Summary

On this episode of ‘The Inspiration Project’, Brendan Corr talks to Duncan Armstrong about winning a gold medal, growing up in Rockhampton and living authentically for Jesus.

Among other things Duncan shares:

  • how turmoil reshapes priorities.
  • how growing up in Rockhampton influenced his success.
  • how swimming won his attention over Rugby League.
  • why determination is a better predictor of success than talent.
  • ️how swimming is both a team and individual sport.
  • a vivid description of what it feels like after winning an Olympic Gold Medal.
  • the importance of older men investing into the next generation.
  • from toxic relationships and substance abuse to Jesus.

Duncan Armstrong: Episode Transcript

Sponsor Announcement
This podcast is sponsored by Australian Christian College, a network of schools committed to student wellbeing, character development, and academic improvement.

Introduction
Welcome to The Inspiration Project, where well-known Christians share their stories, to inspire young people in their faith and life. Here’s your host, Brendan Corr.

Brendan Corr
Hi everybody, welcome to another episode of The Inspiration Project podcast. We have with us this morning Duncan Armstrong. Duncan is a well-known Australian, in fact a celebrated Australian, I think we would venture to say. Came to prominence through his sporting success, firstly winning gold medals in the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, and then most proudly for our nation stepping into the Seoul Olympics, and winning gold medals, and holding world records in that space. The year after, being elected the Young Australian of the Year, and winning an Order of Australia Medal. In 1993, Duncan exited the pool for the last time in a competitive sense, and has moved into the world of media and corporate coaching. Duncan Armstrong, I’m absolutely delighted to have you with us. How are you today?

Duncan Armstrong
I’m pretty good, Brendan. I’m shut in like everybody else around the globe at the moment, but I’m handling it okay. It’s really, really nice to speak to you. You know, your circle’s come down to your family, and tight friends, your mates and things like that. So it’s really great to be here on the Inspiration Project, to speak to you about whatever we’re going to speak about. That’s the exciting part, I don’t know what we’re going to speak about, that is going to be good.

Brendan Corr
Well, we haven’t sent you through a list of questions, so it’s going to be, see where we go. As an avid sports fan myself, I am feeling the loss of live sport, you know? You flick on Foxtel and there’s repeats of 1993 grand finals, the US Open on the golf channel, and all sorts of things. As a commentator of sport, what’s it meant for you, this lockdown of live entertainment sport?

Duncan Armstrong
It’s a really interesting dynamic, isn’t it? As a grown Australian man, I’ve never actually had this much taken off me before. So it’s a really, really interesting position. I admit, I haven’t been a TV commentator for a few years. But I can imagine that it must be really, really difficult, because you get into these rhythms in your life, especially as a man. You get into these rhythms, and the weekend sport rhythm, especially when you work in it, is such a rhythm in your life. You’re basically, you build up to it, you do your research, you look at it. Who’s playing, who’s swimming, who’s running, who’s cricketing, who’s who. And to have that taken off you must be very, very weird, as just an armchair sports fan like myself now. When the Rugby League sort of said… Because I’m crazy about my Rugby League. I grew up in a little country town called Rockhampton, where Rugby League is very, very important. And so, probably my biggest sporting passion right now is Ruby League, and to have the NRL sort of say, “We’ve got to align with everything else and keep people safe, and we’re going to be cancelling, basically, the next season really,” when you look at the recovery. At first I was really cross, I was really angry. I sort, “Aw,” you know, all of those sort of things. You think, “How dare you, and this is crazy, and this is nothing but a flu, and let’s take steps to isolate all the players, and they can play somewhere in isolation.” It was really all about me, so I got a little bit cross and things like that. But it must be very difficult for those sporting people in sport, all sport, whether you’re in admin, coaching, or actually playing it. Or in satellite businesses, like the coverage, television, the radio, the catering, the grounds, the ground staff. You can only look at how much we get involved in sport, and how many thousands of Australian basically call that their bread and butter. And not to be lining up on the weekend, you know, the first Friday night this came up, about four weeks ago when the NRL stopped, I think I’ve said to my wife, I said, “This is probably the first time in about 80 years that Rugby League’s not been played in this country on a Friday night.”

Brendan Corr
Yeah, I think you’d be right.

Duncan Armstrong
And yeah, I mean, on Saturday it’d be a lot more likely to be 110 years. And she said, “Really?” And I said, “Yeah, this is the profound effect that Covid-19 is having on us as a society.” These things that have been going for hundreds of years, or 800 years, is no longer going. And yeah, you might look at it fairly flippant, where people are losing their lives, and family members are dying, and things like that, and what’s happening overseas is really difficult. But when you do talk about how your life has changed, and you’re watching replays on TV because that’s all you’ve got, it shows you just how much of a religion, almost, sport is in this country, when -

Brendan Corr
Interesting observation.

Duncan Armstrong
… a man of faith… You can be a man of faith, you can follow Jesus, he can be the most central thing in life, but it’s not until something that you sort of have faith in, Rugby League, gets taken away from you, and you denied it, and you sit there going, “Oh, well, that’s actually a lot more meaningful than I thought it was.”

Brendan Corr
Yeah, that’s right.

Duncan Armstrong
So it lets you do a bit of a reassess, that’s for sure.

Brendan Corr
Indeed, puts priorities in place. I want to come back and ask you a bit about the development of sport into the business it’s become, and what’s your perspective on that. But let me take you back, you mentioned you grew up in Rockhampton, a little town, north Queensland. Obviously you’re a Cowboys fan, that’s your Rugby League team? No?

Duncan Armstrong
No, brother. No, no, no, no.

Brendan Corr
Okay, set us right, what’s-

Duncan Armstrong
Cowboys are a good team, but mate, they’re not the Broncos, so…

Brendan Corr
Oh, the Broncos, okay. So still a Queensland, through and through?

Duncan Armstrong
Yeah, 1988 the Broncos entered the competition by playing Manly in round one.

Brendan Corr
Oh, he knows his history.

Duncan Armstrong
Manly were the 1987 Premier, so in 1988 we got a national team in the Rugby League, and I went to the Olympics. So 88, for me-

Brendan Corr
That is the year.

Duncan Armstrong
… was amazing, yeah.

Brendan Corr
The zenith. Well given your love for Ruby League, which is obvious, and your continuing love for that sport, why didn’t you end up playing Rugby League? How did you end up devoting your life to swimming, or a fair part of your life to swimming?

Duncan Armstrong
Yeah, I made the Queensland Team, Under 13 Rugby League, and I played against Chief Harrigan in a selection match under the lights in Rockhampton when I was 13. And I played with Gary Larson and a couple of the other guys-

Brendan Corr
Wow.

Duncan Armstrong
… who went on with their careers, and stuff like that. I was playing cricket, playing Rugby League, and swimming. And at Rockhampton, you can swim almost all the way through the year, it’s so tropical and hot. And it had two 50 metre pools, one on the north side, one on the south side. So Rockhampton was one of those beautiful little country towns that batted well above its sporting weight and population, and sport was the big export. If you could be something in Rockhampton, in sport we had world champions, and we had Olympic champions, we had Olympic gold… Commonwealth Games gold medalists like Henry Tucker in cycling, and we had Rod Reedy was from Rockhampton-

Brendan Corr
Goodness.

Duncan Armstrong
And so we had this wonderful and rich, beautiful sporting history, and every school seemed to have someone who wore the green and gold. And our state school was like that too, and we had this wonderful, deputy principal who was one of the 1942 Kokoda legends-

Brendan Corr
Really?

Duncan Armstrong
… and still had shrapnel in his body, and a really, really strong person, personality. And he’d walk around with the cane, and he’d poke you with the cane and say, “Are you a bold boy?” And you’d go, “Yes, Mr. Hogan, I’m a bold boy.” And he goes, “Good, because Australia needs bold boys to lead us.” And so I had this rich, rich sort of calling out of my manhood from an early age from great men, who loved their jobs. He loved being a teacher, he loved going to states school, he loved Rockhampton, and he was very, very big in the Rockhampton Rugby League community as well. So there was all these connecting networks around strong men giving me a purpose in sport, and stuff like that. So that was really, really influential on me, to sort of choose sport as something I wanted to go into. And this is what I firmly believe, I firmly believe that your sport actually picks you.

Brendan Corr
Really?

Duncan Armstrong
Because when I was playing Rugby League, playing cricket, doing representation, I went and got selected by the Central Queensland Swimming Team, and I had a win. And that win really sort of tipped the balance between Rugby League and cricket and swimming, and that win led to a tracksuit and team, and that team led to another carnival, and I was able to win that. So swimming really, I feel, chose me, rather than those other sports. And I’ll always have a passion for Rugby League, and a little bit for cricket, but swimming really made a lot more sense at that crucial time when I was able to go on with it.

Brendan Corr
When you’re describing that, do you think it was physical attributes that suited you to success in the pool, rather than on a footy field?

Duncan Armstrong
Yeah, no, it’s hard to say. Desire has got more determination… Sorry, desire determines your future more than your physical attributes. There’s more talented swimmers walking around the streets than me, like Suzzie O’Neil you’ve got all these great legends of the pool, more than me. There’s more Darren Lockyers walking around the paddock, there’s more Corey Parkers… Sorry, walking around the streets, but if they don’t have the discipline to actually take what attributes they’ve got and align it to a desire to be the best they possibly can be, that fuels their hard work that gets them in front of the talented kids, or the more physically capable kids, and then young adults and go on and on and on. So you have to marry up this unbelievable work ethic with whatever you’ve got, and you can call that talent, class, physical attributes, whatever it is. But whatever you’ve got in that from your genetics, you’ve got to saddle it up with the discipline, the hard work, and the uncompromised belief that you can be something in this. Because if you don’t have the belief, you don’t have the hard work, and you don’t have the talent, you’re gone, okay? And that’s not a horrible gone, that’s just basically, you’re not going to do well against kids who’ve got it. And so when I look at my swimming career, I just really understood that I want to do the hard work. I really understood what it felt like to win, and I really understood that I’m not going to win with what I’ve got, because I was never going to be the tallest, never going to be the biggest, I was never going to be the strongest, I was never going to be the fastest. But I could outwork all of those things if I was willing. So I’ve always been more willing to do the work than the guy next to me, and that has always put me in front when it comes game time, or race time at whatever games I was going to.

Brendan Corr
Hearing you describe Rockhampton and the over-representation that that little town has for the elite sports, and Mr. Hogan prodding you with his cane, calling out your manhood as you described, how much of that resolved that determination was inherent in you as a personality, how much was the culture that you grew in? Family culture, town culture, school culture?

Duncan Armstrong
Yeah, I think it… I think the culture, and the environmental culture has a huge influence on basically where you end up in your sporting career, or where you end up in your life. Because all these lessons from a Mr. Hogan, or Mr. Picard, or your dad, or your crazy uncle who you saw once or twice a year, but he was a strong man and he called out your manhood, all this environment, all this culture comes back to you in waves during tough times and hard time. And they become your cornerstone. And so that’s why it’s so important that as men, we invest in young boys around us, we invest in their journey, and we have to be very careful about how we uplift them and how we… That’s why I like the name of your podcast, it’s that inspiration. We have to inspire our young men, with these anthems, sayings like I just said and described of my tongue from Mr. Hogan. And then when I ran into Laurie Lawrence years later coming down to Rockhampton, he was going to be my coach to take me to that Olympic level, Laurie had all these anthems as well, where he didn’t have a cane to poke us and ask us if we were bold, but he had 50 other sayings that awoke my manhood, that brought me across the bridge of adolescence, and challenged me to do more than just sitting around the couch, or sitting around allowing life to give me what it says I should have. Instead, these anthems awoke my manhood, and inspired me to go out and create my future, and create the results that I could be proud of. And so I totally believe what you said, Brendan, is that this is a cultural thing, that I was lucky enough to grow up around these men who poked and prodded me, and asked me to be bold, and called me out. And my dad had a lot to do with it, and my family had a lot to do with it. I’m number four out of five kids, so that had something to do with it, when you look at the spacing, and the number of kids, and where you are in that line, and whether your dad made a lot of money, whether your dad didn’t make a lot of money, whether food was scarce, whether it wasn’t scarce, whether you had a new bike every year, or you didn’t have it. All this goes into sort of whether you’re going to be willing to work at a goal, or work at being better, all of that rolls into it. But going back to your question, I was very lucky with Rockhampton, I was very lucky with the men in Rockhampton, and my dad, and my family. And I was very fortunate to be able to play two or three sports before swimming arrived, because then I wasn’t completely unbalanced. I had a team sport, I knew what it meant to pull your weight. So when I went into the swimming squad, I had that team feeling, I wanted to do well as a team as well. So I had that sort of balance in terms of, it’s all about me, or it’s all about the team, but I had a combo of both. And so rather than sort of arrogance.

Brendan Corr
That’s interesting, yeah. I think people unfamiliar with the working of that sport would see swimming is a very individual enterprise, it’s just you and the line on the bottom of the pool and your training, and it’s you and the time. There isn’t necessarily an understanding about team, but you found that? You found that the swimming squad, the Olympic team, the Commonwealth Games team reinforced your motivation and your sense of identity?

Duncan Armstrong
Absolutely. So the paradoxical sport, what you’re calling out there, yes, I’m the only one on the blocks when the game goes, so it’s really only up to me, it’s all up to me. I either win, and usually you’re in a team when you win, or you fail and you’re all a low. So the old saying, victory has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. So it’s a paradoxical sport, because you’re standing on the blocks alone, you’ve got to get the job done. But, you’ve got this enormous team around you, from your parents and your family, to your nutritionist, and your massage and physios, and your kinesiologist, and your running coach, and swimming coach, and weight coach. And then you’ve got your sponsors on top of that, your business arrangements with people investing in you. You’ve got your business manager, you’ve got accountancy. So there’s this huge team that’s all coming down to the four laps. You’re doing them, but everyone’s riding on your back with it. And as soon as you’re called out, it’s a really, really serious dynamic, in terms of being able to cope, not only just with the pressure of that, but also if bad days and he gets to the pool at 4:45, and you don’t want to be there, it’s a Thursday morning, it’s the middle of winter, you’re three years away from the Olympic Games so the big shows way off in the distance. And you’re looking around going, “You know, this doesn’t make any sense. I’m not getting anywhere, I’m not getting faster, this is too much, I don’t want to do my 200 laps today.” And then a teammate will look at you and go, “Man, you are swimming so well,” you know, see something that you don’t, and just picks you up. Just picks you up with that support, picks you up with that one sentence, picks you up with that little bit of enthusiasm for your career that you don’t feel. And hopefully, some days you’re doing that as well, you’re calling out when you see good performance, you’re calling out when your teammates might be struggling, you put your arm around them and all that kind of thing. So very much like we’re doing with the Covid-19 thing, we’re being asked to check in with mates, we’re being asked to call people, and it might be just that little pickup that people need at this time. And in the pool, in the dark of the winter, long way away from sort of the reward that you’re all training for, sometimes it’s just that teamwork that just, that nudge gets you across the line from that particular session. And then, by the afternoon you’ve covered a bit, might have had a nap in the afternoon, you’ve eaten your food, you feel better, and you roll on. And sometimes it’s just that, you just need that nudge to keep rolling. So yeah, it’s a paradoxical sport. We travel as a team, we eat as a team, but we swim individually. And the work doesn’t get done by itself or the team, it has to get done by you. So there’s a real reality to that, there’s some reality in terms of, “Oh.” But there’s also some joy in it, because you’re surrounded by people doing it. So you’re all heading off in the one direction, you’re all in the same bus, and it is tremendously exciting.

Brendan Corr
Yeah. Again, as an observer for the broadcaster, you hear people talk about the strength of the team on poolside, and what that means, and whether there’s good morale in the team, and how it affects individual performances, that’s the ultimate expression of what you’re describing. You’re out there in the Olympic village, and you’re there with your co-competitors, and you draw on their strength, you draw on their success to spur you along?

Duncan Armstrong
Yeah, absolutely, yeah. It’s a bit of momentum, like the Olympic dynamic is crazy, you know? The race I spent most time in is the 200 metre freestyle, it’s one minute, 45 seconds, right that’s it, so you’ve got four laps…

Brendan Corr
It takes you one minute forty five seconds? It takes me a bit longer.

Duncan Armstrong
Yeah, wow. If you get in that range you’d better be seeing 1:45, otherwise you won’t be in that arena. At the Olympic level, you’re swimming 1:45. So it’s one minute and 45 seconds of one day, every four years.

Brendan Corr
Yeah, that’s amazing, isn’t it? Wow.

Duncan Armstrong
And then the four year clock is just ticking away the whole time, because on that day, whether it be the 19th of August, so it should have been this year, or the night in September like it was in 1988, the gun is going to go, and there’s going to be eight guys in that final, and there’s no pity. It’s like a great white shark, there’s no pity, there’s no… It doesn’t matter if your short… It doesn’t matter if you’re sick, it doesn’t matter if you’re injured, it doesn’t matter if you miss the bus, it doesn’t matter if you don’t get there on time, you’ll get EQ’d, and it will go, and someone will win this run. And so that sort of pressure means that, when you’ve been to the Olympic Games in that Olympic team, and there’s only 36 selected every four years, that you have the tracksuit on, you have the crest on your chest, on your heart with the Olympic rings, Australia, you’re representing. And so you fought your way into one of those 36 tracksuits, and then it becomes about us and them. And it’s this enormous support group sort of saying, “We will stand strong in this pressure. We will stand together, and we’ll fall together, or we’ll win together, but we will be together.” And that, that makes it manageable. Not all the time, but if you’re lucky enough to draw on that strength, hold your head up high, wear the tracksuits, square your shoulders, and get out there, and just swim like you’ve trained to swim, and not let the pressure get to you… I remember looking up on the stands on the pool deck, and you’re on the pool deck for 20 minutes doing intros and things. So the four year clock comes down to 20 minutes, okay?

Brendan Corr
Mm-hmm.

Duncan Armstrong
And you’ve put in hundreds and thousands of laps, hundreds and thousands of mornings, and here’s your moment happening in 20 minutes, and everything is going on in your head. You’re sweating, your legs are shaking, you’ve never been to the Olympics before. Every Olympics every four years is different, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve been to six, this one’s a new one at course. And you look up at the stands, and your mates are all sitting there just going, “Mate, you’ve got this, you’ve got this, you’ve got this.” And you look in their eyes, and then you calm down, and you sit there going, “Right, I’ve got this.” And you turn around, and you get into the business of it. So that’s when that teamwork really, really comes alive, in the hot pot, cauldron of the four year clock at the Olympic Games, in a foreign land with much, bigger, stronger teams like the USSR, Russia, East Germany, America, they all had better teams than us. So for us, it was a little bit like the season mentality you see in some Rugby League teams, where it’s us against them, and you really draw on that strength. You draw on that bond, and you draw on that patch touching your arm, touching your heart. Because then we all get an opportunity to improve the brand, or take away from it, every day that we’re in it. And it really means something when you’re representing a line of people wearing that tracksuit, going back to 1896, and everybody who’s going to come after you. You know this is your place in the team, and you’ve got to square your shoulders and look… Look left and right, see the legends before you, see the legends to come, and own your spot.

Brendan Corr
Yeah. That’s fantastic, beautiful description, thank you. That was very vivid. You sort of have a sense of what it must have been, the intensity of standing on that block saying, “This is it, this gun, and it’s four years of hard work and effort, maybe longer, that you’ve been building to this time.” So you’ve had the benefit of-

Duncan Armstrong
So again, it’s-

Brendan Corr
Sorry?

Duncan Armstrong
It’s about the older… Sorry, it’s about the older men too, sort of investing in you. Like the captains of the team that’d come before you are investing in you, by almost poking you with the cane, like Mr. Hogan. And I remember Laurie would look at us on deck, and he would start describing it, and started really breaking it down. Because the more rehearsing you can mentally do before you get on deck at the Olympic Games, the better off you’re going to be. So nothing is too much of a surprise. And Laurie would always look at us and go, “Eight men in the final, eight men can win this race. Someone’s got to win this race, it might as well be you.”

Brendan Corr
That is Laurie Lawrence, I can hear that.

Duncan Armstrong
Yeah, and that’s the way these anthem stories work on young men, by making it simple, and opening their mind that someone’s got to win this race when the gun goes on this day.

Brendan Corr
Possibility.

Duncan Armstrong
It might as well be you. It means everything. You’ve had the success story at the end, you’ve stood on the blocks, the gun’s gone, four laps finished, and you’ve got the gold medal. What does it feel like when you realise that all of that work and effort has reaped the rewards that you hoped for, you’re a winner? Yeah, it actually struck me a bit differently Brendan. I thought it would be something completely… Than what actually eventuated, what actually unfolded. What happened was, I touched the world record time, so there’s your lifelong goal to break the world record. Now I was two tenths in front of the rest of the field, so I’ve got my hand on the wall first at the Olympic Games, and everything turns into slow motion. Because it becomes, I knew my reality, doing the business of swimming. I hit the wall, and then everything I’ve dreamed of, I now enter… It becomes surreal. You put this in your attitude, you put this moment in your subconscious. So here’s a bit of psychology for you sports lovers out there. If you don’t cement something in your subconscious, it’s never going to happen. You’ve got to dream it into your reality. So Darren Lockyer, myself, Ian Thorpe, Susie O’Neil, Kathy Freeman, we’ve all run our races, or kicked the field goal, or passed the perfect pass a million times in our head, to cement it in our subconscious, right?

Brendan Corr
Yeah.

Duncan Armstrong
So when the opportunity comes up, bang, we can make it reality. And it’s a little bit like Lotto winners. Say a lotto winner wins $5 million, and they’ve never been really wealthy in their life, and they hand back that $5 million under two years. Why? Because they’ve never had in their subconscious what it’s like to be wealthy, therefore they go back to their subconscious and their reality by giving it away and going back to being not well-off. And same as athletes. I can talk to an athlete and I go, “Mate, what’s your dreams? Tell me what your dreams are mate.” And he goes, “Oh, look, I just want to make the Australian team.” And I’m like, “Oh, you’ve got to rip up those dreams, because that might not be high enough.”

Brendan Corr
Yeah, right.

Duncan Armstrong
“And you might be shooting a little bit low, because you need to be able to see how you make the Australian team. Not just being in the Australian team tracksuit, but what’s the race that’s going to put you there? What does it look like, what does it smell like, what does it sound like, what does it feel like?” Because if you can rev up basically how you see it and crystallise it, it will happen for you, if you do all the work, and that can execute it, right?

Brendan Corr
Yeah.

Duncan Armstrong
So when I touched that wall, I basically entered my subconscious, I entered basically what I’d dreamed about. And so it really slows down, and it’s not reality anymore, it’s all around you. And you look around the board, and there’s the eight finalists, and there’s you, D. Armstrong, lane six, from Australia, AUS, and then WR next to it, and then just this one flashing, going blink, blink, blink, blink. And you’ve seen it in history, you’ve seen all of the Olympic races before you, you know exactly what it means, and you’ve dreamed about this moment. It’s just all around you, and then the other competitors are thanking you. Then what I felt more than anything else, more than elation, more than anything else was relief, because what you just said. As you said, I asked the question, all the laps, all that hard work, all of the dedication, all the hard decisions I’ve had to make, all the choices to go to the pool instead of going and doing stuff that a teenager does. It’s not a sacrifice, don’t get me wrong. I was preparing myself for this moment. But, it was a hard decision at the time. And so when I touched the wall first, instead of saying, “Yes, I’ve got all my goals,” I’ve gone, “Yes, it was all worth it.”

Brendan Corr
Yeah, fantastic.

Duncan Armstrong
Yeah, and then you’re sort of like, life takes a completely different turn, and the rest of it you haven’t prepared for. You’ve prepared for the swimming, but you haven’t prepared for the excitement outside, and how it changes everybody’s life. So that then becomes the challenge.

Brendan Corr
Right at the start of our conversation, Duncan, you made mention of the fact that you’re a follower of Jesus, that you’re a man of faith. Can you share with us a bit about how that became part of your life, and what role it now plays in your identity.

Duncan Armstrong
Yeah, look, I found… We weren’t churchgoers, Brendan, my family, growing up Rockhampton, we went for funerals and weddings only to church. And even dad was quite prejudiced about how the church had… I guess had disappointed him and his family, back in the day. And they don’t talk about stuff like that, they’re not going to go into it, but that’s basically just the way it went. So I didn’t have much of a… I knew who Jesus was, and things like that. But by the time I got to around about 35 years of age, I’d already been married, had two kids, got a quick divorce, I was only married two years. Got into a 15-year custody battle with my ex-wife, that was just toxic. I wasn’t running a lot of good mateships at that stage, my idea of a mate was to find a bloke, move past him, drop him like a bad habit, move onto the next challenge, next challenge.

Duncan Armstrong
So I took all that hyper competition out of the water, and that I learned in that environment, and tried to apply it to every environment. To my media, to my businesses, to my family, to my mates, so-called lover. And so by the time I turned 35, I was really in a bad spot. I used to take drugs, I used to drink, I became a drunk, smoking, I had all this sort of thing. Meanwhile, I was in all the papers, doing all the magazines, doing all the commentary, and everyone in the world was saying, “What a winner, what a successful dude.” And I was living this really two-faced life, I was living the magazine story, which wasn’t real, and I manufactured that. And inside I was just toxic and crushed, I was just… I was addicted to bad behaviour, really. So I went through all these really, really challenges, to think about where the swimming stopped, and where those values should remain.

Duncan Armstrong
And what values I really wanted to have in the areas I was living my life then. And everybody just wanted to talk about the gold medals, everyone just wanted to talk about the swimming career, everyone just wanted to talk about TV, everyone… So it was interesting, I was basically a victim of trying to please everybody, and what they wanted from me, instead of sort of diving into who I am as a person, and looking at the swimming, and the TV, and everything as something just I do. So I was really confused with my identity in that, and I met this amazing girl, she was my girlfriend, we were going out for about eight years. And she started going to church on the quiet, without being known, because girls are smarter than blokes, we all know that. And so she’d already worked out that we were going nowhere. And we were going nowhere in a really, really sort of toxic way. And so she really wanted more, she wanted more than basically the life that we had. So she started going to church, and then a really strong mate took me to church around about six weeks later than that, I had this God encounter about the sixth or seventh time I was there. And what God did was, He just basically… He opened my heart to who I really was, the truth of who I am, through Him. And it absolutely ruined me, it made… Every time I think about Jesus I cry and sweat, cry and sweat. I don’t know why the combination of sweating and crying is such a thing, but I would cry and cry and cry, because He was really making it transparent how hard I was working in all these unworthy areas. And all this work I’d invested in who I thought I was, and my ego, and my control, and my toxic manhood, I really thought that was a lie. And He’s going to show me, he goes, “Duncan, I didn’t make you for any of that. Stick with me, I’ll show you who you are in me, and give you real strength and colour in your life.” And that’s the deal He was trying to push at me, and I just rejected it. I was like, “No way,” because I was a control freak. You don’t become an Olympic champion without becoming a control freak, and I’d applied that-

Brendan Corr
Yeah, highly disciplined.

Duncan Armstrong
… to everything part of my life. Yeah. And so I was crying, and I was upset, because I had been introduced to the truth through Jesus Christ in this encounter, and I couldn’t control it, and I was really upset about it. And I was really, really angry about it, so I read every atheistic book I could find, I went and listened to seminars on people who were trying to turn Jesus into a man, the world-famous leaders who were going to help me get my control back in my toxic masculinity that I wanted, because that was the only thing that I knew, and Jesus just kept on giving me a nudge, giving me a nudge, going, “No, no, just look at me now.”

Brendan Corr
Yeah, wow.

Duncan Armstrong
And finally, about six or seven months later, Becky and I, we came to God, he was just so gentle with us, and me and my toxic manhood, basically when I came to God, I thought He was lucky to have me. I’d work around sort of praying to Him going, “Well mate, I’ve given my heart to you, you’d better make this good. Let’s go, what are you going to give me today?”

Brendan Corr
Is it going to be worth my while?

Duncan Armstrong
Oh man, I was such a crazy person about it, I was such an idiot. But you could really hear Jesus laugh at it all, because He just loves us so much, and He loves us individually, know what we need, and His plan is so much richer and deeper and more colourful than any plan or goal, or anything I could possibly do from the subconscious. He’s got this planned for me. And so it took a long time, and it’s still taking a long time now, it’s 15, 16 years. My wife, Becky and I, we were married within eight months of coming to God, and we had this beautiful little girl, we started our family pretty much 12 months after that. So we’ve got three beautiful kids at home, I’ve got my two older boys, who are 29 and 30 this year from my first marriage. And my wife, my relationship with my ex-wife, everything has just got better and better and better and better, because there’s less me in that, and more Jesus.

Brendan Corr
Yeah, that’s beautiful.

Duncan Armstrong
And so as I present him more through my actions and what I say, and move out of the way and let Him do His work on me, and therefore His work on everyone around me, my life… My life has it ended up, like I was saying, the last 15 years have got more colour, more depth, more networks with friends, more depth of relationships with church, in groups, or in podcasts, influencing young men, influencing young women, working in charities. My 9:00 to 5:00 job is with Telstra, so influencing a great Australian brand like that, and my position as an executive coach. All these sort of things are completely aligned to Him now, and the fight is to get my nature out of the way of that.

Brendan Corr
That’s interesting, that you-

Duncan Armstrong
It’s a lifelong pursuit.

Brendan Corr
Yeah. You obviously learned a lot of psychology, or approaches to life through your swimming career, and through the influence of all that success. In the first part of our conversation, that was still evident in your encouragement, that you’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to set yourself goals and agendas. And yet right in the middle of it, there’s this incredible encounter of you losing control, and releasing control. How do you reconcile those things, that there is this need to work hard, to discipline yourself, to learn the habits, and yet not see that as defines you, or becomes the substitute for being who God calls you to be?

Duncan Armstrong
Yeah, that’s right. And I’ve suffered. What you’re saying, Brendan, is I’ve suffered from being a human doing, rather than a human being.

Brendan Corr
Yeah, good.

Duncan Armstrong
And that’s balance, if that’s balance, that’s… Our works don’t define us, our heart does. But if we turn our heart to God, he’ll put us to work, and that work will really define Him through us. And so it’s a little bit like, the hardest thing I had to learn was how to surrender. In the Bible, you know, from the get go, if you’re coming for God, you’re going to hear pretty much out of the gate, “Only by surrender can you be free.” And I had a really hard time of that, like, that took me 10 years. That took me 10 years, because I didn’t want to surrender, surrender meant weakness, surrender meant I’d be trodden on, surrender meant I’d be unsafe, or people would take advantage of me, or I’d suffer. So I had a really hard time with that, and sometimes I still do. I still fall into the trap of doing my way into heaven, not opening my heart, surrendering and being my way into heaven, through my relationship with Him.

Brendan Corr
All that self-reliance that you learned.

Duncan Armstrong
Yeah. And in this world you get paid for it, in this world you get rewarded for it, in this world you get in the papers for it, in this world you’re in the magazines for it, or on TV, or on Twitter, or in the social craziness that so-called social networks are supposed to be. So you get rewarded for it, so then you’ve got this pull, and this push, and this, “Wow,” and this taste, and a little bit more, and this momentum, and then also you turn around, there’s a group of people excited to see you, and that is… That is a part of you that you’ve really got to be careful of. And so all I do is just keep holding it up to Him and saying, “Get this, is this real, is this you?” So again, it’s like capturing all thoughts and presenting to the LORD. And so it’s in that area that I’ve had my most growth, it’s in that area that I’ve now disconnected basically chasing a unicorn in the world for popularity. Because I’ve got it in me that I want to be popular, do you know what I mean? But I’m also determined to be a truth-teller.

Brendan Corr
Amen.

Duncan Armstrong
Now those two things don’t go together all the time, so if you tell the truth, you’re not always going to be popular. And I never went to AA, I never had that much of an issue with the substances I was taking and things like that. But when you look at the AA sort of creed, Alcoholics Anonymous or Addicts Anonymous creed, they’ve got three things that they live by, and the first one is rigorous authenticity, surrendering the outcome, and doing things that make you uncomfortable.

Brendan Corr
Yeah, wow.

Duncan Armstrong
And in there is basically how to keep your nature and addictions at bay. Now, I do that with the Lord, so Lord, help me be authentic.

Brendan Corr
Amen.

Duncan Armstrong
Lord, what is your authenticity in this situation, Lord? Is it me in here, wanting to get on this magazine cover? Is it me wanting to lead this project? Is it me working myself to death for this goal?

Brendan Corr
Yeah, that’s good.

Duncan Armstrong
And I think, “What’s the authenticity in you, Lord?” And the next one’s like, I’m surrounding this outcome here, Lord. I’m going to be authentic, and tell the truth, and I’m not going to care where it’s going to go. I’ve just got to surrender that outcome, because that is up to you, Lord. Your path, not mine. And the last one is like, through that tension of doing things that will make you uncomfortable is growth. Through that tension, the Bible is full of tension. You read men and women in the Bible, God calls them out, and there’s tension, because it’s hard to grow, it’s uncomfortable, but through that uncomfortable is you grow. Again, in the Bible they talked about, renew your mind. That’s about brain elasticity that science is now talking about, about growing our brain. Reading books, and reading stuff that’s going to push you…

Brendan Corr
Stretch.

Duncan Armstrong
… and get that tension and make you grow. Right, stretch. My wife is doing a School of Prophets at the moment, and she’s being a leader this year after doing it last year, and it’s all gone online with COVID. And so it’s stretching her to make that connection that she easily feels in a room full of people, to actually access the Spirit. And so there’s real tension there, and she’ll walk around the house going, “You’re growing me, God.” Because that’s the tension, and that’s what we’re looking for as followers of Jesus, that we’ll never be complete in our own strength. We’re never going to be comfortable by our own works, it’s only through Him and our faith, and Him stretching us constantly, do we go to the next level and the next level and the next level, following Him. So those three things that I try to do more and more and more and more, not because I’m an ex-addict, just because I really like those anthems. They’re easy to remember-

Brendan Corr
Yeah, they’re good.

Duncan Armstrong
… and they go back to Mr. Hogan poking me with the cane saying, “Are you being a bold boy?” So there’s this looping anthems in my life that the Bible has now awakened, and given me permission to enjoy for what they were worth.

Brendan Corr
Yeah, that’s good. I was going to ask you, have you had to abandon some of those things that were fundamentally shaping your identity and your view on life, Mr. Hogan? Are you being all that you can be? But it sounds as though really, those same principles have stood true, and now you’re listening to a different coach. It’s not Mr. Hogan, it’s not Laurie Lawrence, it’s the person of Jesus.

Duncan Armstrong
Yeah. And He’s the only one you can listen to, because He understands what a terrible sinner I am. We get caught up in the story of success, that it goes from point A to point B and there’s no meandering line, it’s a straight line, and whoa, you’re so lucky. You know, I got out of that pool in 1988, after five years of hard work and sort of shutting off my life to be the most unbalanced person, the greatest swimmer you’ve ever seen, I touched all of it out, and a mate come up to me, goes, “Mate, how lucky are you?” It’s an incredible statement. But it also shows how we live our life, looking at a story and thinking that point A to point B, not a lot happened in between in terms of paying surrender or whatever. So with that going on, when I look at all the statements, and all the anthems, and things that I do have to leave behind, and my sinful nature, I’ve got a coach, Jesus, father figure, God, who basically knows it all. Knows me, who gives me, and allows me to forgive me, as I take it to Him. So I’ve got this way of sort of saying, “Yeah, the anthem is, are you being a bold boy?” All you’ve got to do is tack on the end, “through Christ.”

Brendan Corr
Yeah, good, that’s good.

Duncan Armstrong
Because Christ has got all the answers. The Bible is the textbook that’s got the right answers for us. And so we never have to be confused about what we’re feeling, because every single man in that Bible has felt what I felt. Every single woman in that Bible has felt what our women feel, our children. The Bible is made up of men like you and I, and everybody else through history that gets it awfully wrong, but can get it awfully right by following the Lord.

Brendan Corr
Amen.

Duncan Armstrong
Right? So for me, I’ve got a real sense of, “Ah, this is a bad moment, I’m going to go to Jesus and get a good moment happening, because He’s the only one who can.”

Brendan Corr
Nice.

Duncan Armstrong
And that gets away from my strength, gets away from me being a performer for the popular, to be popular with the group, and I go to Jesus and say, “Jesus, what do you want me to do in this situation?”

Brendan Corr
That’s great.

Duncan Armstrong
Because I’ll do it, and He’s got the answers.

Brendan Corr
Great. Duncan, we didn’t get a chance… I was going to come back and talk to you about sport as a business, but I’ll put that on side. One last question before we finish up, there would be some folk who would say amen to all that you’ve shared, and have the view that because of the possible seduction of success, that it’s something that Christians shouldn’t aspire to, that we should just live lives of quiet discipline, and… Do you think success is something that Christians can rightly set themselves to achieve?

Duncan Armstrong
Yeah, look, it’s a really tricky question, isn’t it Brendan? We come across different folks all the time who are following Jesus in some way, and some really want to be austere, and others basically go with the prosperity ministries as well, and they’ve got properties, super cars, all these sort of things, mega churches. The way people do their Christianity is between them and Jesus, and we’ve got to be careful of how we judge people, because Jesus might have given them all those sort of things, and we don’t know. We’ll have to have a hot chocolate and ask Him when we get up there. But what I do is, I just caution people in terms of, what you do and who you do it for.

Brendan Corr
Amen.

Duncan Armstrong
And if you’ve got a strong prayer life, and again, this is me sort of saying you need this, this, this and this, and you’ll be success so you’ve got to be careful what I say here. If you are close to Jesus and you have a relationship with Him, like most relationships it’ll go down, it’ll go loud, it’ll go quiet, it’ll go close, it’ll go far, it’ll go angry, it’ll go forgiveness, all this sort of stuff. It’s a relationship with Him, and that’s what He wants more than anything else. And as long as you’re presenting yourself in qualitative and quantitative time, like quality and quantity time, that relationship will always be alive, and you’ll be less confused about why you’re doing things and who you’re doing them for.

Brendan Corr
That’s good.

Duncan Armstrong
And then success or where you’re going to be is going to be a byproduct of that, and it’s a little bit like this, to use a swimming term. If you can forget about gold medals and do the work to make yourself the fastest swimmer you can possibly be, the gold medals will come with that. But the moment you start heading off towards the gold medals, and you think you’re going to get through that path of looking at them, then the fast swimmer won’t emerge. And it’s a little bit like what we say about the business of sport, while you’re winning, the money will always be there. But if you go after the money, the winning will stop.

Brendan Corr
Amen, yeah.

Duncan Armstrong
And so it’s a double-edged sword.

Brendan Corr
That’s good.

Duncan Armstrong
Same as your faith, if you go after the relationship with Jesus Christ, the richness that he wants you to live with will arrive. If you go after that relationship and make it everything you possibly can be and live through Him and Him through you, so if people recognise that you are a Jesus follower, not just a Christian, that you might be a disciple, and therefore you have no wriggle room in terms of your sinful nature and things like that, if you get on with that, then He will provide all the riches that he’s got planned for you. And then it’s less about the number of cars, houses, or the lack of cars and houses, but there’s an ego above and below that line, yeah. And again, it’s your ego talking if you start counting up the results of. Whereas, he’s a mega wealthy Christian who has got such a rich blessing in the Lord in their relationship first, and I listen to them, and I go, “Wow.” So I don’t kind of sit around going, “I’m going to be a really, really wealthy guy one day.” I already know I am, because I’ve got a relationship with the creator of the universe.

Brendan Corr
Amen.

Duncan Armstrong
And He’s going to give me, in our relationship, what He wants to give me, and that, for me, is going to be good enough.

Brendan Corr
Awesome, yeah, fantastic.

Duncan Armstrong
Simply good enough, because I’ve lived the life with the mansions and the cars and the television shows, and all that kind of crazy stuff. And I say crazy, because it didn’t suit me, and yet I was chasing it. Okay, that’s why I say it’s crazy. If people are in that world, and it suits them, bless you brother, march on. But for me, I was trying to be something I wasn’t. I was living a lie in the life that I’d created by myself, that had no God in it, had no stability, and I was just getting… It’s the old saying, if you don’t stand for anything, you fall for everything. And I was falling for everything, and I was addicted to it. And so having been there, I’ve got some authority to talk about the wealth, and the richness, and the flavour, and the favour, and the colour that I live with today, with the life that I have with Jesus Christ. And it’s got none of those things in it. I’m rich with relationship with people, school communities, church communities, charities. I really love my work, I’ve got a great work community, I’ve got great mates, which is the big one for me. I’ve got great mates who are checking on me all the time, and vice versa. I’m so blessed with the men in my life. I’ve got a great relationship with all my kids, even my ex-wife, and on and on and on. So for me, that is the wealth, and the blessing, and I haven’t had a magazine tub or a newspaper story for years. And it’s not because I’m shunning it or I think it’s bad or anything, it’s just that my life is focused on Him, and He’s got me focused elsewhere.

Brendan Corr
Yeah, that’s wonderful. That’s fantastic. Duncan.

Duncan Armstrong
Yeah, I’m really, really blessed.

Brendan Corr
I know your current work is involved in executive coaching, helping people get clarity, and helping people find a path. I think we’ve had a bit of a master class in some of that, through what you’ve been sharing with us. I’m just so grateful that you’ve lived the life God has allowed you to experience all that he has, the hard times, the good times, that now you can be a blessing to others. Thank you for sharing, thank you for being a vessel for God’s truth into this conversation. May God be with you, and continue to open opportunities for you to do that.

Duncan Armstrong
Thanks, Brendan. I really appreciate it, mate, and I really appreciate your work too, with Jay, and the rest of you guys there. This is a really important thing that you’re doing, especially while we’re all going online at the moment and reacting as a community to COVID-19. What you’re doing, and how you’re pushing this material out on the platforms and the people it’ll affect in their homes and elsewhere, it truly is inspirational work. So I really like the name of your project and podcast.

Brendan Corr
Thanks.

Duncan Armstrong
… and thanks very much.

Brendan Corr
God bless you.

About Duncan Armstrong

Duncan Armstrong is an Olympic champion swimmer and former world record holder. He is most fondly remembered by the Australian public for winning a gold and a silver medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics under the coaching of Laurie Lawrence. For his service to swimming, Duncan received a Medal of the Order of Australia in 1989. Since retiring from competitive swimming, Duncan has worked as a swimming commentator for Channel Nine and Fox Sports. He is currently employed by Telstra as an Executive Coach.

Photo of Brendan Corr

About Brendan Corr

Originally a Secondary Science Teacher, Brendan is a graduate of UTS, Deakin and Regent College, Canada. While Deputy Principal at Pacific Hills for 12 years, Brendan also led the NSW Christian Schools Australia registration system. Brendan’s faith is grounded in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and a deep knowledge of God’s Word. Married for over 30 years, Brendan and Kim have 4 adult children. On the weekends, Brendan enjoys cycling (but he enjoys coffee with his mates afterwards slightly more).