The Price of Momentary Madness

by Casey Barrett

The Saga of Nick D’Arcy: Brawler, Butterflyer

It started with disrespect. It always does, doesn’t it? Buckets of booze, a slight, righteous rage… A standard story on the night train – when things get weird and nothing good happens after the clock strikes two.

Bar fights. The shameful domain of macho tools…

By all grim accounts, Aussie flyer Nick D’Arcy used to be one such macho tool. And boy, has this kid paid one hell of a price for it.

Four years ago next month, D’Arcy broke the Commonwealth record in the 200 fly at the 2008 Australian Olympic Trials. The night he was named to the Team, he went out big with his mates. Went to spot in Sydney called the Loft Bar. At some point late in the night, after Lord knows how many pints, fellow swimmer Simon Cowley said something that pissed D’Arcy off. They took it outside. D’Arcy used his elbow. You know, instead of his fist. More damage that way.

Here’s an accounting of the damage he did: broken jaw, broken nose, fractured eye socket, fractured palate, crushed cheekbone. He messed up Mr. Cowley something fierce.

He was arrested and charged with what it was – assault. He was thrown off the Olympic team. A year later, he was convicted in court, received a 14-month suspended sentence. Then he was thrown off the ’09 Aussie World Championships team. It wasn’t over.

The damage D’Arcy had inflicted on Cowley did not heal overnight. There were reconstructive surgeries to his face. Braces to realign his demolished jaw. Post-traumatic stress disorder. His face now held together by titanium plates and screws. Years of fallout and pain thanks to that crushing elbow. So, Cowley sued and won. The court awarded him $180,000 in damages. Forced D’Arcy to declare bankruptcy. Now his next Olympic prospects in 2012 were in doubt too…

Somehow, as the collateral damage mounted, for both victim and criminal, the criminal stayed in the water. Kept training, kept at it, remained among the greatest 200 flyers on earth. (To D’Arcy’s supporters who may balk at hearing him called a “criminal” – this is a literal, factual label, not an opinion. “Macho tool”, on the other hand, yes, that’s an opinion. There is a difference.)

Yesterday this saga seems to have finally reached its end. 1,422 days since D’Arcy’s assault, the Australian Olympic Committee cleared him to compete in London, should he make the Team next month at the Aussie Trials. This shouldn’t be a problem; D’Arcy is currently ranked first in the world in the 200 fly, with a big chance to be on the podium in London.

He has paid a high price, and like every criminal who does his time for the crime, it’s time to forgive him, let the kid move on with his life. Though he’s probably not much of a kid anymore. Just 24 years old, D’Arcy has been forced to grow up in a hurry. He was 20 when he leveled Cowley that night, and it soon emerged that it wasn’t the first time. A few weeks after the incident, another Aussie sportsmen, an Ironman named Tim Peach, alleged that the same thing had happened to him. A bar fight with D’Arcy that resulted in a mangled face, albeit nowhere near to the extent of Cowley.

A pattern perhaps… The image of a cocky, quick-tempered jock is easy to conjure. Or maybe the kid was just living up to an unfortunate side of Aussie jock culture. Back in ’08, when this story was a swirling scandal Down Under, the Reuters newswire even took the time to note that “while nightclub fights are commonplace in Australian football and rugby teams, they are rare in swimming.”

So, the story was that a swimmer was behaving as poorly as the rugby meatheads? Ok, so would this mean that D’Arcy’s blow was just immensely unlucky in the degree of damage it inflicted? If fights like this are so commonplace, then does that mean that half of Aussie Rules football players are walking around with faces held together by plates and screws? Surely a few of them, but that’s hardly the story here.

The story is about a drunk 20-year-old kid out celebrating on the greatest night of his life, the night he became an Olympian. He was feeling indestructible that night. Tough and dumb and too young to grasp where one bar fight could lead.

Now he knows.