Ariarne Titmus uninstalled her social media apps before arriving at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. So when the Australian swimmer arrived for the press conference after winning the women’s 400m freestyle on Monday, she had not seen the entirety of her coach Dean Boxall’s wild celebration. But Titmus was unsurprised that Boxall was fast becoming an internet sensation.
“That’s just the way Dean is,” she explained. “He’s very passionate about what he does – he really becomes quite animated.”
South African-born Boxall, in his mid-40s, has been a swim coach for more than two decades and currently leads Brisbane-based swim club St Peters Western. The club has a long pedigree of supporting top talent, with alumni including past Olympic stars Stephanie Rice and Leisel Jones.
In recent years Boxall has developed a reputation as “one of swimming’s new rock star coaches”. He travelled to Tokyo with a squad of six Australian swimmers under his guidance; three have already won gold; Titmus on Monday, plus youngsters Meg Harris and Mollie O’Callaghan as part of the winning 4x100m relay team on Sunday.
Backstroker Mitch Larkin will swim for gold on Tuesday, while Abbey Harkin contests the 200m breaststroke later in the week. He also coaches freestyle swimmer Elijah Winnington and New Zealand Olympic swimmer Eve Thomas.
Boxall’s passion is at the heart of his coaching. He is passionate when they win, and he is passionate when they lose. It is that passion that came out on Monday when Titmus won gold, for the world to see.
“I can’t help it,” Boxall said when asked about his now-viral celebration. “I bleed with my athletes. When they leave the pool deck with me – whether I’m having a chat with them for an hour if it has to be – but when they leave, they have to start the recovery process and go home. They switch off; I don’t. I go home and dream for them. I go home and try and find a way for them to get better.
“I just don’t turn off,” Boxall said. “That’s probably why I let it out, why I got emotional. It’s not just a 9-5 job; it’s 24/7. I wake up at night and I’m thinking of how can Arnie get better, how can Mitch get better, how can Elijah get better.”
Titmus was full of praise for her coach after the 400m victory. “This is just as much for him as it is for me,” she said. “He has sacrificed a lot in his family life, his kids and his wife, for his job. He puts 100% into being a swimming coach. I would not be here without him.”
The Tasmanian-born swimmer moved to Queensland as a 14-year-old to ensure ongoing development opportunities in the pool, and soon linked up with Boxall.
“I’ve been with [Titmus] for five years,” the coach said. “Having a dream together. Katie [Ledecky] was so far in front of us that in the beginning when I started to coach her I couldn’t even have this conversation. When Arnie came to me she was a 4.12 [in the 400m]. At that stage Katie went 3.56. That’s 16 seconds. We just started chipping away, we started to believe.”
Slowly but surely, Titmus’ times improved. She made her first major national team outing at the 2017 World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, before winning three gold medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. In 2019, Titmus beat Ledecky for the first time. Under Boxall’s eye, she kept getting better. And on Monday morning, Titmus won the most eagerly anticipated Olympic swimming match-up in a decade. “She executed the race plan to perfection,” the coach said.
As Titmus was handed her first-ever Olympic gold medal, Boxall was moved to tears.
“The thing that made me quite emotional was actually seeing him watch my medal ceremony,” she said. “He was crying and I was trying to contain the emotions. It’s good to see how much it means to him, too.”
But it has not been all good news in Tokyo for Boxall. Another of his charges, 21-year-old Winnington, was favourite to win the men’s 400m freestyle after a stunning time at the Olympic trials in Adelaide last month. But on Sunday he came up short and failed to medal.
“I’m hurting for Elijah – I’ve got to find a way. And we will find a way. We will find a way. It’s just what you’ve got to do.”
“He wanted it so much I think he just got a little bit tense. But he’s been great to deal with after – he understands the situation.”
Winnington also failed to move through to the 200m freestyle final, but will have another opportunity for gold in the men’s 4x200m freestyle relay. “He’ll dust himself off,” his coach said. “He’ll learn from this – he’s still young. Arnie had to learn. This game is tough, it’s brutal. He will learn.”
When Boxall does find a way for Winnington, as he did for Titmus, expect there to be more exuberant celebrations.