Sydney: The first thing that strikes you about Australian sprint swimmer James Magnussen outside the pool is his overwhelming, frequently articulated, confidence.    

The world champion simply exudes the stuff and that might not be a bad thing as he looks set to take the step up from national renown to global fame at this year's London Olympics.   

In the pool, Magnussen has backed up his words with times that have made him a strong favourite to become the first Australian since Michael Wenden in 1968 to win men's Olympic gold in the 100 metres freestyle on August 1.   

Christened the "Missile" by the media but known more prosaically as "Mags" or "Maggie" to his team mates, the 20-year-old has already set two of the three fastest times of the year with his smooth, natural style and scorching finish.   

Not for him, though, the cautious nod towards the talents of his rivals, nor the qualification of his exploits with caveats about how early in the year it is - Magnussen is relishing being the man to beat.         

"I kind of like it, I get to sit back and see what everyone else does and sort of know what pace I need to swim and let everyone worry about me and swim my own race," he said at the New South Wales championships last week.   

"The advantage is that I have those times on the board, I know exactly how I'm going to swim my hundred and if they're going to start changing their race plans then that's their disadvantage," he added.          

Australia's head swimming coach Leigh Nugent, watching his potential Olympians at the Sydney Olympic Pool, was keen to emphasise that Magnussen's confidence was by no means arrogance.   

"Some people don't want to show that confidence verbally but James does," he told Reuters. "But there's no conceitedness about his confidence, he just says 'these are the facts and this is what I'm doing'. I think it's a refreshing change."   

Relative Obscurity   

Magnussen emerged from relative obscurity as a teenager last year to swim the then fastest 100m time of the year in the world at the Australian national championships (48.29 seconds).   

A few months later, the smalltown boy from Port Macquarie on the New South Wales coast had ended Australia's 40-year wait for a world champion in the blue riband sprint in a stunning 47.63 in Shanghai.   

He made an even more impressive start to 2012 and his world-leading 48.05 at the South Australian championships in Adelaide last month had some wondering whether he was in danger of peaking too soon.   

"He was a long way ahead of the rest of the world last year and he's swimming at that level again," Nugent said.   

"It varies so much when they're in hard training, sometimes by some stroke of luck they can swim quite fast, and then the next week they struggle."   

"He hasn't peaked yet," he added with deliberate understatement. "I think his peak's a little way off."   

As if to validate Nugent's words about inconsistency during training, Magnussen swam a "bloody terrible" time of 49.02 in the New South Wales final and was forced to reassess his ambition of breaking Cesar Cielo's world record at next month's Australian Olympic trials back in Adelaide.   

The world record of 46.91, which was set by the powerful fast-starting Brazilian with the aid of the now-banned buoyancy suits, is still a target for this year, however.     

"A really quick swim at trials would sort of turn heads a little and just keep me on the front foot and constantly keeping people guessing," Magnussen said.    

"(But) at this stage, I think we'd be happy with somewhere around worlds time or a little bit quicker at trials and then do a big taper for Olympics and have a real crack at that record."   

There is a big difference in profile between the world championships and the pressure cooker athletes enter at the Olympics, where swimming takes centre stage in the sporting world for the first week of the Games.   

Nugent is confident that Magnussen will be able to deal with it - in part because of his experience as a schoolboy rugby league player - and ultimately believes he can take his place alongside the best sprinters of all time.     

"He's a pretty together young man. He seems to revel in a pressured environment. I guess when he was a young kid playing other sports, he might have developed the skills to deal with those pressures."   

"I think he can reach lofty heights," Nugent added. "I think he can be one of those swimmers who people talk about for a long time like Matt Biondi and Pieter van den Hoogenband."     

(Agencies)