Australian swimming’s senior coaches have witnessed far too many heartbreaking upsets in the past to fall into the trap of making any bold predictions, but there is a quiet confidence about the way the team is shaping up for this year’s Tokyo Olympics.
It’s still early days with the Games more than two months away and the national selection trials four weeks from now, but there are enough positive signs to suggest Tokyo could be one of Australian swimming’s most profitable Olympics.
“For me, when I look across the board and see where are our opportunities, we’ve got quite a lot of opportunities to be on the podium,” national head coach Rohan Taylor said.
“And then, when you’re on the podium, you’re a better chance of converting to gold.
“We haven’t been able to maybe do that in the last couple of Olympics. I think maybe there were some missed opportunities.”
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Few would disagree that the team hasn’t lived up to expectations at the last two Olympics but statistically, the Dolphins are already in great shape for Tokyo, with the national trials still to come.
Everyone is expected to go faster at the trials because Australia’s best swimmers have all been in heavy training since emerging from the lockdown, but the United States has also not held its trials yet, so the rankings could fluctuate next month.
As things stand right now though, three Australians, Kaylee McKeown (100m backstroke, 200m backstroke, 200m individual medley and 400 individual medley), Emma McKeon (100m freestyle) and Elijah Winnington (400m freestyle) are all currently ranked No. 1 in the world in their events.
There are also plenty of others ranked in the top three including Cate Campbell, Ariarne Titmus, Mitch Larkin and Zac Stubbletty-Cook, while several others, including Rio champions Mack Horton and Kyle Chalmers, haven’t revealed their hands yet because they’re ting to peak when it matters.
“From my perspective, we have a lot of opportunities. We’ve always had opportunities but it’s about converting the opportunity into performance at the Olympics,” Taylor said.
“We know that 86 per cent of all medals are won from the top five in the world going into the meet. So we need to get in there. Then we’re in there with a chance.
“Fifty per cent of the golds are won by the first ranked swimmer going into the event. We want to be in that 50 per cent in as many top fives so we have more chances to win medals.”
Australia won 10 medals, including three golds, at the 2016 Rio Olympics but almost doubled those numbers at the last world championships in 2019 so has high hopes for Tokyo.
Australia’s women are once again expected to provide the lion’s share of the medals, along with the relays, which have been increased to seven this time following the inclusion of a mixed medley.
Australia’s men have mostly been struggling this season, barring a few exceptions, before Stubbletty-Cook gave the team a big lift ahead of the cut-throat trials.
He won the 200m breaststroke at the Sydney Open on Sunday in 2:07.00, a time that catapulted him to second on the world rankings to remind his teammates how quickly things can turn around.
“It does wonders for the confidence, knowing that all the hard work in training, that comes down to just over two minutes’ work in the race is certainly paying off and we are on the right track,” he said.
THE AUSSIE SENDING SHOCKWAVES THROUGH WORLD SWIMMING
Australia’s new teenage swimming sensation Kaylee McKeown came within a whisker of breaking another world record after an equipment malfunction almost derailed her latest assault on the history books.
The 19-year-old once again showed why she is quickly emerging as one of Australia’s best medal hopes for this year’s Tokyo Olympics with another head-spinning performance in the lead up to next month’s national trials.
McKeown had already stolen the show at the Sydney Open – the last warm-up event before the trials – by winning four gold medals, including two that were an blink of an eye away from breaking world records.
The Queenslander came within just 0.06 seconds of breaking the 100 metres backstroke world record on Saturday, then 24 hours later she missed the 50m backstroke mark by 0.18.
Even more incredible was that her close shave with the 50m backstroke world record came just 30 minutes after she had won the final of the 200m individual medley, one of the most exhausting races in swimming, in 2:08.73, the fastest time in the world this year.
And if that wasn’t dramatic enough, when she jumped back in the pool for her surprise crack at the 50m record, she had to climb straight back out of the water and take a seat on the blocks because the starting ledge in her lane was broken.
Unflustered by the unexpected postponement as officials went to fetch a replacement foot ledge from a storeroom, McKeown made a flying getaway when the race did start, bursting off the blocks in just 0.57, then motored down the length of the Sydney Olympic pool to stop the clock at 27.16.
She just missed the world record, held by China’s Liu Xiang Liu, by a fingernail but still managed to post a new Australian and Commonwealth record – her third in three remarkable days that has sent shockwaves through the swimming world.
McKeown now heads to next month’s Olympic trials in Adelaide as the red-hot favourite to qualify for the Australian team in the 100m backstroke, 200m backstroke and 200m individual medley.
She is currently ranked No. 1 in the world in all three individual events and could also be included in up to three relays in Tokyo, the women’s medley, the mixed medley, and the women’s 4x200m freestyle, which Australia is the early favourite to win gold in with the likes of Emma McKeon and Ariarne Titmus involved.
McKeown told News Corp she doesn’t plan to enter the 200m freestyle heats at next month’s trials but national head coach Rohan Taylor said the in-form teenager remains in the mix because every swimmer who makes the team for Tokyo is a candidate for the relays.
“When we pick the team, we have a number of relay only potential selections (but) we have people in the team who can fill spots and we consider that,” Taylor said.
“So if Kaylee and others have posted 200m free times, we can consider them … everybody on the team has an opportunity.”
Australia’s newest swim sensation has blown her cover
Nothing raises the expectations around young Australian swimmers more than a close shave with a world record.
Especially just before an Olympics, as teenage sensation Kaylee McKeown is suddenly finding out.
Thanks to the pandemic, the Queenslander has managed to keep a low profile in the build up to Tokyo, but not much for longer.
Most Australians may not know who she is just yet, but McKeown’s cover is about to be blown wide open if her jaw-dropping performances in the pool this season are anything to go by.
In the lead-up to the most anticipated Olympics in history, the 19-year-old from the Sunshine Coast has climbed to the number one ranking in the world in not one, not two, not three but four different events.
That doesn’t mean she’s a sure bet to win any gold medals because she’s going up against some of the most ferocious competitors in swimming history, but it has ensured her days out of the spotlight are numbered.
“My coach’s words are ‘fly under the radar’ but if you’re feeling vanilla you’ve got to go for it,” McKeown said.
“You’ve only got one shot at swimming, it’s a short career, so why not put up the best you can when you can.”
True to her word, McKeown’s been doing just that, setting the fastest times in the world this season in 100m backstroke, 200m backstroke, 200m individual medley and 400m individual medley.
A double silver medallist at the 2019 world championships, she broke the 200m backstroke world record at last year’s Australian short-course championships and at the Sydney Aquatic Centre on Saturday, she came within 0.06 seconds of breaking the 100m backstroke world record when she stopped the clock at 57.63.
“I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t expecting to come out and do that,” she said.
“When I looked at the time, I was like ‘surely not. Oh s**t’.”
McKeown’s performances haven’t gone unnoticed by her rivals.
American Regan Smith, who currently holds the world records for both 100m and 200m backstroke, sent the Australian a private message to tell her she was impressed.
McKeown’s coach Chris Mooney was also pleased, even though he knows one of the prices for sporting excellence is all the extra attention that brings.
“This is new territory for us, too, so we‘re definitely learning on the run, but it’s important to keep a lid on it and get back to the grind, because we haven’t got the job done yet,” he said.
“We‘re tracking well, we’re training well but we’re not doing anything more than what we need to do, we’re just doing our job.”
Mooney is already familiar with the suffocating pressure that the Olympics bring. He coached McKeown’s older sister Taylor to the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she finished fifth in the 200m breaststroke final and won a silver medal in the medley relay.
Kaylee is seven years younger than Taylor but Mooney said he knew from the first time he started training her that she was up to the physical and mental challenges heading her way.
“She’s just not scared of pain. She takes her body and her mind and she punches through pain barriers like no one else that I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.
“And God, she’s been training well over the last eight weeks.
“She’s no nonsense, she knows her job. She‘s the postman, she always delivers and the fact that there’s no fuss about the girl is really, really pleasing.”
Perhaps too good for her own good, McKeown has already had to make one agonising sacrifice – ditching the 400m individual medley from her Olympic plans, even though she’s currently more than two seconds faster than anyone else in the world this season.
The reason, her coach says, is she’s playing the odds without recklessly gambling.
The 400m individual medley is such a physically gruelling event that entering it will harm her chances in her other three races, so it makes sense to focus on the two backstroke distances, the shorter medley and the relays.
“One day we’ll test ourselves, we’ll find an event, whether it’s the Commonwealth Games or world championships and try to do the Iron Cross, which is the 400 IM, the 200 IM, the 100 back, the 200 back,” he said.
“But because it’s the Olympics and we’ve put a lot into this one, we’re focused on the events that we think we can be successful in because physiologically, it just takes too much out of you to be at peak performance for the other events.
“We‘re going to go there trying to win, so you’ve got to give yourself every chance and focus on controlling the controllables because this is going to be a very challenging Olympics.”
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