It is always the same, the overhyped pressure on the Dolphins to perform but, in the midst of a global pandemic, the Australian Swimming Team proved to the world that it is rude good health.
In terms of medals won, Australia equalled its best performance ever, claiming 20, the same tally as in Beijing in 2008. But the late and legendary Australian swim coach Don Talbot always argued that the only tally worth counting was the number of golds won. And on that count, the Australian effort was without precedent. They won nine races out of 35, one more than in Melbourne in 1956.
It’s time for exuberance and celebration but, before going there, a note of caution. The Melbourne program was a pale shadow of today’s race schedule, just 13 events. There was no medley relay before 1960, no 400m individual medley before 1964, no 200m backstroke or 200m butterfly or 200m IM before 1968, no 50m freestyle before 1988 and no 800m freestyle for men or 1500m freestyle for women before this year’s Olympics. And heaven knows what the staid old swimming officials of 1956 would have made of the mixed medley relay which made its first appearance on the Olympic schedule here on Saturday.
So, the Melbourne result was built almost entirely on winning every freestyle event on the program, coupled with David Thiele’s epic win in the 100m backstroke.
On the other hand, Melbourne – the first Olympics held below the equator and in the midst of an Australian summer – attracted the smallest number of competitors of the last nine decades, 3258, with less than 400 of them being women. It’s a compelling reason not to compare distant eras.
A far more reliable measuring stick is at hand, the American swim team. Only once before has Australia beaten America in the pool at the Olympics, 1956, although it did win the gold medal count at the 2001 world championships in Fukuoka. But the might of Team USA has been a constant. All of which made the fact that Australia entered the last day of the Tokyo Olympics only a single gold adrift of the Americans the more impressive.
In the end, the Americans flexed their muscles, winning the shortest race on the program, the 50m freestyle (Caeleb Dressell) and the longest, the 1500m freestyle (Robert Finke), plus the men’s medley relay. That more than cancelled out the Australian golds in the women’s 50m freestyle (Emma McKeon) and the women’s medley relay.
The final tally read: USA: 11-10-9 (30 medals). Australia: 9-3-8 (20).
American breaststroker Lilly King had predicted before the meet that the US team would win every individual women’s gold medal, which must rank alongside 2000 Sydney Olympian, Gary Hall Jr’s “we’ll smash the Aussies like guitars” as perhaps the rashest statement an American swimmer has made in living memory.
The American women were taught a lesson by Australia, being beaten 8-1-4 to 3-8-7. Australia has relied on its female swimmers since the days when Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett departed the scene, but it really was extraordinary how the women carried the medal-winning load.
Emma McKeon (sprint freestyle), Ariarne Titmus (200-400m freestyle) and Kaylee McKeown (100-200m backstroke) were all coming into Tokyo ranked one in the world but only McKeon had experienced the pressure of an Olympics before. The question was: How would they cope with the toughest meet of their lives?
In a word, brilliantly!
McKeown, having dropped the 200m individual medley four days out from the start of the Games, kept a rambunctious field at bay to win the backstroke double. It’s not often that an Olympic champion faces a stern talk from her mother, but after accidentally dropping the F-bomb on national television, McKeown was called to account.
No such frivolity from Titmus who had to deal with arguably the most daunting task in world swimming, staring down the legendary Katie Ledecky. She had done it in Gwangju, at the 2019 world swimming championships in South Korea, but there had been doubts about the American’s health at that meet. No such troubles this time as Ledecky fronted up in Tokyo to defend her unbeaten Olympic record – only for The Terminator to beat her at the first attempt, the 400m freestyle. She did it a second time in the 200m freestyle, not only did she beat Ledecky but also the rising threat of Siobhan Haughey of Hong Kong.
Ledecky had her way in the 800m freestyle, beating Titmus by 1.26 seconds but that only gave the Australian encouragement. It was the closest Ledecky had ever been pushed in an 800m event and, as Titmus remarked, she had just won a silver in an Olympic event and she would be crazy to give it up.
But it was McKeon who captured the hearts of all Australians as she had the best week of her life. Seven events, seven medals, an unprecedented four of them gold. Well, it was unprecedented in Australia. On medals won, 11, she is now the greatest Australian Olympian ever. On career golds won, she is now level with Thorpe who called on her to add to her five.
“I hope she continues to Paris (2024) and keeps winning gold medals,” Thorpe said on Seven commentary.
McKeon is 27 now, older than everyone in the Australian team aside from Emily Seebohm and Cate Campbell. On the other hand, she has only done two Olympics, so she may have only just whetted her appetite.
Whether Campbell and Seebohm continue is doubtful but if, indeed, this was their swansong meet, they could hardly have handled themselves with more grace and aplomb. Seebohm did brilliantly to grab bronze in the 200m backstroke behind McKeown emulating Campbell’s feat of finishing third behind McKeon in the 100m freestyle. Campbell did, however, win two dramatic relay golds, the first of them in the first world record of the Games. Still, both she and Seebohm had come to Tokyo on a quest for their first individual gold medal and, sadly, leave it with their dream unfulfilled. But in every other sense, their fourth Olympics was a triumph.
Australia finished with only one gold in the men’s competition and it is fair to say it was not widely predicted. Not Kyle Chalmers in the 100m freestyle – he was beaten by 0.06 seconds by Caeleb Dressel – not by Jack McLoughlin, whose short-sightedness caused him to miss the fact that way across the pool, Tunisian Ahmed Hafnaoui was edging him by 0.16 seconds in the 400m freestyle.
No, the gold came in the 200m breaststroke from the man who always looked more in danger of finishing last at the halfway mark of his race, not first. Even his mother thought Tokyo was just a warm-up meet for Paris. But Zac Stubblety-Cook held his nerve, backed his game plan and the rest, as they say, is history.
There were some disappointments as the new US-style selection protocols left some swimmers struggling with their taper but mostly the Australians, young and old, reacted well to the pressure. There were some breakthrough swims from the rising stars like Chelsea Hodges in the breaststroke leg of the gold medal-winning medley relay team, and Brendon Smith in his bronze medal swim in the 400m individual medley and butterflyer Matthew Temple in the 100m butterfly.
But none was more impressive than the lead-off leg Mollie O’Callaghan produced in the heats of the 4x200m freestyle relay. Just 17-year-old, she came up with the third fastest time in Australian history – and that was in a race where it had already been explained to her that none of the relay alternates would be chosen for the final.
Head coach Rohan Taylor came in for some criticism for that decision, although the fact that the totally revamped Australian team broke the world record in coming third suggests his thinking was well-reasoned.
That aside, no other Australian head swimming coach has ever had an Olympics like Taylor. Not Talbot, not Leigh Nugent, not Bill Sweetenham or Terry Buck or Forbes Carlile. The fact that he took over from Jacco Verhaeren after the 2020 Games were postponed means that the credit must be shared but certainly Taylor has guided the Dolphins with a sure and steady hand over the past year.
And that was all that the Australians needed….