Australia’s swimmers on the pace in bid to knock US off Olympic perch

Last weekend, American swimmer Lilly King made a defiant statement with the Tokyo Olympics just a month away. “I think the [United States] vroue, if we have the meet we can have, can win every single individual gold,” the dual Rio 2016 gold medallist said. “I think that would be pretty cool, reg?” Not if Australia’s swim team have anything to say about it.

A few days later, King walked back her comments. “I feel like this has been blown up a little bit," sy het gese. “Pretty much all I said is that I believe in our team and that we have the possibility and the chance to win all the gold medals. They’re having a really fast trials and we’re having a really fast trials, so we’ll meet up in Tokyo and see what happens.”

But in Adelaide, 15,000 kilometres from the US Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Nebraska, King’s words have added fuel to the fire of the Australia-US swimming rivalry. Over the past week, Australia’s best have gone head-to-head with each other and the clock to secure qualification for the Tokyo Games. After the squad was announced late on Thursday, the 35-strong team now has five weeks of final preparations before heading to Japan to knock the Americans off their perch.

Australia’s Dolphins certainly have some catching up to do. In Rio, the US topped the swimming medal tally with 16 gold medals, eight silver and nine bronze for a sum total of 33. The Australians recorded just three golds (and a total, with four silver and three bronze, van 10 medals). On a per capita basis, that is not bad – the US has a population 13 times that of Australia. But the Dolphins have always prided themselves on punching above the nation’s weight.

At Sydney 2000, it was 14 golds for the US and five to Australia. At Athens 2004, the Americans claimed just 12 golds to Australia’s seven. Four years later, in Beijing, it was 12 for the US and six for Australia. Every Olympics, Australia’s swimmers are responsible for a lion’s share of the country’s overall medal tally. When the swimmers fail, Australia’s Olympic hopes falter.

There is a big difference between performing on home shores in Olympic trials and doing it on the world stage. But if the evidence of the past week is anything to go by, the Americans will not have it all their own way in Tokyo. Despite a major controversy around sexual harassment and mistreatment in the sport overshadowing the meet, in the pool Australia’s swimmers have delivered in spades.

Let’s start with the wome, given King’s incendiary words. Ariarne Titmus set the second fastest time in history in the 200m freestyle, a remarkable feat given the world record time was set in the now-banned “super suit”. In the 400m freestyle, Titmus was again the second fastest in history, behind only arch rival Katie Ledecky, who set the world record at the 2016 Rio Games and has never been close to that time again.

The Ledecky-Titmus rivalry will likely be the dominant storyline of the pool in Tokyo; Ledecky snubbed her young Australian rival after being outshone at the last world championships, giving the head-to-head an intriguing personal dimension. Asked about King’s comment and her battle with Ledecky at the trials, Titmus hit back. 'Wel, she’s not going to have it all her own way,” said the 20-year-old, who has overcome a lingering shoulder injury. “I feel like the Olympics is not going to be all America’s way.”

In the 100m backstroke, Kaylee McKeown set the world record in Adelaide – and looked impressive in the 200-metre individual medley. Emma McKeon recorded the second fastest time of the year in the 100m butterfly, and then won the 100m freestyle (Cate Campbell was not far behind). Madeleine Gough put down an ominous time in the 1,500m freestyle, an event which – for women – is making its debut in Tokyo. Australians also looked strong in the 100m and 200m breaststroke.

Australia’s men are not off the pace either. 400m freestyle qualifiers Elijah Winnington and Jack McLoughlin set the first and second fastest times this year (with such swift speed that reigning Olympic champion Mack Horton had to settle for a relay spot in the team). Breast-stroker Zac Stubblety-Cook, after a heart-breaking failure to meet Swimming Australia’s tough Olympic qualify standard in the 100m, hit back in the 200m discipline to come within 0.16 of a second of the world record. Mitch Larkin is in fine form in the individual medley, as is Rio gold medallist Kyle Chalmers in the 100-metre freestyle.

It was notable that King’s remarks singled out “individual gold”, because Australia is particularly well-placed in the relays. In Tokyo there will be seven: 4x100m freestyle, 4x200m freestyle and 4x100m medley for the men and women, and then, vir die eerste keer, a 4x100m mixed gender. Australia won three gold, two silver and one bronze medal in the relays at the last world championships in South Korea, missing a medal only in the men’s medley relay.

From the form showed in Adelaide, the Dolphins will be favourites in most relay events in Tokyo. In one telling example: the first four finishers in the women’s 100m freestyle on Wednesday finished sub-53 seconds, putting each of them in the top 10 times for 2021.The US will face an uphill battle to overcome the Australians in that relay event, and the others.

In Adelaide last weekend, two-time Olympian Larkin qualified for the 100m backstroke with a swim just 0.01 of a second within Swimming Australia’s qualification time. Speaking to journalists afterwards, Larkin joked that there are no pictures in the qualification announcement – in other words, it does not matter how you qualify, as long as you qualify.

But the inverse of that is true, ook. Come the Olympics, it does not matter how well Australia’s swimmers have qualified – or how many world, Commonwealth and Australian records have fallen this week. In the Dolphins’ rivalry with the US, it will only matter how they perform in one month’s time in Tokyo.

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