Australian swimmers eager to entertain on the eve of Olympics duel with US

When Australia’s head swim coach Rohan Taylor holds court, his subtle American lilt becomes more pronounced. “You can tell I have an American accent,” he is quick to confirm. “I was born in Australia, but I did grow up in the States – I swam high school, I swam college.” Taylor may have long since returned home, but the lessons he learned in the American swim system remain with him. In Tokyo, they could prove crucial.

The nine-day Olympic swimming schedule, which kicks off with the first heats on Saturday evening, is set to be dominated by the rivalry between swimming powerhouses Australia and the United States. The Americans have been dominant in the pool for the past decade; in Rio, they won 16 gold medals to Australia’s haul of three. But on the eve of the Tokyo meet, there is a feeling on the pool deck that it may be the Australian Dolphins’ time to shine.

“The Americans have proven historically at the Olympics that they perform,” says Taylor. “For us, they are the standard we’re striving for. And rightly so – they deserve that. We haven’t performed to our potential.” Not for much longer, if Taylor and his 37-strong swim team have anything to say about.

The Australian team is headlined by three young stars – Elijah Winnington, Ariarne Titmus and Kaylee McKeown – all still in their early 20s. Winnington will be Australia’s first major medal hope in the 400m freestyle, with the final on Sunday morning. After dethroning compatriot and 2016 champion Mack Horton at the recent swim trials, Winnington will start the gruelling event as favourite.

The following day Titmus will face American nemesis Katie Ledecky, the reigning queen of the pool, in the women’s 400m freestyle. It will be one of three solo encounters with Ledecky in Tokyo, and all three will be must-watch TV – especially after the American failed to shake Titmus’s hand when beaten at the last world champions. Titmus shook off shoulder concerns to post blistering times at the trials, but it will take something truly special to again overcome Ledecky, a five-time Olympic gold medallist.

McKeown, meanwhile, will be a gold medal contender in both the 100m and 200m backstroke events, but is a late withdrawal from the 200m individual medley. Taylor broke the news on Thursday, saying that the tightly-packed heats and finals schedule has prompted the decision. With McKeown holding the fastest medley time this year over that distance, it may well have cost Australia a gold medal.

The Dolphins also have medal prospects in a host of other events. Zac Stubblety-Cook only narrowly missed out on the 200m breaststroke world record at last month’s qualifiers, while Mitch Larkin is a threat in the 200m individual medley. In addition to the high-profile debutants, the more-experienced female ranks – including flag bearer Cate Campbell, four-time Olympian Emily Seebohm and Rio star Emma McKeon – have the ability to triumph in Tokyo too.

The women’s 1500m freestyle makes it Olympic debut at these Games, and Coffs Harbour local Madeleine Gough is expected to be among the fastest qualifiers in the heats. The Dolphins have a distinguished pedigree in the men’s version of the long-distance epic, with Kieren Perkins and Grant Hackett claiming the Olympic crown on four consecutive occasions, and Gough will be eager to start a distinctive Australian legacy in the women’s event.

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But the main stage for the Australia-American rivalry in the pool will be the seven relays. And it is here that Taylor’s American upbringing – where relays are the central element of competition in collegiate swimming – has had the most pronounced effect on his coaching strategy. “Relays to me are the greatest thing to be a part of,” he says. “I’ve been pushing the relays. There are seven relays we compete in, that’s seven opportunities. We’ve made that a very big priority in our preparation.”

At the most recent world championships, in South Korea in 2019, Australia won gold in the men’s 4 x 200m freestyle. The women went head to head with the Americans in all three disciplines – 4 x 100m freestyle, 4 x 200m freestyle and 4 x 100m medley – and came out on top, two gold medals to one. The Dolphins also triumphed, by just two-hundredths of a second, in the mixed-gender medley relay, which will make its Olympic debut next Saturday.

All of which leaves Australia’s swimmers on the cusp of what could be a medal bonanza in the pool. But Taylor knows that many of his young charges are unproven at this highest level. “They’ve got to prove it,” he says. “Until they prove it – we’re very positive about how we’re looking, but that’s on paper.”

Whatever the ultimately medal tally, Taylor is confident that his swimmers will provide a welcome distraction for Australians as much of the country remains in lockdown. “We know back home people are struggling,” he says. “We hope we can provide some entertainment and [put] some smiles on their faces.”