Home » Australia’s swimming team is getting older each year, and the head coach believes that’s great for our Olympic hopes

Australia’s swimming team is getting older each year, and the head coach believes that’s great for our Olympic hopes

A group of champion 30-something swimmers is preparing to overturn the Australian team’s traditional youth focus as the generations collide at the Olympic trials in Brisbane.

For the first time in history there may be as many 30-plus swimmers as teenagers on the Australian team for the Paris Olympic Games next month.

There will be six high-profile veterans in contention at the trials, all world or Olympic champions – Cate Campbell (32), Emily Seebohm (31), Bronte Campbell (30), Emma McKeon (30), Mitch Larkin (30) and Cam McEvoy (30).

The average age of the Australian swimming team has been steadily increasing since the 1990s, from 21.5 years in Sydney (2000) to 22 years in London (2012) to 23 in Rio (2016) and 23.5 in Tokyo (2021). That trend seems certain to continue for Paris.

The swim team, once filled with fresh-faced youngsters, is aging, and that is “a good thing” according to national head coach Rohan Taylor. He said intergenerational competition has helped to lift the standard of the national team in recent years, as evidenced by record medal returns at the Tokyo Olympic Games and last year’s world championships in Fukuoka.

Swimming Australia head coach Rohan Taylor says the increasing average age of the team is a good thing.(Getty Images: Chris Hyde)

The increasing pressure to perform, created by the presence of contenders aged from 15 to 32, will make the Olympic trials “pretty cutthroat”, Taylor said.

The teenaged hopefuls have always been there, but the mature cohort is a recent trend. Athletes like Kieren Perkins and Susie O’Neill retired at 27, and Ian Thorpe was just 23 when he stepped away from the pool.

“I think it’s happening because there’s a real focused effort on trying to allow athletes to stay in the sport longer through the support we put around them,” Taylor said.

“Gina Rinehart’s support is really important to it, combined with how much we invest into the (training) program environments to provide that level of support. Also, the fact that the calendar has so many racing opportunities, that it’s OK for an athlete to take a year off, and then they can come back and get back into international racing well before the Olympics roll around.”

No Australian swimmer had gone to more than three Olympics until breaststroke champ Leisel Jones (coached by Taylor) went to her fourth in London in 2012, having taken a season off after winning gold in Beijing in 2008.

Of the current crop, both Cate and Bronte Campbell took a year off after Tokyo, as did McEvoy, while Seebohm had a baby last year. Cate Campbell and Seebohm are now aiming for a record fifth Olympics, while Bronte Campbell, McEvoy and Larkin are looking for a fourth.

Cameron McEvoy holds out his arms

Cameron McEvoy said he was close to quitting after a difficult Olympic Games in Brazil in 2016.(Getty Images: Insidefoto/LightRocket/Andrea Staccioli)

“Once upon a time if you took 12 months off, good luck getting back in,” Taylor said. 

“I think we need to just continue to show those stories and say it’s possible, because we want you to stay in and we want you get the most out of your career.”

World 50m freestyle champion McEvoy was very close to quitting after what he described as a “seven-year slump”, sparked by his under-performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where he arrived as the number one seed in the 100m freestyle.

It was either retire or reinvent his training to give himself a fresh perspective on the sport. He chose option two and is convinced that the traditionally unforgiving training component of elite swimming has shortened other swimmers’ careers.

“It’s just so gruelling, even a sprint program — 20,000 metres a week is considered low,” he said.