Home » Quiet confidence as Australia’s swimmers bid to make history at Olympics

Quiet confidence as Australia’s swimmers bid to make history at Olympics

There is a quiet excitement on the pool deck at the Brisbane Aquatic Centre this week as Australia’s best swimmers race for their tickets to Paris at the Olympic trials.

Australia’s swimmers are by and large a modest bunch – they prefer to let their swimming do the talking. Certainly, few are prepared to offer brash predictions about what might come at the Centre Aquatique Olympique in less than 50 days’ time. But the buzz around the pool deck, a distinct frisson, hints at what could be a historic meet for Australia’s swim squad, the Dolphins, at the 2024 Games. It might even suggest that a record-breaking medal haul awaits.

Australia has a long and proud history in Olympic swimming. But it has always been defined by a rivalry with the United States, the famous duel in the pool. And while Australia has got the better of the Americans on plenty of head-to-head occasions, in the final calculus the United States’ depth and breadth has almost always proven insurmountable.

Consider this: the last time Australia topped the medal tally in the pool at an Olympics, the year was 1956 and the Games were held on home soil, in Melbourne. In the near seven decades to follow, the Americans have been perennially dominant in swimming. Only on two occasions have the United States been dethroned – in 1980, when they boycotted, and in 1988, when the East Germans topped the table (although this performance was later overshadowed by allegations of state-sponsored doping).

In Tokyo three years ago, Australia came close – winning a record nine gold, three silver and eight bronze medals in the indoor pool, plus the nation’s first-ever medal in the open water swimming. It was a record haul, the Dolphins’ best-ever. But it was still two gold medals shy of the United States’ tally. Can the Australians do even better in Paris?

That is the unspoken question on the pool deck. Certainly the momentum is with the Dolphins. At last year’s world championships, the Australians topped the medal tally – with 13 gold medals. It was enough to force the American broadcaster, NBC, to use an alternative medal table graphic ranked by overall medals instead (which had the United States in the lead).

It is a remarkable turnaround for Australian swimming. Just 12 years ago the team won only a solitary gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics, and were rocked by headlines around a toxic culture and the “Stilnox six” – a group of swimmers who took prescription sleeping drugs as part of a team bonding session. Three gold medals in Rio 2016 marked an improvement, while the nine golds in Tokyo represented astronomical growth.

This week in Brisbane brings a combination of excitement and pressure. Swimming Australia sets a high bar for the Olympic team, using qualifying times based on the eight-placed finish at last year’s world championships, rather than the baseline Olympic qualifying mark. It means the Dolphins will only take to Paris swimmers who are a realistic shot of making the finals as a minimum. That adds an edginess to the air at trials, with swimmers knowing they cannot afford any slip-ups. One mistake and a lifetime’s ambition can unravel.

Indeed in some disciplines the Australian Olympic trials boast a quality higher even than the Olympic final, compounding the pressure. In the women’s 100m freestyle later this week, the Campbell sisters, Bronte and Cate, will join Mollie O’Callaghan, Shayna Jack and Emma McKeon on the starting blocks – with only two spots available in the event in Paris (although others will qualify for the relay team).

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On Monday, the opening night of the trials, there were plenty of good omens. Ariarne Titmus came within a breath of breaking her own women’s 400m freestyle world record; she will be a firm favourite to defend her Olympic crown in Paris. Kaylee McKeown broke the national record in the women’s 200m individual medley, while Elijah Winnington and Sam Short looked comfortable in qualifying for the men’s 400m freestyle. The duo’s times, slightly slower than their performances at the national championships in April, suggested they might have left something in the tank. They will enter as favourites, alongside German Lukas Märtens, in a month and a half’s time.

Positive signs – but will it be enough to outperform the Americans? Dolphins head coach Rohan Taylor was giving nothing away after an evening overseeing his charges as they tussled for places on the plane to Paris. “There’s a reason the Americans haven’t been beaten since 1956,” he said. “They’ve just extremely competent when it comes to the Olympics. This is where they step up – they have the depth, they have the numbers, they have the experience.”

But with some luck, this iteration of the Australian swimming team could go down in history as the nation’s best-ever. “We want to convert,” Taylor continued. “Whatever the athletes swim here, we want them to swim either on time or improve [in Paris]. If they do that and they’re highly-ranked, chances are they will get on the podium. If we can get a lot of highly-ranked athletes there, and then they perform well, the medal tally will fall our way.”

No bold claims, just plenty of quiet determination – topped with a hint of excitement at what might await with the Olympics right around the corner.