The Australians are ready. That was the message on the opening night in the pool at Tokyo 2020, as Australia’s swimmers put themselves in pole position for medals on Sunday morning and beyond. “I couldn’t be more ready,” said Emma McKeon after moving into the semi-final of the 100m butterfly with the joint-fastest time of 55.82sec. “I’ve had an extra year to prepare.”
Some concerns had been expressed in recent days among Australia’s small contingent of pool-watchers in Tokyo about whether the hype might get to the Dolphins. Collectively, the Australians had a blistering Olympic trials in Adelaide last month, putting the world on notice by smashing world and Commonwealth records. But it has been 13 years since the Australian swimmers last had a dominant Olympics, nabbing only one gold in London and three in Rio. The signs were good, but as even their head coach, Rohan Taylor, admitted, “they’ve got to prove it. Until they prove it – we’re very positive about how we’re looking, but that’s on paper.”
They haven’t quite proven it yet – Saturday night’s opener was all heats, with the medal races reserved for the morning time slot to suit American television. But the signs in the heats were good. Provided the Australians can back this up on Sunday, medals beckon.
And those medals might come from unexpected places. The surprise of the night for the Australians was a blistering final lap from Brendon Smith which saw him qualify fastest in the men’s 400m individual medley. Before the heats the 21-year-old was considered only an outside prospect for the Dolphins, but his qualifying time means he is now the swimmer to beat on Sunday. “It felt fast – but to go 4.09.2 was probably faster than I thought it was,” he Smith. Can he go even faster in the final? “We’ll see,” he said with a smile.
The disappointment – if you can call it that – also came from an unexpected corner.
Australia’s Elijah Winnington and Jack McLoughlin arrived in Tokyo holding the fastest two times in the world this year in the 400m freestyle – Winnington’s qualifying time was a full second and a half faster than any non-Australian rival. On Saturday, though, they were both off the pace; touching the wall together to jointly claim their heat, albeit behind three qualifiers in a faster prior heat. That will mean nothing if they can reprise their speed from the Olympic trials in the medal race. But what was previously seen as a comfortable podium one-two for the Australians suddenly became a lot more interesting.
Brendon Smith after winning his heat in the 400m individual medley – he qualified with the fastest time overall. Photograph: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images
There was no such sluggishness from McKeon in the butterfly. In the prior heat, Sweden’s reigning Olympic champion Sarah Sjöström and American 18-year-old Torri Huske laid down their credentials with rapid swims. McKeon was unfazed, going even faster to touch the line at the same time as China’s Yufei Zhang and break the Australian record. While the 27-year-old must wait until Monday for her medal swim in the event, with the semi-finals up next on Sunday, McKeon’s composed showing bodes well for what will likely be a four-way toss-up in the final.
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The Australians concluded the night with a dominant swim in the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay heat. With Rio gold medallists McKeon and Cate Campbell absent – to be added to the lineup for the medal race – the ease in which the Australians beat the field was remarkable. Barring calamity, they look almost certain to defend their Rio crown on Sunday. The world record they set at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 also seems at risk. “The whole job tonight was to get the team into the final – we ticked that box,” said relay team member Bronte Campbell.
The night ended on a sentimental note for the Australians. The younger of the Campbell sisters had anchored the relay team to their heat victory. But unless she is chosen in the final on Sunday – which remains in doubt, given the nation’s depth in the discipline – the swim may have been Bronte Campbell’s last for Australia. The 27-year-old has hinted that she will not swim on to the Paris 2024 Games; if tonight’s effort was her swansong, she has gone out on a high. “I took a moment in the pool just to look at the rings and take it all in,” Campbell said afterwards. “It’s over pretty quickly.”