Feature | Swimming

Could Emma McKeon be Australia’s answer to Michael Phelps at Tokyo Olympics?

With the potential to take six medals home from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Emma McKeon is Australia's top tip for multi-event glory, while she continues her family's legacy of success in swimming.

By Andrew Binner ·

For some particularly gifted swimmers like Emma McKeon, winning one medal at an event is simply not enough.

The Australian was her nation’s most successful in the pool at the Rio 2016 Olympics, taking home one gold medal, two silvers, a bronze and plenty of new fans in a country where swimming is serious business.

In 2019, she made headlines again Down Under when it was announced that she was going to swim in eight events at the world championships in Gwangju, Korea. With Michael Phelps and Caeleb Dressel tied for the most gold medals won at one world champs with seven, history beckoned.

In the end McKeon had to settle for six medals after dropping out of an event due to illness, but the four-time Olympic medallist remains one of her nation’s brightest stars going into the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

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The secret behind multi-event swimming is to conserve energy, without compromising your chances of qualifying for the final. This is harder than it sounds when world-class rivals - who may expend all their energy as single-event specialists - are hunting you down.

With 23 Olympic gold medals and an Olympic record of eight golds at a single Games, Phelps is the the multi-event king. Unsurprisingly, he is also the inspiration behind McKeon’s own multi-medal ambitions, according to her coach.

"You learn from people like Michael Phelps in Beijing. He did a very good job. In 2008, his heats were measured, the semis he was stronger and the finals he was awesome," Michael Bohl told the Sydney Morning Herald.

"I have (spoken to McKeon about it) ... he's the benchmark. Just the way he did it was a lesson to every one. People that are multi-eventing have to be a bit more measured in the first one."

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Continuing a swimming legacy

Some Olympians stumble upon their sports by chance, but the same could not be said of McKeon, who comes from strong swimming stock.

Her father Ronald won was a four-time Commonwealth Champion, and represented Australia at the Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 Olympics, while her mother Susie also swam at the Commonwealth Games.

Meanwhile McKeon Junior’s uncle Rob Woodhouse competed at the LA 1984 and Seoul 1988 Games.

But Emma isn’t continuing the family legacy all on her own. Older brother David is an Olympic silver medallist, and the siblings both represented their nation at the 2014 and 2018 Commonwealth Games. Emma scooped four gold and two bronzes at both events.

Showing grit

Despite her impressive medal haul, success wasn’t always a given for the Wollongong-born prodigy.

She missed out on selection for the London 2012 Olympics after placing seventh in the 100m freestyle, ninth in the 100m butterfly, tenth in the 200m freestyle, and thirteenth in the 50m freestyle at the Australian Olympic trials.

This disappointment led her to take a brief break from the sport, before rediscovering her love for swimming in stunning fashion, drawing another parallel with Phelps' career. Her senior international debut at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow saw her take home six medals from six events.

Freestyle talent in Australia

In truth, just getting to a Commonwealth or world championships for Australia is a reward in itself, given their embarrassment of riches in the water.

In women’s freestyle alone, McKeon competes with the likes of fellow Olympic gold medallists Cate Campbell and Bronte Campbell in the 50m, 100m and 200m, while Ariarne Titmus - who shocked the world at the 2019 world champs when she beat Katie Ledecky in the 400m free - provides stiff competition over the 200m.

Once McKeon has secured her place on the Australian team, she must then compete against something of a golden age in women's swimming internationally. In the 200m free, the Aussies have Olympic champion Ledecky, world-record holder Federica Pellegrini, Swedish star Sarah Sjostrom and Canada’s Taylor Ruck to contend with in the race to be crowned number one.

However, McKeon’s versatility means she is the only one of her female compatriots that competes in all five relay events on offer at a world champs. Given the prestige Australia and their great rivals the USA put on the team events, this makes her an irreplaceable asset.

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In Gwangju alone, she swam in the women’s 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle (where McKeon and her teammates are the current world record holders), the mixed 4x100m freestyle, and the women’s and mixed 4x100m medleys.

She was equally impressive out of the pool too. The impactful image of the Australian alongside alongside fellow 100m butterfly medallists Sjostrom and Emma MacNeil showing their support for Japan's Rikako Ikee (who was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2019) will live long in the memory.

Emma McKeon, Margaret MacNeil and Sarah Sjostrom show their support for Rikako Ikee during the 2019 world championships in Gwangju, Korea.

While this competition for places is undoubtedly a strength in the Australian swimming programme, its conveyor belt of talent ensures that no swimmer can afford to rely on their previous victories to earn selection.

A stark reminder of this came in 2019 when McKeon’s New South Wales state record in the 50m freestyle was broken by an exciting 15-year-old named Sydney Brown.

With a further year to gain extra experience and confidence ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Australian Olympic Trials in Adelaide will not be for the faint-hearted.

Emma McKeon on fire before the pandemic

The majority of athletes were left disappointed by the year delay to the Olympics, and McKeon was no exception.

In the run-up to the Aussie Trials, where Olympic hopefuls aim to start hitting their peak condition, the 26-year-old was breaking meet records and in the form of her life.

Her 56.36s in the 100m butterfly in particular was the fastest time in the world in 2020, with Sjostrom her closest challenger almost 0.3 of a second slower. The time was slower than McKeon’s Australian record of 56.18s, but all signs pointed towards a successful Olympic Games.

The delay, like her London 2012 disappointment, will be a test of character for McKeon. But Australia’s multi-event specialist has time on her side and has demonstrated her resilience before.

She is already a decorated Olympian but, in what is one of the most exciting times ever in Australian swimming, she’ll be hoping the best is yet to come in Japan.