Rio Olympics 2016: The Aussies are coming and a battle in the pool is about to commence
One of the oldest and biggest rivalries ever to transcend sports has been the contests between big daddy USA and the wizards of OZ in the swimming pool. This contest lights up the first week of any Olympics and invariably sets the tone for further rivalries that bring out dazzling performances and bitter disappointments too.
No wonder that two of the most keenly followed sporting events, at least in the aquatic world were the respective Olympic swim trials of Australia and the USA. It was this rivalry that turned out to be a no-contest at London as the USA claimed 16 gold medals to Australia’s single gold. For a country which has such a brilliant swimming history, this result was more than just a shock.
Since 1900, when Adam Paine won 2 gold medals the swimmers have produced the bulk of the medals for Australia with athletics, rowing and cycling the other major contributors. Of the 139 golds won by Australia, swimming has contributed a whopping 57 of them.
But at London, the swimmers secured just 1 out of their overall 8 gold medals a fairly steep drop from the 6 at Beijing and 7 at Athens.
Reasons for the London failure
The failure was attributed to a whole host of reasons like bullying, lack of camaraderie, a toxic culture but let’s not forget the spectacular form of the USA, the rise and rise of China through their freestyle giant Sun Yang and medley specialist Ye Shewin.
There were some brilliant individual performances from the likes of butterfly specialist Chad Le Clos, double sprint champion Ranomi Kromowidjojo and a host of brilliant French swimmers like Florent Manadou, the late Camille Muffat and of course, their relay teams.
Whatever the reasons for failure (lest we forget Australia still won 10 medals) the new Olympic cycle started with a new Dutch coach Jacco Verhaeren and the process of restoring Aussie swimming glory and pride started at the Barcelona World Championships 2013.
Barcelona World Championships 2013
The team was led by James Magnussen, who attained some redemption by demolishing his rivals at Barcelona. London was heartbreaking for Magnussen after his loss to American Nathan Adrian by 0.01 seconds. Breaststroker Christian Sprenger claimed his maiden world title in the 100m breaststroke, building off his silver medal in London.
Barcelona also marked the arrival of the tall 20-year-old Cate Campbell as she won the 100 metre free gold and backed it up with a silver in the 50 metre dash. Campbell incidentally was a member of 400m freestyle relay team that won the only gold for the Aussies at London. Safe to say that the flagbearer of Australian swimming had arrived to take over from the earlier golden generation of Stephanie Rice, Libby Trickett, Leisel Jones and Jess Schipper.
More than titles, there was a lot of evidence of emerging talent in the form of Cameron Mcevoy, Bronte Campbell and Thomas Fraser-Holmes. The signs were looking good for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games 2014 and the Kazan World Championships 2015 as the Dolphins, as they prefer to call themselves, were building into an ideal mix of youth and experience in the form of Emily Seebohm, Alicia Coutts and Belinda Hocking who claimed silver at Barcelona.
The ascent continues at the Kazan World Championships 2015
And it was this ideal mix that more than built on the success of the Barcelona World Championships by claimed 18 medals including 7 gold at the Kazan World Championships.
The spectacular arrivals of Bronte Campbell who achieved the double sprint gold (50m & 100m) in freestyle coupled with the backstroke doubles by young Mitch Larkin and the experienced Seebohm were the highlights. Another youngster Cameron McEvoy served notice of his potential with silver in 100 free.
Mack Horton built on his success at 2014 Pan Pacs and Glasgow Commonwealth games with 800 freestyle bronze at Kazan and has since continued his ascent as a challenger to the likes of Sun Yang and Connor Jaeger in the longer freestyle distances.By the time the Kazan World Championships drew to a close the aquatics world was well aware of the thorough reshaping that Swimming Australia had gone through.
Spectacular form continues into the Olympic trials
The Australian National Championships which also doubled up as Australia’s Olympic trials gave further evidence that the Aussies are on the right track for Rio..Cameron McEvoy became the first swimmer to win the freestyle sprint treble at an Australian Championships. He clocked the second fastest time in the world this year (behind Florent Manadou’s 21.42) taking 0.3 off his personal best to record 21.44.It was also third fastest in Australian history, behind Ashley Callus (21.19) and Eamon Sullivan (21.28).
Not to be left behind was Cate Campbell who clocked a personal best of 23.93 seconds in the 50m dash which was a new Commonwealth and Australian record.
Mack Horton clocked an effortless 14:48 in the 1500m freestyle after apparently going slow in the first 400m and being warned by his coach to speed up things. Seems he took it a bit more serious in the finals as he clocked 14:39. In the process, he became the second fastest swimmer Australia has ever produced over the 1500m.
In a country that gave us legends as Grant Hackett and Kieren Perkins that’s a big deal and Horton is just 19. Horton also threw down the marker in the 400m freestyle at the trials by clocking an astonishing 3:41:65. Just as invincible seem the backstrokers Seebohm and Mitch Larkin.
There were further brilliant performances in the Santa Clara meet in June where a sprinkling of US swimmers were present. Jessica Ashwood stood out in the 800m freestyle but Ledecky is still far ahead.
The Brisbane Grand prix in early July saw Cate Campbell break a 7-year-old world record in the 100m freestyle seemingly not being at full tilt.
Last but not the least the women 400m freestyle relay combining the speed of the Campbell sisters and the experience of Seebohm continue to look unstoppable since the London Olympics.
The relay team has so much depth that it needs to pick any 4 of its 6 swimmers and will end up winning a medal probably even Gold. Nobody apart from the USA has that kind of pace and depth. Only the Dutch combination with Ranomi Kromowidjojo & Femke Heemskerk in its ranks has any hope of coming anywhere near the USA, but Australia look untouchable at the moment.
It seems the target of attaining No.1 status by Tokyo 2020 seems to be getting fast-tracked with the kind of results that the current crop of swimmers have delivered especially during the Rio qualification period.
Australia have world leaders in as many 8 individual events.
50m freestyle: Cate Campbell
100m freestyle: Cate Campbell, Bronte Campbell,
100m backstroke: Emily Seebohm
200m backstroke: Belinda Hocking, Emily Seebohm
200m butterfly: Madeline Groves
100m freestyle: Cameron McEvoy
400m freestyle: Mack Horton
200m backstroke: Mitch Larkin
Add to this they are in the top 3 in 6 other events. An impressive CV for this team within a team.
The USA with their greater depth will be ready come Rio but whatever happens there, one thing is certain, Australia is ready to take on anybody in the pool if results over the past year are any indication.