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Australian swimmers throw down gauntlet for Paris after Games pool dominance

Over the past six days of swimming at the Sandwell Aquatics Centre, 52 Commonwealth Games gold medals have been on offer. As the meet concluded on Wednesday, Australia won the last race of the evening – the women’s 4x100m medley relay – to collect the nation’s 25th gold. The Dolphins won as many gold medals in Birmingham as England, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Northern Ireland combined – just one gold shy of claiming fully half of the available titles.

The superlative statistics don’t end there. Australian won seven of the eight relays, falling only to England in the men’s medley relay. Swim queen Emma McKeon won six gold medals – she alone sits fourth on the medal tally, ahead of the entire New Zealand team. Australian swimmers swept the podium in four events: the men’s 400m freestyle and the women’s 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle. And such was the strength and breadth of the Dolphins that there were only seven podiums across the entire meet that did not feature at least one Australian.

It was, in other words, an extraordinary swim meet for the Australians. This is not itself surprising – Australia has a long history of dominating the Commonwealth Games, including the swimming. Indeed at the last Games on the Gold Coast, the Dolphins performed slightly better, winning 28 of 50 gold medals. But placed into the wider context – following an emphatic return to Olympic form at Tokyo 2020 last year, and with many Australians backing up in Birmingham not long after the world championships – and the signs are positive with two years to go until the Paris Olympics.

The performances are all the more impressive given the media storm that hung over the meet, an almost-obsessive focus on the supposed love triangle between McKeon, freestyle king Kyle Chalmers and pop star turned swimmer Cody Simpson. Despite the distraction and its consequences for the mental health of several in the team, they managed to perform when it counted.

In the past that might not have been assured – the Dolphins have previously struggled with controversy and the glare of the spotlight (most famously at the 2012 Olympics). The team’s decision to send home youngster Isaac Cooper prior to the Games for “wellbeing challenges” recalled those dark days, but – beyond some terse words from Chalmers to the media – the Dolphins let their swimming do the talking.

Tokyo stars McKeon, Ariarne Titmus and Kaylee McKeown led the charge. Titmus showed her strength across multiple distances by winning the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle crowns. While 15-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh was hot on Titmus’s heels in the 400m, the prodigy is not yet truly threatening. That will likely change by Paris, where a three-way duel between Titmus, McIntosh and American Katie Ledecky could be the encounter of the meet. McKeown got the better of Canadian rival Kylie Masse in both the 100m and 200m backstroke, a repeat of the outcomes at last year’s Olympics.

Elijah Winnington in action during a 200m freestyle heat.
Elijah Winnington in action during a 200m freestyle heat. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Titmus and McKeown are only in their early 20s, but there is also a new, even younger crop of swimmers progressing through the Australian ranks. Eighteen-year-old Mollie O’Callaghan won the 100m freestyle and claimed silver in the 200m and the 50m backstroke. The Dean Boxall-coached youngster, who already has two Olympic gold medals to her name courtesy of Tokyo relay spots, has a bright future ahead. Fellow teenager Elizabeth Dekkers missed out on the Olympics after misfiring at last year’s trials, but bounced back in Birmingham – her 200m butterfly gold was her first win at a major international competition.

Among the men, Elijah Winnington backed up his recent world title to win the 400m freestyle. The 22-year-old was hot favourite to win gold in Tokyo only to underperform; his recent form suggests that was a blip that won’t be repeated. Zac Stubblety-Cook added the 200m breaststroke gold to his Olympic crown, while emerging stars William Yang and Flynn Southam performed well in the relays.

Australia’s para-swimmers were also in fine form at the Sandwell pool. While the Games include just a fraction of the categories on offer at the Paralympics or world championships – only six events for the men and six for the women – the Australians won half of the available races. Timothy Hodge broke the Games record en route to gold in the 100m backstroke S9, while young gun Jasmine Greenwood, just 17, continued her rise with the 200m individual medley SM10 title.

Of course two years is a long time in swimming. Much can happen between now and the Paris Olympics – stars can rise and fall, form can wane and wax. Chalmers’ future remains in doubt and while it seems likely McKeon will race through to the Games (she has hinted as much), it is not impossible Australia’s most successful ever Olympian could hang up her goggles before then. But a golden showing at the Commonwealth Games has the Australian swim team well-placed on the road to Paris.

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