Australian swimmers throw down the gauntlet for Paris after games pool dominance

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Over the past six days of swimming at Sandwell Aquatics Centre, 52 Commonwealth Games gold medals have been on offer. As the meet wrapped up on Wednesday, Australia won the final race of the night – the women’s 4x100m medley relay – to collect the country’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 short of half the available titles.

The superlative statistics don’t end there. The Australian won seven of the eight relays, falling only to England in the men’s medley relay. Swimming queen Emma McKeon won six gold medals – she alone is fourth on the medal list, 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 event that did not have at least one Australian.

Related: Ariarne Titmus and Australia’s swimmers end the Commonwealth Games in gold

In other words, it was an extraordinary swimming event for the Australians. This in itself is not surprising – Australia has a long history of dominating the Commonwealth Games, including swimming. At the last Games on the Gold Coast, the Dolphins actually performed slightly better, winning 28 out of 50 gold medals. But put into the wider context – after an emphatic return to Olympic form at Tokyo 2020 last year, and with many Australians rooting in Birmingham not long after the World Cup – and the signs are positive with two years to go until the Paris Olympics.

The feat is 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 mattered.

In the past it may not have been assured – the Dolphins have previously struggled with controversy and the limelight (most famously at the 2012 Olympics). The team’s decision to send youngster Isaac Cooper home before the Games for “wellbeing challenges” recalled those dark days, but — beyond a few brief words from Chalmers to the media — the Dolphins let the swimming do the talking.

Tokyo stars McKeon, Ariarne Titmus and Kaylee McKeown led the charge. Titmus showed his strength over several distances by winning the crowns in the 200 m, 400 m and 800 m freestyle. While 15-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh was hot on the heels of Titmus in the 400m, the prodigy isn’t really threatening yet. That is likely to change in Paris, where a three-way duel between Titmus, McIntosh and American Katie Ledecky could be the meeting. McKeown edged Canadian rival Kylie Masse in both the 100m and 200m backstroke, a repeat of her results at last year’s Olympics.

Elijah Winnington in action during a heat of the 200 meter freestyle.

Elijah Winnington in action during a heat of the 200 meter freestyle. Photo: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Titmus and McKeown are only in their early 20s, but there is also a new, even younger pool of swimmers coming through the Australian ranks. Eighteen-year-old Mollie O’Callaghan won the 100m freestyle and took silver in the 200m and 50m backstroke. The Dean Boxall-trained youngster, who already has two Olympic gold medals to his name thanks to Tokyo relay places, has a bright future ahead of him. Teenager Elizabeth Dekkers missed the Olympics after failing in last year’s attempt 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 favorite to win gold in Tokyo only to underperform; his recent form suggests it was a blip that will not be repeated. Zac Stubblety-Cook added 200m breaststroke gold to his Olympic crown, while rising stars William Yang and Flynn Southam performed well in the relays.

Related: Kyle Chalmers silences critics, but focus on his personal life has been absurd Kieran Pender

Australia’s para swimmers were also in fine form at the Sandwell pool. While the Games include only a fraction of the categories offered at the Paralympics or World Championships – just six events for men and six for women – the Australians won half of the available races. Timothy Hodge broke the Games record on his way 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. A lot can happen between now and the Olympics in Paris – stars can rise and fall, form can wax and wane. Chalmers’ future remains in doubt, and while it seems likely that McKeon will race through to the Games (she has hinted as much), it is not impossible that Australia’s most successful Olympian could ever hang up her glasses before then. But a golden display at the Commonwealth Games has the Australian swimming team well placed on the road to Paris.

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