Emma McKeon on her Rio Olympics triumph, her swimming pedigree and her plans for the future. By Cindy MacDonald.


In the gene pool: Emma McKeon, swimmer

My swimming pedigree? Well, my pop was very involved in surf lifesaving and Dad [Ron McKeon] and Mum [Susie Woodhouse] trained at the Australian Institute of Sport and were on a Commonwealth Games swim team together, and Dad went to the Olympics. On Mum’s side, her brother [Rob Woodhouse] also went to the Olympics and won a bronze medal. And my brother, David, has been on the team with me for quite a few years now as well. So, yeah, there’s a lot of swimming in our family.

I guess people would say it runs in the blood but I think we sort of all just found a love for the sport and made a lot of friends and connections through it. 

I was in year 12 – aged 17, I think – at the time of the London 2012 Olympic trials and I missed a relay spot by a couple of milliseconds. I was pretty upset. I’d wanted to go to the Olympics since I was really young, but I didn’t want to keep training for another four years to make it, so I was thinking, “I’ll just give it away and enjoy all the social things that come with being a teenager.” 

But then I realised swimming was something I wanted to do. I came to the decision myself, but also my parents said to me, “Well, maybe swimming isn’t for you; maybe you don’t enjoy it.” Probably deep down they knew I’d come back to it, so maybe it was a bit of reverse psychology.

The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow seems so long ago now. That was the first year I made the team in individual events. I think to get the results I did [four gold medals and two bronze] shocked me a bit but also gave me more drive and made me realise I could succeed on the international stage. I think that really helped me. 

I wasn’t expecting to come away with that many medals at Rio. It didn’t really sink in until afterwards when people were saying I was the best-performed Australian athlete. But for three of those medals I was part of a team and swimming with three other girls. 

Winning the [4x100 metres freestyle] relay at the end of the first night in world record time was the best feeling. We were definitely the favourites leading in, but when we won the gold it was a shock to experience what that actually felt like. Bronte [Campbell], Brit [Elmslie] and I have grown up together since we were 12 or 13, racing and making junior teams together, so it was nice for the three of us to be all in that team [with Cate Campbell]. But I had such a big program in Rio. I’d already done the semis of the 100 ’fly that night and I still had many more races to go. So it was like a battle in my mind of trying to stay calm but also enjoy the moment and soak it all up. Then I had to go back to the village and try to get to sleep so I could race again the next day.

When I was banned from the closing ceremony [for a breach of team protocol] it was pretty shattering. To finish off the biggest week of my life in swimming, having been so successful, it was something I was disappointed about. For the second week in Rio I was worried about that and, while I was trying to enjoy the Olympic experience, I was also trying to get back to being able to walk in the closing ceremony. I think after I explained my reasons for what happened, it was a bit more understood by [Australian chef de mission] Kitty Chiller. All the support the public gave me helped a lot and it was nice to know I had that. I think that was probably the main thing that helped me [have the ban overturned].

Swimming training is probably not as boring as people think, although it can be at times. But, really, I get the opportunity to get in the pool and challenge myself every day and get closer and closer to what I want to achieve in the sport. Every year we’ve got a big meet on and we’re always building up to that, so it all goes quite quickly. That’s another thing I’ve realised since the Olympics – that we’re only swimming for a short amount of our lives. So I want to put everything I have into it and come out as successful as I can be, because it’s only – what? – a 10- to 20-year thing and then you’ve got the rest of your life.

I would love to get another individual medal on the world stage. These Australian championships are the selection trials for the World Championships in Hungary in July. I’ll be doing my usual events and I hope to improve my times from last year and hopefully move my way up in the 100 ’fly and the 200 metres freestyle. If I keep working hard, I think I can get that result.

I’m studying part-time at Griffith Uni – a bachelor of public health in health promotion and public health nutrition. I think it’s really important to have something to retire to instead of just retiring from swimming. And it’s not just about having a job to go to. It’s more about having something else in your life that satisfies you, something that you’re passionate about outside of swimming.

As far as my attitude to life, I want to be able to enjoy myself and not take things too seriously. And that probably goes for swimming as well. I’m only going to keep going for as long as I am enjoying myself.

My favourite thing to do outside of the pool is to go to the beach. And, yes, I do swim but it doesn’t really feel like actual swimming when I’m at the beach. It’s more relaxing – I can just float.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 8, 2017 as "In the gene pool".

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Cindy MacDonald is The Saturday Paper’s deputy editor.

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