Swimming

With disruption and doubt still surrounding the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, now scheduled to start in July 2021, can the Australian swim team stay in their lane and remain focused on the quest for gold? By Luke Dodemaide.

Australian swimming and the Tokyo Olympics

Athens Olympic Games triple gold medallist Jodie Henry.
Credit: Australian Institute of Sport

About a year out from the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, a Ukrainian archery coach was bitten by one of the city’s 60,000 stray dogs during a lead-up contest. Not long after, a salmonella outbreak wreaked havoc on a German junior rowing team competing in a test event. The world’s sport fans held their breath – was the birthplace of the modern Olympics about to play host to a giant flop? Once the Games finally opened, though, the barely finished stadiums and bursting-at-the-seams transportation systems were little more than inconvenient aesthetics. The athletes’ performances still shone through.

No Australian succeeded in Athens quite like swimmer Jodie Henry, who returned home with three gold medals. “We were going there to do a job,” Henry tells The Saturday Paper. “We were going there to compete in a sport. Whatever we turned up to, we turned up to. There was a lot of talk about the village not being finished and that sort of thing. But you know what? It was liveable.”

There are parallels with the Athens Games and Tokyo 2020, which was bumped to 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Not in regards to preparedness – the Japanese capital’s stadia were finished well in advance – but the concerns over whether the Games would happen at all.

Doubt doesn’t fuel performance, however, and Henry, then 19, anchored both the winning 4x100-metre freestyle relay and 4x100-metre medley relay teams in Athens, which was particularly notable as it relegated star-studded American teams (boasting eight-time gold medallist Jenny Thompson) to silver.

“Standing on the dais with my training partner Alice [Mills]… that was pretty cool,” says Henry. “It is not often you get to share the Olympic gold medal with the person that you train with every day.”

In the 100-metre freestyle, an event that holds a special place in the hearts of Australians due to the feats of Dawn Fraser, Henry claimed a gold medal win that lives on as one of Australian swimming’s greatest moments. Henry was too strong for Dutch colossus Inge de Bruijn in a choppy outdoor pool whose times were historically slow.

That didn’t stop Henry from setting a new world record in the semi-final. “Breaking the world record in the semi was not my intention,” says Henry. “It just happened to be that, you know, I felt amazing that night.”

Against reigning champion de Bruijn, Henry refused to be cowed. Her attitude was, “That competitor cannot do anything to me.

“It is not boxing, you know?” the Queenslander says. “I think if you are focusing too much on who you are racing, you are not focusing enough on yourself and the job you are supposed to do.”

With Henry, now a Brisbane-based mother of three, taking up a new role at Swimming Australia as part of the athlete wellbeing and engagement team, her on-hand advice will be vital to the mental state of the swimmers preparing for the unique circumstances of Tokyo.

Heading the Australian Dolphins swim team is Rohan Taylor, a level-headed Melburnian who earned his coaching stripes in California. These Olympic will be his first in charge of the squad, having taken over from Dutchman Jacco Verhaeren towards the end of last year.

“I think it is going ahead,” says Taylor of the Tokyo Olympics. “That is what our plan is. We will not adjust what we need to do. We are not thinking about anything but that.”

So headstrong is Taylor, and optimistic of the potential his charges possess, that he can even see the positive in the 12-month delay – giving “green” talent an opportunity to grow into world-beaters.

“Look at Kyle Chalmers back in 2015 and 2016,” says Taylor. “He was on the junior team. He went for a relay for the senior team and everybody thought: ‘It is going to be a few years.’ But he was on the right track and he jumped up in [just over] 12 months and won Olympic gold [in Rio].”

Taylor doesn’t single out a particular swimmer to make that leap this time, but he does highlight the potential in one of Australia’s pet events – the 1500-metre freestyle. It is historically Australia’s most successful Olympic discipline – from Barcelona in 1992 to Athens in 2004, Kieren Perkins and Grant Hackett won every gold medal in the event between them.

“Jack McLoughlin is obviously our best placed swimmer in the distance events at the moment,” says Taylor. “And there are some young [Australian] guys that are moving forward in that event. Whether they are going to be [contending] there is another thing.”

Other Australians to watch are Tasmanian-born 400-metre freestyle world champion Ariarne Titmus, who beat American powerhouse Katie Ledecky in Gwangju, South Korea; 100-metre backstroke gold medal hopeful Minna Atherton; defending 100-metre Olympic gold medallist Chalmers; and double Olympic relay gold medallist Cate Campbell, who will be competing in her fourth Games and is aiming to break her individual gold medal drought.

The athlete who has benefited most from the Tokyo delay must be China’s controversial triple gold medallist Sun Yang, who found time in the 12-month postponement to get his controversial doping ban overturned “on the grounds of bias” and presumably set up a July showdown with Mack Horton in the 400-metre freestyle final.

It presents a double-edged sword for Horton. That a technicality led to Sun’s eight-year ban being thrown out must be grating, but the possibility of beating his arch nemesis again in the pool is surely tantalising.

It is a complicated scenario for Horton, and not one Taylor has his head around just yet. “To be honest, I would not know [what Horton is thinking],” says Taylor. “Mack looks after Mack.”

Athletes of Olympic calibre are often forward-thinking, optimistic beasts. For instance, while you would think the city of Athens would hold an incredible place in the heart of a legend such as Henry, it is not so omnipresent that she feels the need to revisit the scene of her greatest triumphs.

“I have not been back,” says Henry. “I have heard that the village is sort of in ruin, especially since the [global] financial crisis and things like that. You know, a lot of things went to the wayside, which is quite sad.”

In her mind, Athens was sweetest in 2004. It doesn’t matter what happens before or after an Olympic Games – just that you got there and, for some, reached the top of the dais. In the case of Dolphins squad members, the aim is the dais in the state-of-the-art Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Even if fans aren’t there to witness it.

“I think it is heads down, bums up heading to Tokyo,” says Henry. “It might look a little different, but the athletes’ will and [their desire] to do it won’t change. It is still there.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 13, 2021 as "Just keep swimming".

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Luke Dodemaide is an award-winning sports writer and editor based in Melbourne.