How Australia got back in the swim

“Watching it on TV, I’ve seen a calm, confident team that knows exactly what they are doing.″⁣

When Cate Campbell powered to the wall ahead of Team USA in the women’s medley relay, the team eclipsed the golden harvest from 1956, when names like Dawn Fraser and Murray Rose ruled the Melbourne pool. Within the relay, the most telling performance came not from Campbell or Emma McKeon or Kaylee McKeown, all stars of these Games, but a 17-year-old named Chelsea Hodges who produced the swim of her life to keep Australia in the race.

Kaylee McKeown, Chelsea Hodges, Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell with their medley relay gold medals.Credit:Getty Images

The difference between these Games and recent ones in Rio and London is not that our swimmers are more talented; it’s that they swam their best when it counted most.

Alex Baumann, a Canadian Olympic champion swimmer and sports administrator brought in by Swimming Australia three years ago to take charge of its high-performance program, says this team reminds him of the ones he used to race against 30 years ago.

“Australia had that mongrel in terms of never saying quit,″⁣ he said. “I think we have that back.″⁣

Former Swimming Australia chairman John Bertrand took over the sport after London. He said that since then, there has been a cultural and structural overhaul of how Australia approaches high-performance swimming driven by a simple idea: to win when it matters; to inspire a nation.

“Coming out of London the organisation was broken and dysfunctional,″⁣ he said. “That was the reality of the situation. Where we are now is something that we can celebrate as a nation.″⁣

Ariarne Titmus lit up the pool in her clashes with Katie Ledecky, winning both the 200m and 400m freestyle.

Ariarne Titmus lit up the pool in her clashes with Katie Ledecky, winning both the 200m and 400m freestyle.Credit:AP

Changing the culture and rituals of a sporting organisation, particularly a sport in which swim clubs operate as individual businesses within a national federation that only loosely governs its state associations, is not easy.

As Bertrand said, Australia has a proud swimming history and with this comes resistance to reform. “There were a lot of naysayers, no question. There were a lot of very successful, old generation coaches and officials on the fringes who were shaking their heads at different times.”

One of the most important structural weaknesses Verhaeren identified was the tradition of Australian swimming holding its Olympic trials to coincide with its national championships. At Rio, where less than a third of our swimmers matched or bettered their qualifying times in Olympic competition, there was a 16-week gap between the end of the trials and start of the Games; a gaping, four-month window for swimmers to get sick, get injured or lose form.

‘We have got this young group of athletes who are just resilient and determined and they keep each other up.’

Rohan Taylor

Verhaeren knew this had to change. He also understood that trying to change it when he was new to Australian swimming, in the middle of an Olympic cycle, would have provoked a mutiny. After Rio, when the Australian team again failed to produce their best at the Games, influential coaches joined the push for reform.

In 2018, the selection trials were pushed back to just five weeks before the Commonwealth Games. This is the same model Swimming Australia took into 2021, with selected swimmers going straight from the June trials in Adelaide to a warm-climate camp in Cairns to reduce the risk of anyone getting sick.

The cultural change has centred on dismantling what Verhaeren described as a traditional, rigid hierarchy, where all big decisions were deferred to the head coach. In its place, a new culture has been built where coaches are given greater freedom to train their athletes as they see fit and athletes have a greater say in shaping the Australian team environment.

Golden girl Emma McKeon.

Golden girl Emma McKeon.Credit:Getty Images

These changes have been embraced and carried on by Taylor, who was in effect Verhaeren’s 2IC for two years before his appointment to head coach.

The team culture in Tokyo has been determined by the swimmers themselves, particularly the athlete leadership group of Cate and Bronte Campbell, Jessica Hansen, Mitch Larkin and Alex Graham. This has in turn been backed by younger team members who, in contrast to previous games, feel included and valued.

“We have got this young group of athletes who are just resilient and determined and they keep each other up,” Taylor said. “We also have a focus on your behaviour and how you are around your teammate, regardless of your result. That is something the athletes came up with.”

Put simply, the Australian swim team has been in a very good place in Tokyo. Swimming figures associated with other national teams have told Baumann, who is home on the Gold Coast, that they have never seen a tighter swim team than these Australians.

Larkin, swimming at his third Olympics, said the team environment was fantastic. “The team is super close. We come away from a meet like this and really miss each other’s company,” he said.

Kaylee McKeown and Emily Seebohm share the moment on the podium during the medal ceremony for the 200m backstroke final.

Kaylee McKeown and Emily Seebohm share the moment on the podium during the medal ceremony for the 200m backstroke final.Credit:Getty Images

“You can see it not only by the way we are swimming but by the way we interact with each other.”

Instead of a swagger on the pool deck there is a marked humility. This has extended to the coaches, an eclectic group that accommodates the side-parted reserve of Bohl with the gyrating energy of Dean Boxall.

“The coaches are all united, we have collective goals, we know what we want to achieve. In the past it has been management versus swimming versus the athlete,” Baumann said. “We don’t have that anymore.”

Of course, you still need great swimmers. When the rebuild of Australian swimming began, Ariarne Titmus was a 10-year-old girl in Launceston who could swim a bit and McKeown the kid sister of Taylor McKeown, a promising breaststroker in the frame for Rio.

Coming into these Games, no one had Zac Stubblety-Cook pencilled in as the only male individual gold medallist or 19-year-old Tommy O’Neill as our fastest 200m relay swimmer. No one thought a month ago that Hodges could hold her own in a gold-medal swim-off against an Olympic breaststroke champion.

Zac Stubblety-Cook on his way to winning the 200m breaststroke gold medal.

Zac Stubblety-Cook on his way to winning the 200m breaststroke gold medal.Credit:Getty Images

But without a better team culture, without a change to the trials, Australia would still be swimming in the past, unable to break the frustrating pattern of underperformance that infected previous Olympic campaigns.

Swimming Australia was ridiculed in some quarters for establishing a collaboration with the Australian Defence Force to teach its athletes to become more resilient to high-stress situations. At a time when money is tight for most Olympic sports, it was accused of being financially profligate for sending 30 coaches and staff to leadership courses at the Melbourne Business School.

Verhaeren completed the course and described it as an incredible opportunity for coaches to talk about how to work together, lead and take responsibility. “That was a true revelation for myself and all the coaches and that is what you see in the team under Rohan,” he said.

“There is trust, they understand that nobody trains the same and every coach has their strategy and approach. It is about giving people the freedom to be themselves while understanding you operate in a team. The team has absolutely found that balance.”

He said the collaboration with the ADF, an idea hatched between Bertrand and his friend Rick Burr, the chief of the Australian Army, was designed to address the one thing that cannot be replicated in a swimming pool outside an Olympic Games; pressure to perform in what Verhaeren calls a “circus of unexpected circumstance and unusual pressure”.

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This is the reason Taylor sprung a surprise training day on his swimmers on the Gold Coast. Everyone in Australian swimming has understood that these nine days of competition in Tokyo would be the ultimate stress test of what they had built.

If you want to know how this Australian team stood up, look no further than the first half of Stubblety-Cook’s gold medal-winning swim in the 200m breaststroke.

Stubblety-Cook went into that race expecting that other swimmers would take it out hard. He knew his best chance of winning was to hold his stroke and his nerve and bring it home strong. It was one thing to know this and to train it; another to stay convinced when the bloke in the lane next to him tore away under world-record pace.

Try putting yourself in the goggles of a 22-year-old from Brisbane watching a rival swimmer leaving you in his wake in your first Olympic final. The temptation to quicken his stroke and pick up the pace would have been overwhelming. The panic must have been rising. Yet, for all that, Stubblety-Cook kept calm, stuck to his plan and delivered.

It is what this Australian swim team does. And none of it has come by accident.