Australian swimmers challenge Paris after dominating the Games pool

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In the last six days of swimming at the Sandwell Aquatics Centre, 52 Commonwealth Games gold medals were awarded. When the match ended on Wednesday, Australia won the final race of the night – the women’s 4x100m medley relay – to claim the country’s 25th gold. The Dolphins have won as many gold medals in Birmingham as England, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Northern Ireland combined – just one gold short of winning half the titles available.

The superlative statistics don’t stop there. The Australian won seven of the eight relays, losing only to England in the men’s medley relay. Swimming queen Emma McKeon has won six gold medals – she alone ranks fourth on the medal table, ahead of the entire New Zealand team. Australian swimmers won 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 in the entire encounter that did not feature at least one Australian.

Related: Ariarne Titmus and Australia’s swimmers close out the golden Commonwealth Games

It was, in other words, an extraordinary swimming encounter for Australians. This is not surprising – Australia has a long history of dominating the Commonwealth Games, including swimming. In fact, at the last Games on the Gold Coast, the Dolphins performed a little better, winning 28 out of 50 gold medals. But put into a broader context – after an emphatic return to Olympic form at Tokyo 2020 last year, and with many Australians backing in Birmingham shortly 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 loomed over the encounter, an almost obsessive focus on the alleged 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 on the team, they managed to perform when it counted.

In the past, this may not have been guaranteed – the Dolphins had already struggled with controversy and the glare of the spotlight (most famously at the 2012 Olympics). The team’s decision to send young Isaac Cooper home before the Games for “wellness challenges” recalled those dark days, but – aside from a few terse words from Chalmers to the media – the Dolphins let their swimming speak for itself.

Tokyo stars McKeon Ariarne Titmus and Kaylee McKeown led the charge. Titmus showed his strength at various distances by winning the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle crowns. While 15-year-old Canadian Summer McIntosh was hot on the heels of Titmus in the 400m, the prodigy still isn’t really menacing. That will likely change in Paris, where a three-way duel between Titmus, McIntosh and American Katie Ledecky could be the meet of the match. McKeown got the better of Canadian rival Kylie Masse in the 100m and 200m backstroke, a repeat of the results at last year’s Olympics.

Elijah Winnington in action during a 200m freestyle heat.

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

Titmus and McKeown are only in their mid-20s, but there is also a new crop of even younger swimmers progressing through the Australian ranks. Mollie O’Callaghan, 18, won the 100m freestyle and won silver in the 200m and 50m backstroke. The Dean Boxall-trained young woman, who already has two Olympic gold medals to her name courtesy of relay spots in Tokyo, has a bright future ahead of her. Fellow teenager Elizabeth Dekkers missed the Olympics after failing last year’s trials but bounced back in Birmingham – her gold in the 200m butterfly was her first win at a major international competition.

Among men, Elijah Winnington backed up his recent world title to win the 400m freestyle. The 22-year-old was the favorite to win gold in Tokyo but underperformed; its recent form suggests that it was a dot that will not 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.

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

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

Of course, two years is a long time in swimming. A lot can happen between now and the Paris Olympics – stars can go up and down, form can go down and up. Chalmers’ future remains in doubt, and while it seems likely that McKeon will race to the Games (she hinted), it’s not impossible that Australia’s most successful Olympian could hang up her glasses before then. But a golden showing at the Commonwealth Games put the Australian swim team well-positioned on the way to Paris.

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