Australia's McKeon takes place among all-time greats

general01 August 2021 08:02| © AFP
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Emma McKeon © Gallo Images

Swimming great Ian Thorpe says Emma McKeon has "flown under the radar" in Australia but now she is firmly on the map after her stunning performances at the Tokyo Olympics.

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McKeon has joined the greats of Australian sport, winning her 11th Olympic medal -- and fifth gold -- on Sunday to become the country's most decorated Olympian.

The 27-year-old's haul eclipses the nine medals won by Thorpe and fellow swimmer Leisel Jones, putting her two clear at the top of Australia’s all-time list.

McKeon won seven medals in Japan, which is the most for any female swimmer at one Olympics and the most a woman has achieved in any sport at a single Games since 1952.

“It’s very surreal," McKeon said on Sunday at the end of a nine-day meet at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. "I only hear from you guys those kinds of stats.

"I look at the athletes that have gone before me and have been so impressed and inspired by what they've done but I've never been into the stats and medal counts. But to be in that kind of company, it's an honour and I know I've worked hard for it."


McKeon was the undisputed sprint queen in Tokyo, winning gold medals in the 50m and 100m freestyle and setting Olympic records in each.

She also claimed golds in the 4x100m freestyle relay and the 4x100m medley relay, taking bronze in the 100m butterfly, 4x200m freestyle relay and the 4x100m mixed medley relay.

In all, McKeon swam 13 races in nine days. "I feel like I prepared for that," she said. "I've been at these meets before where the emotions are so up and down. I knew what to expect.

"We knew it was going to be an emotional rollercoaster. After getting a gold medal I could celebrate but also was trying to keep the emotions at bay.

"That's why now it's going to take a bit of time to sink in because I've been forcing myself to keep cool. I'm very proud of myself and I wouldn't have been able to do it without the support of everyone behind me."

McKeon has not been a star name even in Australia, where the 20-year-old Ariarne Titmus has taken many of the plaudits for pipping America’s Katie Ledecky to double gold in the 200m and 400m free.

"She's flown under the radar but this has most definitely been Emma McKeon's meet," Thorpe told Australia's Channel 7.

"She has been dominant. She's been brilliant. She's been fantastic. It's been a pleasure to watch.

"She skips across the water in a way that we don't often see. She's quite slight in her physicality but the way that she's able to move through the water is impressive."

Born in Wollongong in New South Wales, McKeon has heritage in the pool, with her father Ron swimming at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics. The latter also featured her uncle Robert Woodhouse, who won a bronze medal in the 400m medley.

McKeon’s mother Susie swam at the 1982 Commonwealth Games while her brother David competed at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, with Emma and David becoming the first brother and sister to swim for Australia at the same Games in 56 years.

"I grew up watching swimming and amazing athletes in Australia and grew up wanting to do the same," said McKeon. "I'm the same kid as those children watching now, and now I'm here."

Four-time gold medallist Cate Campbell was one of Australia’s flag-bearers at the opening ceremony in Tokyo and she said McKeon should have the honour at the closing ceremony next weekend.

"It's not my decision but she is an incredible young athlete, incredible woman and really good friend," said Campbell. "My vote would go to Emma."