Hundreds of hours and many micro-moments go into building the kind of perfect storm Emma McKeon unleashed on the Tokyo pool, but her longtime coach, Michael Bohl, can trace the roots back to a pair of forks in the road that eventually led to a rare piece of Olympic history.
McKeon, a 27-year-old from Wollongong, would win the sprint double in the 50m freestyle and then lay down a commanding butterfly leg in the medley relay to set up Cate Campbell for a legendary anchor leg on the last day of swimming at the Tokyo Olympics.
McKeon would win a total of seven medals (four gold, three bronze) if Australia won the team event, surpassing Melbourne in 1956 as Australia’s most successful excursion in the Olympic pool (nine gold).
McKeon had already won six medals at that point, putting her ahead of Ian Thorpe, Alicia Coutts, and Shane Gould as the most decorated Australian at a single Game.
Seven set her out on her own for female swimmers, while Michael Phelps, Mark Spitz, and Matt Biondi joined her as American royalty.
Maria Gorokhovskaya, a Russian gymnast, was the only other female Olympian to win seven medals in a single Olympics, in any event, at Helsinki in 1952.
McKeon, who is an assassin in the water but quiet and reserved on land, was having trouble believing she was the star of a sporting legend that has seen her become Australia’s most successful Olympian (11 medals).
“That’s incredible. I only hear statistics like that from you [media]. When I look at the athletes who have come before me, I’m always pleased and motivated by what they’ve accomplished, but I’ve never been interested in medal counts or statistics. It’s an honor to be in such good company” McKeon explained.
“I know I’ve put in a lot of effort. That’s probably why it’ll take a bit to set in; I’ve been forcing myself to be calm. I’m rather pleased with myself. Without everyone’s help, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Bohl, the seasoned coach who takes McKeon through her paces at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, has played a key role in this.
He’s been there with McKeon, who, like many swimmers, faced doubt and difficulty before unleashing the meet of a lifetime to be at the forefront of Australia’s swimming rebirth.
“There were numerous ups and downs along the way. What brings you the most pleasure is seeing someone who works as hard as she does succeed at a high level” According to Bohl.
“There are many folks who work extremely hard yet can’t seem to pull it together on any given day. This is one of the few times we’ve seen her in action on a global scale. It gives me a lot of pleasure.”
McKeon was Australia’s most decorated Olympian in Rio, with gold, bronze, and silver medals in the relays.
It was there, according to Bohl, that she developed the mental toughness required to finish the arduous training she performed in Tokyo, where she swam and won medals in all seven of her events.
“[Backing up for so many races] is quite difficult. She struggled in Rio, failing to do well in the 100m fly on the second and third days. And I recall her crying during the warm-up the next morning, tears streaming down her face as she warmed up” According to Bohl.
“She woke up [in Tokyo] and qualified second for the [100m butterfly] semi-final, had a bad semi-final, and then came back the next day to win bronze. She’s been through it before. She’s learned from her terrible swims and can now turn things around.”
Last December, Bohl and McKeon agreed to drop the 200m freestyle from her program, which was a turning point in her career.
Instead, they decided to focus on making her a pure sprinter in freestyle and butterfly, a decision that has paid off handsomely.
“For her, the 200 had been at a standstill for a couple of years. We rolled the dice because we could see the 100 getting faster. We decided to pay a little more attention to the 100 and see what happens. She has really embraced it in the last couple of years. It’s been dropping for quite some time now.”
What’s the bad news for her opponents? “I believe she still has a ways to go,” Bohl remarked. “I believe she is capable of going quicker.”
McKeon had a total of seven minutes to get out of the pool after a 50m semi-final and return to take her place in the mixed medley relay at one stage during the meet.
Of course, she swam the lights out after months of visualizing the identical sequence of events.
“That’s something I feel like I’ve planned for. I’d been to these types of gatherings before, where the emotions were so volatile, so I knew what to expect” McKeon explained.
“Both Bohly and I were mentally prepared for that; we knew it was going to be an emotional roller coaster.”
McKeon had never won an individual gold medal at an international meet before these Games.
Words like “superstar” had previously been reserved for her more well-known teammates, such as Campbell and Olympic winner Kyle Chalmers of Rio de Janeiro.
McKeon now stands alone, not just in Australia, but in the history of her sport.
Despite Ariarne Titmus’s star power and Kaylee McKeown’s quadruple golds, these will be remembered as her Games in the pool.
- McKeon: Reuters