Australia’s men take centre stage in bid to match women in Olympic swimming pool

Australia’s swimmers have won four gold medals at Tokyo 2020 to date, one a day over the first four days of finals. All have been won by women – two to new freestyle queen Ariarne Titmus, one to backstroke prodigy Kaylee McKeown and a relay gold in the 4x100m freestyle. Australia’s male swimmers have hardly had a bad meet – three bronze medals and one silver. But at Tokyo they are being outshone by their female counterparts.

On Thursday, that might begin to change. In the morning’s medal session, Jack McLoughlin, Kyle Chalmers and Zac Stubblety-Cook will all be swimming for gold.

Australia’s freestyle supremo Chalmers does not like the suggestion that his gender is letting down the swim team in Tokyo. “I think that’s a very savage call,” he said on Wednesday. “We haven’t been expected to win gold medals in these events that we’ve done so far. Everyone has swum the best they can possibly do. It’s not all about winning gold medals – this is our gold medal right here.” Chalmers gestured to the bronze medal around his neck following the men’s 4x200m relay. “The girls have done fantastic and it’s awesome to see, but I know that every single Australian that stands behind the blocks gives it their 110%.”

Dolphins head coach Rohan Taylor is confident his men will add to the medal tally during the second half of the Tokyo 2020 meet. “The men are really hitting their straps,” he said. “There are some good events that are still in front of us.”

The medal action on Thursday begins with the men’s 800m freestyle, a distance returning to the Olympics program for the men for the first time in more than a century. Following his silver medal in the 400m freestyle, Australia’s McLoughlin is hoping to go one better.

The 26-year-old, who began his career as a 1,500m freestyle swimmer, said earlier in the week that the new distance is in his sweet spot. “800m I feel like is one of my better events – it’s kind of smack bang in the middle of 400m and 1,500m,” he said. McLoughlin holds the second fastest 800m time in the world this year and looked comfortable in an energy-preserving heat effort.

Just 15 minutes later, another Australian will be racing for gold – Stubblety-Cook in the men’s 200m breaststroke. The 22-year-old, in his debut Olympics final, qualified first to swim from lane four. He holds the second-fastest time in the discipline in history, swimming close to the world record at the Australian trials last month. After his assured performance in the semi-final, the race is Stubblety-Cook’s to lose, although he faces stiff competition across the field.

Then comes the blue riband men’s 100m freestyle. Chalmers is defending his Rio crown. If he can do that, he will become the first Australian in history to win the event at consecutive Games. It is no easy task – the pool will be stacked with rivals, from fastest qualifier Kliment Kolesnikov of the Russian Olympic Committee to American star Caeleb Dressel.

But despite not (yet) having a gold medal to show for it, Chalmers has been having one of his strongest meets in recent memory. His 46.44-second leg of the 4x100m relay would have been close to world record time in an individual swim (taking into account differences in reaction time). He backed up well in the 4x200m. On Thursday, he will go again.

“My best swims I’ve always delivered at the end of the competition,” he said after his relay performance on Wednesday. “For me, I’m just going to take [Thursday] as potentially my last race of the comp and leave everything out there.”

Taylor, asked about Chalmers’s prospects, said: “When you have Kyle in a final, anything is possible.”

Australia’s men and women in the pool will then combine later this week as the mixed 4x100m medley relay makes its Olympic debut. Teams must field two men and two women across the four strokes – swum in the order of backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle – but coaches otherwise have discretion.

For swimming nations like Australia with depth of talent across the men and women, that poses complex tactical dilemmas. The question of the fastest combination in mixed events is so technical that academic papers have been written on it. In the coming days, coach Taylor will consider his options. A strong showing from his men on Thursday, to complement the medal rush from his women, would only make those deliberations harder.