Australian swimming championships to test body clocks for Tokyo | Swimming

When the nation’s top swimmers converge on the Gold Coast this week for the Australian swimming championships, the competition timings will feel rather unusual. The meet will commence on Wednesday evening with heats in eight disciplines, followed by finals on Thursday morning. And so on, through to the concluding finals on Sunday morning. Rather than build in the morning for races of consequence in the evening, Australia’s swimmers will have to adjust their routines and body clocks.

For good reason. The morning-final, evening-heat pattern will be used in three months’ time when the Olympics begin in Tokyo. The distinctive format is a demand of the American broadcaster NBC, which wants blockbuster medal races scheduled for prime time in the United States (the same approach was adopted for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing). To help Australia’s swimmers prepare for their post-breakfast medal races in Japan, peak body Swimming Australia has replicated the Olympic approach on the Gold Coast this week.

“The format change is absolutely crucial,” says Ian Hanson OAM, a veteran swimming journalist and media manager who has covered nine Olympic Games. “The rest of the world is doing the same in preparation. It’s a mindset thing. Swimming has always been heats in the morning, finals at night. To switch out of that mode is vital. On the Gold Coast, in that atmosphere and environment, this preparation will really set them up well to swim fast in the morning come Tokyo.”

The unusual format is not the only thing that will give the national titles a high-pressure Olympic feel. Following minimal competition over the past year as a result of Covid-19 border closures, Australia’s swimmers will be raring to post fast times. The titles have also been nominated as “Designated Consideration Meets” by Swimming Australia, meaning that times posted this week can factor into team selection for Tokyo if the primary qualification event – the Olympic trials scheduled for June in Adelaide – are disrupted by the pandemic. With a talented field and Olympic selection in mind, impressive swims at the Gold Coast Aquatic Centre are almost a certainty. “That is going to bring out the best in the athletes,” Hanson adds.

Swimming has long formed the medal-winning backbone of Australia’s Olympic campaigns. New South Welshman Frederick Lane began the tradition by winning two gold medals in the water at the 1900 Olympics in Paris (including the 200m obstacle swim, in which Lane had to clamber over and swim under various barriers in the River Seine). In the 120 years to follow, Australians have claimed 60 gold medals, 64 silver medals and 64 bronze medals in the pool, making swimming by far the largest contributor to the nation’s historic medal tally (athletics is in second with 21 golds).

Mack Horton made his name in Rio with a storming 400m freestyle victory and feud with Chinese star Sun Yang. Photograph: Darren England/AAP

After picking up 10 medals in the pool at London 2012 (including one gold) and another 10 (including three gold medals) in Rio, Australia’s swimmers will once again offer some of the country’s best prospects of Olympic glory. Most of those medal contenders will headline the national titles this week, including Rio Olympians Emma McKeon, Mack Horton, Kyle Chalmers, Cate Campbell and Mitch Larkin, alongside talented youngsters Ariarne Titmus, Matthew Wilson, Kaylee McKeown and Minna Atherton.

Victoria’s Horton made his name in Rio with a storming 400m freestyle victory and feud with Chinese star Sun Yang. The pair last faced off at the 2019 world champions in South Korea, but it is unclear whether Horton will have an opportunity to overcome his nemesis in Tokyo. In 2020, Yang was banned from the sport for eight years on doping charges by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. He successfully appealed and a retrial is due to be heard next month (Yang insists he is innocent), but there is every chance he will miss the Games. That would put Horton in pole position to repeat his Rio glory.

Titmus, meanwhile, is perhaps the highest-profile member of a burgeoning next generation of Australian swimmers who have pundits excited about a bright showing in Tokyo and beyond. The Tasmanian-born, Queensland-based 20-year-old burst to fame at the 2019 world championships when she beat American swimming sensation Katie Ledecky in the 400m freestyle final by more than a second, although it was later revealed that Ledecky, a 15-time world champion, was battling illness. The Titmus-Ledecky rematch in Tokyo is eagerly awaited, with added spice provided by Ledecky’s failure to congratulate the Australian youngster after the world championship race.

“This rivalry can really ignite the sport,” says Hanson. “Titmus is a terrific hope – there’s no doubt about that – but Ledecky has been swimming some of the fastest times she has ever swum [in recent American races]. Ledecky has laid down the gauntlet and the ball is back in Titmus’ court.”

Covid-19 may have delayed the Tokyo 2020 Olympics by 12 months, but for Australia’s swimmers the postponement has only made them hungrier for medal success. The national titles on the Gold Coast this week will be the first major competitive step on the road to Tokyo in three months’ time. Hanson, a long-time observer of Australian swimming, is feeling confident. “I think we’re a bit of a sleeping giant to be truthful,” says Hanson.I haven’t seen depth like it in our women’s field for a long time. It’s going to be an exciting time ahead.”