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Record-breaking McKeon reveals highs and lows of journey from YOG to Olympic gold

Two years after starring at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Singapore 2010, swimmer Emma McKeon came close to walking away from the sport. But she now finds herself as Australia’s most successful Olympian after winning more medals at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 than any other athlete. Here, she talks about her path to the top of the podium.

Emma McKeon’s incredible seven medal-haul in the pool at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 tied Soviet gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya’s record for the most medals won by a female athlete at a single edition of the Games.

Her seven trips to the podium in Tokyo also took her overall tally to 11 Olympic medals, making the swimmer the most decorated Australian Olympian ever and catapulting her to stardom. But her history-making achievements may never have happened, with a teenaged McKeon choosing to walk away from the sport after missing out on selection for the Olympic Games London 2012.

Having just won six medals at the YOG Singapore 2010, McKeon looked set to be the next big name in Australian swimming. But the disappointment of not making the 2012 Olympic team saw the then 18-year-old take an extended break from the sport as she considered never returning to the pool. Thankfully, she changed her mind and since then has been collecting medals at an electrifying pace that almost matches her world-class speed in the pool.

Following the disappointment of missing London 2012, McKeon went on to become Australia’s most decorated swimmer at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 – winning a gold, two silvers and a bronze – and then won more medals than any other athlete at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, including victories in both the 50m and 100m freestyle.

Here, she discusses the ups and downs of her Olympic journey.

Have you managed to wrap your head around your success in Tokyo?

“It has all started to sink in now. At the time, I was just so focused on maintaining myself for the whole week and doing one event at a time. Once I got to the end, it was hard to just let go and absorb it all. It's still a bit strange to think about the fact that I did win all those medals, but I'm very proud of myself and the team that I had behind me. I saw how much hard work the people around me were putting into my swimming and training, so it's a nice feeling to have pulled it off for them as well.”

Emma McKeon competing in 2010 at the 10th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m)
Picture by 2010 Getty Images

Do you feel different now, having become Australia’s most successful Olympian?

“No, I don't feel a change. I think I was expecting to because it's something I'd always aspired to do, especially to get an Olympic gold medal individually. I always thought that you'd feel something totally different. Obviously, I’m happy, but I don't feel different. I feel like the same person, although I do get recognised a bit more.”

You mentioned winning gold individually. Having won gold in Rio as part of the relay team, what did it mean to you to top the podium by yourself in the 50m and 100m freestyle?

“It meant a lot because everyone wants that individual gold; to stand on the podium by themselves. In Rio, I got bronze individually in the 200m freestyle. And, since then, I've just had my eyes on getting a gold medal. It feels pretty cool to have achieved that.”

Looking back to the YOG in 2010, and then afterward when you nearly walked away from swimming, how do you reflect on how far you've come since then?

“I was 15 when I went to the Youth Olympics, and I did quite well there, but I think I had a lot of growing up to do as well. Obviously, you go through a lot of different things as a teenager and as a teenage athlete. And then after that I quit swimming a few times. I wasn't enjoying it, and I just put a lot of pressure on myself to be achieving things when I was young, when I really shouldn’t have. I trialled for the London team and missed that by one spot, and then I stopped swimming because even though I always wanted to go to the Olympics, I didn't want to wait another four years to trial again. I just didn't really love swimming that much. But then when I decided to come back to it, I wanted to make sure that I wasn't putting too much pressure on myself, and I was doing it because I enjoyed it. I think going through all of that has allowed me to get to a point now where I'm still swimming, and it gave me a lot of perspective on a lot of different things. But I think they are things I had to go through when I was young. And then compared to Rio, I went into Tokyo with a lot more confidence in my ability and confidence that I could pull it off in such a high-level, high-pressure environment.”

Did your success at the YOG in 2010 make you more motivated to compete at the Olympic Games one day?

“Yes, I'd say so. When we were at the Youth Olympics, it was like a proper Olympic set-up. We had a Village, and we had all the different sports; I really enjoyed it and it gave me a little taste of what the Olympics would be like. So, it did make me excited to trial for London two years later, but I didn't have a lot of perspective on the hard work it would take. I would miss sessions all the time, and I wanted to be taking part in other sports that my friends were doing and all that kind of stuff. But I think they're just normal things that all teenagers go through really.”

What would be your advice to young athletes going through similar things?

“You have to enjoy what you're doing because otherwise I feel like you're not going to get very far in it. Obviously, you need to work very hard, but I think working hard for something and enjoying it means that when you achieve something, you feel even better about it. It means something more to you because you've put all of that hard work in. Another big thing for me over the last few years has been setting goals. I’ve had my eye on a long-term goal of winning an Olympic gold medal, but also had all these little short-term goals to get there along the way. I'd always have them set out, and it feels good to tick those things off on the way to your big goal, because you know it's going to contribute in a huge way once you get there.”

And what are your goals now? Are you looking at Paris 2024 in three years’ time?

“Yes, I'm still enjoying my swimming and still improving a lot. And I still feel like I've got more to go, so I'm going to keep trying for Paris. It's only three years away, so I feel like that will fly by because we went for five years between Rio and Tokyo.”