Australian swimmer Kaylee McKeown made a big splash at the YOG Buenos Aires 2018, winning four medals in the pool – including gold in the 50m backstroke – and has since continued her success at the senior level.
After claiming silver in the 200m backstroke at last year’s World Championships in Gwangju (Republic of Korea), McKeown made an impressive start to 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic put her season on hold.
The 19-year-old clocked a blistering 2:05.83 in the 200m backstroke in January, becoming the seventh fastest woman in history over the distance. At the same event, she also climbed to number nine on the all-time list for the women’s 100m backstroke, clocking 58.62 seconds.
Now, with her training back on track, she is targeting a place at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 next year…
It has been almost two years since the YOG Buenos Aires 2018. How do you reflect on your experiences at those Games?
“Wow, that time has gone so fast. I loved having the experience, especially being in another [Athletes’] Village after being at the Commonwealth Games [earlier in 2018]. It was really eye-opening, and I definitely took a lot away from it. Even to this day, there are so many experiences that occurred at the Youth Olympics that I'll take with me forever and I’m definitely mindful of what it all meant.”
What were some of your favourite memories from the YOG?
“I really loved making friends with all the other athletes and just being able to mingle with people who do different sports, learn about different sports and hear about what they have to do. I think having an understanding for, and respecting, everybody else and what they do, and what they have trained to do, was pretty amazing. It’s pretty cool seeing people at such a young age being so determined to challenge themselves and reach their goals.”
And to come away with four medals must have been special?
“Yes, any time that you get to represent your country is such an honour. But when you stand up on top of the podium... I will take that with me for the rest of my life, as it was very powerful knowing that the hard work had paid off and it was very enjoyable.”
Did competing at the YOG inspire you and make you even more determined to make it to the Olympic Games?
“Oh, 100 per cent. My coach and I sat down and set out some goals for what events we wanted to aim for, and the Youth Olympics was definitely one of those. So, to be able to tick that box was great. Obviously COVID has taken the Olympic Games away from us this year, but hopefully next year we can get the go-ahead and, fingers crossed, I can be there. In Australia, we have some of the top women in the world racing in my events, so it’s tough. But being able to go to the Olympic Games is what I’ve been dreaming of.”
Since Buenos Aires 2018, you’ve successfully made the step up to the senior level – winning a silver medal at last year’s World Championships. How pleased are you with your progress so far?
“Like I said before, we had set stepping-stones, so it was just a matter of ticking every box to get to where I wanted to be. And it just so happened that I did what was needed to get me to the silver medal at the World Championships. So that's probably a highlight of my career so far. And I’m just looking to make that better now – go to the Olympics, hopefully make an Olympic final, and who knows what can happen? I might walk away with a medal, I might not, but being able to represent my country in the Olympics is the start.”
Was competing at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 your main goal at the start of this year?
“Yes, and I was the fastest I’d ever been, setting my lifetime bests in January, so it would have been amazing to think about what I could have done at our trials that were supposed to be held in June. I guess you're always going to question, ‘Well, I wonder how fast I could have gone if things went to plan,’ but at the same time things happen for a reason. Sometimes you just don't know what that reason is, but I believe that it's a refresher and we should look at it that way and just try and get better for ourselves.”
How did you feel when the Games were postponed, and your dream was put on hold for another year?
“I guess there’s a positive and a negative side. The positives are that you can have a mental refresh, take a bit of time to relax and calm down, because the four-year cycle is so intense. But now we've had that time off, we've had a little break and it’s now about trying to knuckle down again. When we were allowed to go back to training, I just said, ‘In January next year, I’d love to be swimming the same times, if not faster’, and I know we’re on the right track. It's just a matter of training hard and doing things smartly.”
And if you do qualify for Tokyo, do you think your YOG experiences in Buenos Aires will benefit you?
“Yes, 100 per cent. Like I mentioned before, it's really important to get the whole Village experience because it's not an environment you’re usually exposed to. That's probably the number one thing I'll take away – just experiencing that and then being able to relate it to an Olympic Village. You might be facing different challenges, but you can be like, ‘Well, how did I cope with that at the Youth Olympics?’ You can compare the two and kind of come up with a way to make things work.”
Your older sister, Taylor, already has that Olympic experience – winning a silver medal in the 4x100m medley relay at the Olympic Games Rio 2016. Are you able to learn from her as well?
“Yes, I watched my sister’s four-year preparation for getting that Olympic silver medal. It was nerve-wracking and exciting because you've seen all the hard work that she had done and put behind it. And I've really looked to that as motivation and determination to work hard at training, to get to the Olympics and do your country proud. So, I want to be as good as her and live up to those standards in a way.”
What would it mean to you to be able to compete in an Olympic Games?
“Well, obviously it's the biggest sporting event in the world. So, to be able to compete at the number one event, it would feel pretty good just to have that next to your name, let alone to make it to a final, or get a medal. The Olympic Games is just something I dreamt of as a kid and just seeing all the Australians stand up together and sing the national anthem makes you proud to represent your country.”