The Top Australian Storylines Headed Into The Paris Olympic Year — Women’s Edition

Previously, we published an article on the top Australian men’s swimming storylines headed into the 2024 Paris Olympic year. In this article, we focus on the women, who were arguably the most dominant force in swimming this year.

Will Titmus And O’Callaghan Continue To Take Over Freestyle?

Ariarne Titmus and Mollie O’Callaghan, the two gems of the Dean Boxall-led St. Peter’s Western training group, have ruled the 100 to 400-meter freestyle events for the past two years.

Mollie O’Callaghan by Fabio Cetti

Titmus hasn’t lost a 400 freestyle race since 2018, establishing herself as the world’s best in the event at the 2019 World Championships, the 2021 Olympic Games and the 2023 World Championships (she didn’t swim at 2022 Worlds, but her season-best that year was faster than Katie Ledecky’s winning time). She’s broken the world record in both 2022 and 2023, having destroyed the rest of the field by three seconds in her most recent world record swim — which was initially anticipated to be a close matchup between her, Summer McIntosh, and Ledecky. O’Callaghan, meanwhile, has been consistently winning in the 100 free. She captured the 2022 World and Commonwealth titles, ending the year as the world’s fastest performer. In 2023, Siobhan Haughey edged out O’Callaghan by 0.06 seconds for the world-leading time, but the Aussie still beat her at World Champs. In between the 100 and 400 comes the 200 free, where Titmus and O’Callaghan have both been at the top. In 2022, Titmus was the world leader by 0.7 seconds with O’Callaghan coming in second, but it was O’Callaghan who took down Federica Pellegrini’s coveted world record in 2023 while Titmus finished 0.16 seconds behind her.

Next year, Titmus and O’Callaghan will face stiff competition in the 400 and 100 free respectively, which are events that the two of them have dominated in the last two years. But in the 200 free, where the two swimmers are considerably further ahead than the rest of the world, their only competition is each other. Ironic, isn’t it?

In the 400 free, Titmus faces the ever-looming threat of Canadian teenager McIntosh, who is just 17 years old. McIntosh added three seconds at Worlds, but her best time of 3:56.08 is just 0.7 seconds off of Titmus’s world record, and it was she who held the world record before the Aussie broke it. It’s never smart to underestimate the growth trajectory of a teenager, so Titmus, who is considerably older than McIntosh, will have to watch out. O’Callaghan is a two-time defending World Champ, but there’s a plethora of swimmers who are at the same level as her. Haughey is faster than she’s ever been, and other Australian sprinters like Shayna Jack and Emma McKeon might have something to say about O’Callaghan’s domestic reign. Jack’s personal best is just 0.2 off O’Callaghan’s, and while McKeon had a “down” year in 2023, she’s still the second-fastest performer of all time. And that’s not even considering the potential of world record holder Sarah Sjostrom returning to race the 100 free or the improvement trajectories of swimmers like Marrit Steenbergen and Kate Douglass.

But when all is said and done, the 200 free remains the Titmus-O’Callaghan show unless McIntosh, who is 0.64 seconds behind them, sees a meteoric rise. O’Callaghan’s world record should be under threat and the two training partners will be expected to trade blows at a level above everyone else throughout 2024.

Can The Campbells Come Back?

Cate Campbell and Bronte Campbell were an integral part of Team Australia for nearly a decade, but neither of them has competed at a senior international meet since the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Both swimmers were absent from formal competition in 2022, with Cate only returning to training after Tokyo during September of that year. In addition, Bronte suffered a shoulder injury in late 2021. Both swimmers intend to vie for the Paris games, but with all the talent that emerged in the sprints while they were gone, do they still have a chance at an Olympic berth?

Since Tokyo, Cate has been as fast as 24.10 in the 50 free and 53.23 in the 10o free. Meanwhile, Bronte’s post-Tokyo bests are a 24.42 in the 50 free and a 53.42 in the 100 free. In 2023, they were ranked the fifth and sixth-fastest 100 freestyle swimmers in Australia, which puts them in a good position to get selected for the 4×100 freestyle relay. But they are not entirely safe, as teenage up-and-comers like Olivia Wunsch (53.71) and Milla Jansen (54.08) might see major improvements in 2024.

Cate is a front-runner to get an individual spot in the 50 free, ranking second in the country behind Shayna Jack (24.01) this year while Bronte ranks fifth. In fact, Cate’s post-Tokyo best in this event is faster than the 24.15 that took bronze at the 2023 World Championships. But one can never be so certain about the 50 free, especially in Australia, as defending Olympic champion Emma McKeon (24.26) and 2022 Worlds bronze medalist Meg Harris (24.30) need to be put into consideration.

So, what does the return of the Campbells mean for swimming? Well, if they are anywhere near where they were pre-Tokyo, the depth of the 4×100 free relay will increase tremendously. Cate holds six of the seven fastest 100 free relay splits of all-time, and was as fast as 52.24 at the Tokyo Games. Bronte has been as fast as 51.57 on a relay before and led off Australia’s Tokyo 4×100 free relay in a time of 53.01. Assuming that both swimmers will be in Tokyo form, Cate seems more likely to get a finals spot while Bronte might only be a prelims swimmer (for some perspective, Australia’s slowest 4×100 free relay split at Worlds was Meg Harris‘s 52.29), but they will ensure that the Aussies are dominant in both the morning and evening session regardless.

Cate’s potential qualification for Paris is specifically of interest because of comments she made about Team USA after the 2023 World Championships, expressing her disdain for how the streaming service Peacock sorted the Worlds medal table by total medal count rather than the gold medal count and saying that Australian victory felt better when beating Americans. These comments, which were condemned by her Aussie teammate Kaylee McKeown and Team USA swimmer Lilly King, sparked controversy this summer in the swimming community. If she ends up racing against Americans in Paris, which she likely will, those comments will most certainly resurface once more to a more mainstream audience.

How Deep Can The Freestyle Relays Get?

World Aquatics Championships
Fukuoka (JPN)
14-30 JULY 2023

One of the most difficult things to do in swimming is to qualify for an Australian women’s freestyle relay. The Dolphins are the world record holders in both the 4×100 and 4×200 free relays, winning the former event at Worlds by over four seconds and the latter by a similar margin. Given how strong both relays are, qualifying to swim on such a relay is bound to get extremely competitive.

For some perspective, here are some numbers that reflect just how deep Australia is in the 100 and 200 free:

Australia, 2023 Women’s 100 Free Depth Chart:

  1. Mollie O’Callaghan — 52.08
  2. Shayna Jack — 52.28
  3. Emma McKeon — 52.52
  4. Meg Harris — 53.09
  5. Cate Campbell — 53.26
  6. Bronte Campbell — 53.42
  7. Olivia Wunsch — 53.71
  8. Madi Wilson — 53.78

Australia, 2023 Women’s 200 Free Depth Chart:

  1. Mollie O’Callagahn — 1:52.85
  2. Ariarne Titmus — 1:53.01
  3. Shayna Jack — 1:55.37
  4. Lani Pallister — 1:56.03
  5. Kaylee McKeown — 1:56.14
  6. Madi Wilson — 1:56.68
  7. Kiah Melverton — 1:56.85
  8. Brianna Throssel — 1:56.87

Australian Women’s Freestyle Relay Numbers:

  • 4×100 free relay
    • Slowest finals split: 52.29, Meg Harris
    • Average finals split: 51.99
  • 4×200 free relay
    • Slowest finals split: 1:55.80, Brianna Throssell
    • Average finals split: 1:54.38

What we can conclude from these numbers is that Australian female freestylers are extremely fast, and with many of these swimmers being on the younger side, they might just get even faster. And the domestic competition to get on a likely gold medal-winning (and maybe world record-breaking relay) will be one for the ages.

The Return Of The Breaststrokers

In an otherwise perfect World Championships, one of the biggest weaknesses for the Australians was breaststroke. This stroke cost them the medley relay, as Team USA’s King out split Australia’s Abbey Harkin over two seconds, which accounted for much of the victory margin that the Americans had over the Australians to win gold. That being said, the Aussies were without their best two breaststrokers, Jenna Strauch and Chelsea Hodges. Strauch had been on an upward trajectory, capturing 200 breast silver at 2022 Worlds, but she missed 2023 Worlds after withdrawing from Australian trials. Meanwhile, Hodges underwent surgery this year, which rendered her unavailable for Worlds.

The comeback of either Strauch or Hodges would be a great benefit to the Aussies, who are looking to defend their Olympic title in the women’s medley relay. Strauch has been as fast as 1:05.99 on a relay before — had she been on Australia’s relay at this year’s Worlds, the Americans would have only won by 0.21 seconds rather than 1.29 seconds. Hodges was the hero of the Tokyo medley relay, splitting 1:05.57 to keep up with Olympic champ Lydia Jacoby and pave the way for the back half of the Aussie relay to run down the Americans. Had Hodges replicated her Tokyo split for the Aussies in Fukuoka, they would have won.

Several factors played into the battle between the Americans and Australians in the women’s medley relay. The Americans can usually provide a fly leg faster than Gretchen Walsh‘s 57.08 — Torri Huske had an off-meet and wasn’t put on the finals relay, but she’s split as fast as 56.16 on a relay before. Furthermore, while Kate Douglass‘s 52.41 anchor was impressive, she’s been as fast as 51.79 on a relay before. In other words, the Americans didn’t have their best squad available, but the gap between their breaststroke leg and Australia’s was enough to cancel that fact out.

On paper, a peak American team is the favorite to win in Paris, as no Aussie is capable of throwing down a 1:04-point breaststroke split. But if members of Team USA underperform like they did last year, the Aussies would be a much bigger threat to upset with Strauch or Hodges than without.

McKeown’s Event Lineup

Kaylee McKeown is Australia’s most versatile swimmer. With versatility thought comes speculation about event lineups, as well as less-than-ideal session doubles. And that’s what McKeown has to potentially deal with in Paris.

McKeown will most definitely swim the 100 and 200 back and confirmed on the SwimSwam podcast this August that she’d also race the 200 IM. She holds a best time of 4:31.74 in the 400 IM that would contend for medals internationally, but she hasn’t raced the event since May 2022. In addition, she holds a best time of 1:06.88 in the 100 breast and is Australia’s fifth-fastest 200 freestyler, which would make her a useful asset for the 4×200 free relay. She’s the world record holder in all three backstroke events, but she can be utilized in many other ways as well.

The most obvious obstacle that McKeown will have to overcome is the 200 IM-200 back double in Paris, as the finals of the 200 back come before the semi-finals of the 200 IM on day seven of the Olympics. This double is worth noting especially because McKeown didn’t go through an arguably easier double, where the 100 back semifinals came before the 200 IM final, at the last two World Championships. In 2022, she scratched the 100 back to focus entirely on the 200 IM, and in 2023 she was disqualified from the 200 IM final and was left to only swim the 100 back. Furthermore, McKeown had the world-leading 200 IM time in 2021 but chose not to swim it at the Olympics. The fact that a double is such an unknown for McKeown just makes it all more interesting to see her take it on in Paris.

Other event questions come to mind with McKeown as well. If she’s selected to swim on the 4×200 free relay prelims, that would fall in the same session as the 200 back heats. It seems unlikely that she’ll swim the 400 IM, given that she hasn’t raced it ever at an international meet and it falls in the same session as the 100 back. And of course, there’s always the question of whether she’d be put on a medley relay to swim breaststroke, in the event where all of Australia’s other options aren’t looking so great.

Regardless, McKeown is expected to be Australia’s most successful swimmer in Paris. She’s the favorite in both the 100 and 200 back and has a shot at winning the 200 IM. If she repeats a backstroke sweep, she might just put herself in the “greatest backstroker of all-time conversation.”

In This Story

  • Ariarne Titmus
    Ariarne Titmus
  • Bronte Campbell
    Bronte Campbell
  • Cate Campbell
    Cate Campbell
  • Emma McKeon
    Emma McKeon
  • Kaylee McKeown
    Kaylee McKeown
  • Mollie O’Callaghan
    Mollie O’Callaghan
  • Shayna Jack
    Shayna Jack

About Yanyan Li

Yanyan Li

Although Yanyan wasn’t the greatest competitive swimmer, she learned more about the sport of swimming by being her high school swim team’s manager for four years. She eventually ventured into the realm of writing and joined SwimSwam in January 2022, where she hopes to contribute to and learn more about …

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