SYDNEY (Reuters) – Driven by the memory of her dead father, Australian teenager Kaylee McKeown has hit a stunning vein of form just in time for her Olympic debut and heads to Tokyo ranked number one in the world in her three individual events.
The bubbly 20-year-old Queenslander lit up the Australian trials last month with a world record in the 100 metres backstroke and set the best times of the year in both the 200m backstroke and 200m medley.
While American Regan Smith, who set 100m and 200m backstroke world records at the 2019 world championships, will have something to say about it, McKeown could end up as the face of Australia’s swimming revival.
McKeown made her international debut at the age of 15 and won world championship silver behind Smith in Gwangju two years ago but it is fair to say the year’s postponement of the Tokyo Games has worked in her favour.
“We wouldn’t have been talking about her this time last year,” former world champion Giaan Rooney told Reuters at the trials in Adelaide.
“She might not have been ready for a position on the team. She is now a legitimate gold medal chance in Tokyo once she gets there.”
For McKeown personally, the delay was a “blessing in disguise” after her father, Sholto, lost his fight against brain cancer last August.
“My dad is in many ways my big inspiration now,” she said in an emotional interview with Amazon Prime last month.
“I use him the last 50 of my race, ‘C’mon dad help me cross the line!’, because I know he is there.
“I never take a day for granted any more because I know he, up there, would be so disappointed if I rocked up to training and said, ‘I’m not going to try’.”
McKeown’s older sister Taylor won a silver medal in the medley relay in Rio and Australia are hoping Kaylee can go one better in Tokyo.
Many a young swimmer has headed to the Olympics with high hopes after trials only to return home disappointed, however, and McKeown and her coach Chris Mooney are well aware there is plenty of work yet to do.
“Mooney and I always have this thing where there is someone to chase,” McKeown said at trials.
“I am still chasing down Regan, and there’s a lot of other guys, no doubt, chasing me down now.”
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Peter Rutherford)