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Magnificent McKeon headlines historic day for Australia in Tokyo

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

Sunday will be remembered in history as the most successful day ever for the Australian Olympic team. Four gold medals – two in the pool, one in BMX freestyle and one in the sailing – surpassed the previous best daily haul. On five previous occasions, Australian athletes have nabbed three gold medals in a single day – in 1956, 2000, 2004, 2008 and last Wednesday. But Australia has never before had its anthem played four times on repeat.

Related: Emma McKeon seals seventh Olympic medal as Australian women win 4x100m medley

Day nine of the Tokyo 2020 Games also saw the conclusion of Australia’s triumphant campaign at the pool, with nine gold, three silver and eight bronze medals bettering the previous best swimming tally at the home Games in 1956. Given all the resources and household names Australia has thrown at Olympic swimming glory in the past, this too is a remarkable feat.

Swimming has been the primary contributor to a bumper Australian medal tally so far, with 14 golds at the time of writing. Australia’s highest ever Olympic gold medal haul is 17, at Athens 2004. With a full week remaining in Tokyo, that historic mark is under threat.

But the undoubted star of Australia’s super Sunday was one of the team’s most humble members. Even before her first race of the day, the softly spoken Emma McKeon was in illustrious company. Having already won five medals at the Tokyo 2020 swim meet, the 27-year-old joined swimming legends Ian Thorpe, Shane Gould and Alicia Coutts as the most successful Australian Olympians at a single Games.

Two gold medals later and McKeon no longer has any Australian company. Her four golds and three bronze medals in Tokyo have made her the most decorated Australian athlete at a single Olympics. It is a truly historic achievement. Just one other woman in history has won seven medals at the one Olympics – Soviet gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya in 1952. Only two men – American swimmer Michael Phelps and Soviet gymnast Alexander Dityatin – have won eight.

Australia&#x002019;s gold medal-winning 4x100m medley relay team
Australia’s gold medal-winning 4x100m medley relay team. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

With characteristic humility, McKeon brushed off her monumental medal haul. “That’s very surreal,” she said. “I only hear from you guys [the media] those kind of stats. I look at the athletes that have come before me. I’ve been so impressed by what they’ve done, so inspired. But I’ve never really been into the stats of the medal counts. But to be in that kind of company, it’s an honour. I know that I’ve worked hard for it.”

It is an understatement to say that McKeon worked hard in Tokyo. Her work ethic in Tokyo has been nothing short of phenomenal. McKeon began her campaign at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre nine days ago, swimming her 100m butterfly heat. Last Sunday morning, she helped break the world record to win gold in the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay (one medal). She was back in the pool that night, to progress through to the butterfly finals. On Monday morning she won bronze and set a new personal best (two medals).

On Wednesday she broke the Olympic record in her 100m freestyle heat. She qualified fastest 12 hours later, on Thursday morning, in the semi-final. She backed up 90 minutes later to grab bronze in the women’s 4x200m freestyle relay (three medals).

On Friday she won gold in the 100m freestyle and again set a new Olympic record (four medals). She was back in the pool that night for a heat, again beating the Olympic record in the 50m freestyle.

On Saturday she qualified fastest in the 50m semi-final, in an Olympic record time. She backed up to anchor Australia to bronze in the 4x100m mixed medley relay (five medals). On Sunday, McKeon swum twice in the space of less than an hour to win individual gold in the 50m (six medals) and team gold in the women’s 4x100m medley relay (seven medals).

All up in Tokyo, McKeon has swum in seven finals, three semi-finals and three heats. In every event she entered, the Wollongong-born swimmer walked away with a medal, four of them gold.

Related: Sign up for the Tokyo 2020 daily briefing: the best of the Olympics and Paralympics

“I don’t know how she does it,” said teammate Kyle Chalmers on Sunday. “I’m physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted … She does it day in, day out. to win seven medals just sounds out of this world, in one Games. To win one gold medal, or win one Olympic medal is an incredible achievement. To win seven is very, very special.”

Combined with a four-medal haul in Rio – one gold, two silver and one bronze – McKeon’s Tokyo tally makes her the most successful Australian Olympian. Only one other Australian has won five gold medals, Thorpe across the 2000 and 2004 Games. But following McKeon’s medals in Tokyo, she now sits alone in the overall count – 11 total Olympic medals to Thorpe’s nine.

McKeon’s historic glory in the pool was central to a remarkable Sunday at the 2020 Olympics. But just as the Australian team has more to come in Tokyo, so too might more medal glory await McKeon at a future Games. “I still think she has a bit to go,” warned her long-time coach Michael Bohl on Sunday. For rivals of Australia’s most successful Olympian, those were ominous words.

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