With the benefit of hindsight, it may seem that Australian swimmer Emma McKeon was always destined for greatness. The 28-year-old was born into swimming royalty: her father, Ron McKeon, is a former Olympian and four-time Commonwealth Games champion in middle-distance freestyle, while mum Susie McKeon and uncle Rob Woodhouse also swam for Australia. For decades the McKeon family have operated a swimming school in the Illawarra, and McKeon junior was in the water before she could walk.
But McKeon’s glittering career – three days into the 2022 Commonwealth Games she is on the brink of all-time greatness – was almost over before it began. A decade ago, at 17, McKeon was a rising star. At the 2012 national championships in Adelaide, which doubled as the trial event for the London Olympics, McKeon was hopeful of qualifying for the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay.
Yet on that evening at the South Australian Aquatics Centre, McKeon hit the wall in seventh place in the women’s 100m freestyle. Her time, 54.35 seconds, was one-tenth of a second off Alicia Coutts in sixth. Teams can take six swimmers for the Olympic relay, to allow rotation between the heats and finals. Coutts went to London and McKeon missed out (agonisingly, her semi-final time would have been enough).
At the 2012 Olympics, Australia’s women won the 4x100m gold medal. McKeon was poolside – she had travelled to London to watch her brother, David McKeon, race for Australia, together with their training partner, Jarrod Poort. But while McKeon cheered them on, she was also on the verge of quitting the sport.
“I was really upset after [missing out on London], and then I actually stopped swimming not long after the trials,” she told Swimming Magazine last year. “I knew I wanted to go to the Olympics, but I didn’t want to wait another four years, so I was like, ‘I’ll just stop.’”
McKeon almost walked away. Her decision to stay has been a gift to the sport and her nation ever since.
Twelve months later, the medal rush began – fittingly enough, in the 4x100m relay at the world championships. It was a silver, the Australians beaten by the United States, but that colour would change soon enough. McKeon dominated the 2014 Commonwealth Games: four golds (one individual and three in the relays) and two bronze medals. She was then a standout in the pool at an otherwise disappointing 2016 Olympics for Australia, winning gold, two silver medals and a bronze. More success followed in 2018, at the home Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast: four gold medals and two bronze.
By this point McKeon had established herself as one of the world’s best short-distance swimmers, a weapon at distances from 50m to 200m. She is a prodigious workhorse, usually swimming the most events of the Australian team at any given meet. Her versatility is impressive: while McKeon is the undisputed freestyle queen, her butterfly is world class, too. And ever since the 2013 world championships, McKeon has been the lynchpin of Australia’s relay success.
But perhaps because of her quiet, understated nature, McKeon’s triumphs had not been fully appreciated by the wider public. Australian swimming already has a pantheon of greats in the likes of Dawn Fraser, Shane Gould, Ian Thorpe, Susie O’Neill, Leisel Jones, Grant Hackett and Kieren Perkins. McKeon’s achievements were putting her up there with the best, but she continued to swim under the radar.
That began to change a year ago in Tokyo. McKeon’s four golds and three bronze medals made her the most successful Australian at a single Olympics. Just one other woman in history has won seven medals at the one Olympics, and only two men have won eight. There was no longer any doubting that McKeon belonged at the top table of Australia’s best ever.
And so, once again, almost a decade on but in vastly different circumstances, McKeon considered whether to hang up her googles. “She had three months out of the water, we just didn’t know what she was going to do,” her coach, Michael Bohl, told reporters in Birmingham earlier this week. McKeon, Bohl said, had finished her public health degree and “had to make a decision whether she would choose that path of work or whether she still had competitive ambitions in the pool.”
For the second time in her life, McKeon opted to stick with the pool and continue that lifelong love affair. On Friday, despite the extended break and having missed the recent world championships, McKeon reprised her Tokyo form to anchor Australia to gold in the 4x100m mixed freestyle relay. It was her ninth Commonwealth Games gold.
On Saturday it was more of the same, with gold in the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay and silver in the 100m butterfly. McKeon is now level with O’Neill, Jones and Thorpe as the only Australians to have won 10 Commonwealth Games gold medals. In the days ahead, she will top that record – with six events to come, it is inconceivable that McKeon will not finish the meet as Australia’s most decorated Commonwealth Games athlete.
McKeon is now firmly established as one of Australia’s greatest swimmers. She is – given her longevity, versatility and stamina – perhaps the nation’s best-ever female swimmer. She is already Australia’s most decorated Olympian to date, with 11 medals including five gold, the latter of which is only Thorpe is equal.
And she’s not done yet. On Friday, after her first success of what promises to be a bountiful Birmingham campaign, the Australian swimming legend made clear she will not contemplate retirement for a third time just yet. “I haven’t raced in a long time, it’s getting back into the swing of it and I’m treating it as the first stepping stone back again on the way to Paris.”
If McKeon keeps up this form at the 2024 Games, she will become – without any shadow of a doubt – Australia’s greatest Olympian of all time.