Commonwealth Games swim trials: Kaylee McKeown plans for Olympic swimming’s most daunting challenge

It’s considered so hard that not even Michael Phelps tried it but Kaylee McKeown is weighing up a shot at the famed Iron Cross, Olympic swimming’s most daunting challenge.

It is such an outrageously difficult challenge that hardly anyone in the sport will even refer to its daunting nickname, let alone attempt it, but if everything falls into place, Australian sensation Kaylee McKeown could take a shot at swimming’s mission impossible.

It is known in swimming circles as the ‘Iron Cross’ because it’s the most gut-busting combination in the pool - comprising 100 metres backstroke, 200m backstroke, 200m individual medley and 400m individual medley.

Only two swimmers - Michael Phelps and Kristin Otto - have ever won four or more individual gold medals at a single Olympic Games but neither even made an attempt at the Iron Cross.

Only the bravest - or craziest - have ever tried it and no-one has succeeded in winning the lot, though some have come close.

Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry, the chair of the co-ordination commission for Brisbane 2032, had a crack at it in Beijing in 2008 and came away with one gold and three silvers.

Then at Rio in 2016, Katinka Hosszu - affectionately known in her homeland Hungary as swimming’s Iron Lady - also had a go at it and came close to pulling it off, winning three golds and a silver.

And now Australia’s new darling of the pool McKeown, who won the backstroke double at last year’s Tokyo Olympics, is toying with the idea for Paris 2024 after entering all four events at this week’s Australian national trials.

Kaylee McKeown is toying with the idea of tackling the Iron Cross at Paris in 2024 Picture: Getty Images
Kaylee McKeown is toying with the idea of tackling the Iron Cross at Paris in 2024 Picture: Getty Images

Still testing herself to see how her body copes with the gruelling workload, the 20-year-old Queensland sensation says she’s already decided she won’t swim all four events at either next month’s world championships in Budapest or the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, starting in late July.

But she says she is contemplating swimming three individual races, plus relays, at each of the two upcoming international meets, doing the backstroke double at both then splitting the two medleys.

All but certain to add the 200m medley to her program for the 2024 Paris Olympics, her plan this year is to test herself in the 400m, the longest and most exhausting leg of the Iron Cross, because it holds the key to her shot at swimming immortality.,

Her enormous potential in the 400m event is not in question.

She is currently ranked No. 1 in the world in 400m IM after winning the Australian title in 4:31.74 so the trick is balancing all her races.

And that means being patient so she won’t swim the 400m at the world titles, but will take the plunge at the Commonwealth Games because it’s on the first day of competition.

“That‘s why I’m practising here. It’s 400m IM into 100m back,” she said.

“I know it‘s a rough double, but I’m looking forward to challenging myself, hopefully making that happen.

“From here now it‘s stepping stones towards Paris… it doesn’t matter what you do. It’s what happens in the Olympic year.”

McKeown’s coach Michael Bohl, an old master of guiding swimmers through heavy programs, is keeping an open mind about her prospects.

He coached Stephanie Rice when she won three gold medals - including the medley double - at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and also Emma McKeon when she won a record seven medals in Tokyo last year.

Bohl says it’s too early to make a call on whether McKeown will take a shot at the Iron Cross because it comes with a risk but they’re planning to test the waters over the next two years.

“The 200m medley is definitely something that she wants to put on the radar for Paris and I‘d say that’s 100 per cent locked and she’ll be looking at adding that to her repertoire,” Bohl said.

The 400m medley is a 50-50 call for Kaylee McKeown in Paris Picture: AFP
The 400m medley is a 50-50 call for Kaylee McKeown in Paris Picture: AFP

“Obviously the backstrokes are important because she‘s done well in them, won two gold medals, so she’s going to keep that improvement going in that and the 200m medley.

“As for the 400m medley, I‘d say it’s 50-50 call. She can obviously do well in it but it sort of depends on what’s happening on the world scene.

“If five girls go under 4:30, then you wouldn‘t waste your time doing it but if she’s very competitive in that in the next two years - and two years is a long time - so you never say never.”

The final decision could well come down to the schedule for Paris and how far apart the races are spread.

The swimming events will take place over nine days at Paris La Defense Arena but the final program has not been released yet.

If McKeown was to enter all four events - plus two relays - she would be facing the daunting prospect of swimming a total of 2,500 metres - exactly double what McKeon swam in Tokyo to win her seven medals.

“You don’t want to get too greedy at the Olympics,” Bohl said.

“It‘s going to be very difficult to swim all the races that she potentially could be swimming and do a great job all the way through because there’s a lot of people moving forward in those events.”

McKeown’s potential schedule for Paris if she enters all four individual events

100m backstroke heats

100m backstroke semi-finals

100m backstroke final

200m backstroke heats

200m backstroke semi-finals

200m backstroke final

200m individual medley heats

200m individual medley semi-finals

200m individual medley final

400m individual medley heats

400m individual medley final

4x100m medley final

4x100m mixed medley final

Total: 2,500m

Titmus inches from terminating swimming’s oldest record

Ariarne Titmus says she won’t be changing her decision to skip next month’s world championships in Budapest despite narrowly missing the oldest record in women’s swimming at the Australian trials in Adelaide on Friday.

The double Olympic champion showed last year in Tokyo when she beat Katie Ledecky over 400m freestyle that no mountain is too high for her and she proved it again when she came within a third of a second of breaking the 200m freestyle world record.

Set by Italian legend Federica Pellegrini at the 2009 world championships in Rome, it is a record that many people think may never be broken because it was aided by the now banned super suits.

But the Terminator isn’t like other swimmers, and despite not being at peak fitness, she stopped the clock at 1:53.31, just 0.33 outside Pellegrini’s mark.

Titmus, 21, now owns three of the four fastest times in history and would have been the odds-on favourite to win the 200m final at next month’s world championships but says she hasn’t changed her mind about withdrawing to focus on the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

“I just wanted to have one meet that I could solely focus on. And so thinking about that, I‘m going to stick to my decision,” she said.

“I want to be at home for another month and spend time with my family and just keep training through.

“I think the decision not to go to worlds was for Paris and to make sure I didn’t have a stacked year again after last year. So I’m still sticking with my decision.”

Ariarne Titmus leaves the blocks in the 200m final.
Ariarne Titmus leaves the blocks in the 200m final.

Pushed along by teenage sensation Mollie O’Callaghan and roared from the stands by their energetic coach Dean Boxall, Titmus was under world record pace through the first 150m and only just missed it on the final wall.

“Her back end in that race would have been insane, I think she had three suits on or something so even to be anywhere near that realm, I‘m happy with the swim,” Titmus said.

“It‘s not even 12 months since the Olympics and I swam faster than I did to win the gold medal at the Olympic Games so I’m really proud of how I’ve handled it post Olympics.”

O’Callaghan, who set the junior world record at last year’s Tokyo Olympics, finished second in 1:54.94 — a time that would have seen her place fourth in Tokyo.

Ariarne Titmus takes a look at her time.
Ariarne Titmus takes a look at her time.

Just 18, O’Callaghan is emerging as one of Australia’s brightest stars of the future. She won the 100m freestyle title on Wednesday in the fastest time this year then the 50m backstroke on Thursday.

Less than an hour after racing against Titmus, the teenage sensation finished second to triple Olympic champion Kaylee McKeown in the 100m backstroke (58.49) and still has two more events to go.

McKeown is also looking at a massive program in Budapest and Birmingham. She had already qualified for the 400m individual medley and still has the 200m backstroke and 200m medley to go.


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