Image: Swimming Australia.

Female swimmers are the backbone of Australia's Olympic legacy

The countdown is well and truly on until the Paris Olympics, which kicks off on July 26th. When Aussie women hit the pools, their performances will set the benchmark for the rest of the world. Lucy Small has the story.

On June 15, Australia finalised its Paris Olympics swim squad at a meet in Brisbane that saw the 200 metre freestyle world record broken twice - first by Mollie O’Callaghan and then later smashed again by 23-year-old freestyle sensation Ariana Titmus with a blistering time of 1:52.23. The required qualification time was 01:56.49.

For context, Australia sets its Olympic swimming qualification times based on the slowest time in the corresponding final in the previous World Championships. This is usually faster than the global Olympic qualifying time set by World Aquatics, sometimes by a lot. In the 1500m freestyle the qualifying time set by Swimming Australia is almost eight seconds faster than the time set by World Aquatics. For some strokes it’s a matter of milliseconds. This can mean heartbreak for athletes who make the World Aquatics time but not the Swimming Australia time, ruling them out of Olympic selection. Australia also only takes its top two placed swimmers from the Olympic trials, even if swimmers placed third make the cut off time. In other words, it's make the Olympic final or nothing.

Titmus’ recent world record came off the back of her also breaking the 400 metre freestyle record at the World Championships in 2023, helping to set Australia up for another dominant year in Olympic swimming. During the last Olympic Games in Tokyo, the Australian team achieved its most successful Olympic campaign to date, winning a total of 17 gold medals. Of those, eight were brought home by our women’s swimming team.

As excitement builds on the road to Paris, we at Missing Perspectives decided to have a deeper dive into Australian Olympic history, and found that close to a quarter of all gold medals Australia has ever won have been brought home by the women’s swimming teams, rendering them the backbone of Australia’s strong Olympic legacy.

So, where did it all begin? Women’s swimming was first included in the Olympics in 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden. Sydney swimmer Fanny Durack kicked off Australia’s century-long winning spree after her first place performance in the 100 metres freestyle, where she also broke the world record.

Aussie women have remained a force to be reckoned with in freestyle. In fact, the women’s relay team has won gold in the 4x100m freestyle every Olympics since 2004 except 2008 (when they won Bronze - close enough!?). Of Australia’s 71 swimming gold medals in the last 128 years, women have won 34 and of those 20 have been for freestyle (they don’t call it the Australian crawl for nothing).

During the 1980s and 90s, Australia logged a marked drought in our swimming gold medals,but the country’s financial and emotional investment that came with the 2000 Sydney Olympics brought this to an end. Of the six current swimming world records Australia holds, five of them are held by women. And even the sixth one is a mixed medley record meaning that the team was half women anyway.

Meanwhile, in the Paralympics, Australia's record is even more impressive. With a total medal hall of more than 1000 medals since they began in 1960, 136 gold have been brought home by Australia’s swimming team. In fact, in the first Paralympics in Rome, Daphne Ceeney brought home two of Australia’s three gold medals - you guessed it, one of them was in freestyle! Iconically, as well as her golds in 50 metre freestyle and breaststroke, she won four medals out of the pool with silver medals in archery, javelin and club throwing and a bronze in the shot put. Talk about an all-rounder.

In 2012, Jacqueline Freney became Australia’s most successful Paralympic competitor at a single Games, winning eight gold in the swimming. She was the most successful athlete at the entire London Paralympic Games. Of the top five most successful Australian Paralympians, three are female swimmers.

It’s less than a month until our Aussie women will hit the pools in Paris. Once again, their pace will set the benchmark for the rest of the world. Keep an eye out for Ariana Titmus, along with Mollie O’Callaghan. Kaylee McKeown and Emma McKeon, who both took home multiple golds in Tokyo, will also be back. Traumatic brain injury survivor Alexa Leary is another one to watch as she heads to her first Paralympics after she exploded onto the scene at the Brisbane trials along with 15-year-old freestyle gun Holly Warn who is the youngest Australian Paralympic team member.

Olympic swimming will kick off on July 27, in Paris. For Australians viewing from home, both free-to-air and Channel Nine are the places to go.