Olympic champ eyes surprise career detour

There is not much that swimmer Kaylee McKeown has not conquered in the pool.

Dubbed Australia’s backstroke queen, McKeown is a triple Olympic gold medallist from Tokyo, the reigning world champion in the 200m backstroke and the world record holder in the 100m backstroke.

However, there is one claim on the world stage the talented 21-year-old is yet to best, and it involves an unusually sized pool.

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McKeown will compete in her first FINA World Short Course Championships when the event kicks off in Melbourne on Tuesday.

“I’ve never done short course [at world championship level] but I’m feeling very relaxed,” McKeown told Wide World of Sports.

“The prep’s going really well … hopefully soon two and two come together and I can put together some good performances. It’s going to be a huge week but I’m really looking forward to the challenge.

“If I wasn’t doing Short Course Worlds I’d definitely be doing Queensland states as the last hit-out of the year … but the reason why I’m doing this is just to tick a box and say I’ve been there – I’ve competed on my first World Short Course team.”

McKeown says the change in distance from a standard 50m pool to a 25m short course pool adds another layer of strategy.

“Some people are just so good at their underwater skills that it doesn’t matter if they’re slow at swimming because they are so good at their turns. They can be out in front, no issues at all,” she said.

With the addition of extra turns requiring impeccable technique, greater endurance and a quicker pace, McKeown admits she’s not the strongest at the shorter length.

“I’m not really that goodd at short course,” she said with a laugh.

“I looked at the start sheet that was put out and I’m probably sitting around (finishing in) fifth to eighth in some of my events.

“People who tend to be not as great [underwater] tend to be better in the long course, like myself.

“My skills aren’t great compared to some of the girls I race against so it’s definitely something that I can improve on, and racing short course is the stepping stone to improving those.”

With a $3.1 million prize purse on offer, McKeown said any extra funds could have a huge impact on her performance in the new year.

The FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) will be broadcast exclusively live and free on Nine and 9Now from December 13-18.

It’s well known that even some of Australia’s top swimmers have to supplement their pay through sponsorship and events to live the life of a professional athlete.

“Unless you’re a freestyler for Australia you’re not really looked at in the same light,” McKeown said.

“A lot of the other form strokers – we really have to push for recognition in what we’ve done. Then for the freestylers it comes a bit easier.

“I know that’s really harsh to say but it is the reality of it, and I’m really thankful that I’ve got an OMEGA sponsor and a Speedo sponsor. They’re what get me through, and obviously Gina Rhinehart, as well .”

Rhinehart’s company Hancock Prospecting pulled a proposed $15 million sponsorship from Netball Australia and its national team in October over “disunity problems” concerning the mining and agricultural business’ ethics.

“I basically live off her money, and without that support and the extra finances coming through those sponsorships I wouldn’t be able to swim the way that I do or do the things that I do because my family can’t afford to support me in that way,” McKeown said.

McKeown perfects her craft ahead of short course worlds

Despite having never contested the World Short Course Championships, McKeown holds the short course world record in the 200m backstroke with the time of 01:58.94, which she set at a pandemic-impacted Australian swimming event in November 2020.

However, with fierce competition from her Canadian and American rivals, as well as countrywoman Mollie O’Callaghan, McKeown believes anything could happen across her five events.

“I’m just looking at going and bettering my personal-best times from our national short course trials that were held in August , and if I can do that, that’s great,” she said.

“I think it’s going to be a red-hot field, not only in female backstroke events but in all the other events for both male and female. So I think it will be really interesting to watch and I hope the Australians can put some solid times up.”

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