TOKYO - Caeleb Dressel and Emma McKeon confirmed their status as Tokyo 2020 stars after both added two more swimming titles on Sunday (Aug 1) to their haul, capping a golden run on the final competition day.
Dressel was crowned the fastest swimmer in the world after he won the Olympics men's 50m freestyle final in an Olympic record 21.07sec, ahead of France’s Florent Manaudou (21.55) and Brazilian Bruno Fratus (21.57). He then picked up his fifth gold in Japan as the Americans won the 4x100m medley relay in a world record 3min 26.78sec, clear of Britain (3:27.51) and Italy (3:29.17).
Not to be outdone was McKeon, who also won the 50m free in an Olympic record of 23.81 before helping Australia pip the United States to gold in the women’s medley relay by the narrowest of margins. McKeon ended with four golds and three bronzes, her seven medals tying Soviet gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya’s haul from Helsinki 1952 for the most by a woman at a single Games.
Dressel, who has been touted as the successor to his compatriot and 23-time Olympic champion Michael Phelps, said he finally understood what it is like to chase history.
Dressel's first gold came in the men's 4x100m free relay on Monday. He won the 100m free in an Olympic record of 47.02 on Thursday, before setting a new 100m butterfly world record of 49.45 a day later.
Before the Games, there was talk he would enter up to seven events. He eventually settled on six – skipping the 4x200m free – and on Sunday admitted the stress had been “terrifying” and he had been crying and shaking during the meet.
Dressel, 24, said: “I try to convince myself the World Championships are the same... but it’s a different type of pressure here and I’ll stop lying to myself.
“This is something that happens once every four years for a race that happens 40-something, 20-something seconds, you have to be so perfect in that moment. There’s so much pressure on one moment. Your whole life boils down to that moment... how crazy is that?”
He is still in illustrious company. Only Phelps (five at Rio 2016, six at Athens 2004, eight at Beijing 2008), fellow Americans Matt Biondi (six at Seoul 1988) and Mark Spitz (seven at Munich 1972), and East Germany’s Kristin Otto (six at Seoul 1988) have won at least five swim golds in a single Games.
For McKeon, 27, who swam 13 races in nine days, it was “surreal” to be part of the record books.
She said: “I grew up watching swimming and watching amazing athletes do amazing things in Australia. I grew up wanting to do a similar thing, and now I’m here. That’s pretty surreal.”
The resurgence of her country in the pool has also been unimaginable. Australia finished with nine golds, just two behind leaders the US. Australia won three at Rio 2016 and just one at London 2012.
This was their strongest ever performance, eclipsing the eight golds their swimmers won at the 1956 Melbourne Games.
Besides McKeon, 20-year-olds Ariarne Titmus and Kaylee McKeown – both won two individual golds each – also stood out for the Australians.
Rescheduling the Australian swim trials to five weeks before the Games instead of months beforehand helped ensure the team were in peak form.
Cate Campbell, who anchored the medley team featuring McKeon, McKeown and Chelsea Hodges that won in an Olympic record 3:51.60 ahead of US (3:51.73) and Canada (3:52.60), added that a new sense of unity also contributed at her fourth Games.
There were also encouraging signs for Asia, as China surprised with three gold, including a stunning world record in the women’s 4x200m free relay.
China Youth Daily journalist Ci Xin said: “This success is unexpected because morale has been low since the Sun Yang controversy. But Zhang Yufei’s win in the women’s 200m butterfly gave the team a huge confidence boost to perform above themselves.
“Another factor is while other teams were affected by the pandemic, China had been able to continue training as a team. In the relay team, there are teenagers like Yang Junxuan, 19, and Tang Muhan, 17, and they can be a force at Paris 2024.”
Yui Ohashi’s double in the women’s 200m and 400m individual medley gave host Japan something to celebrate despite the ban of fans in stadiums while there were emotional wins for Tunisian 18-year-old Ahmed Hafnaoui in the men’s 400m free and South African Tatjana Schoenmaker in the women’s 200m breaststroke final.
Not every fairy tale needs to end in gold though.
Fratus’ reaction after clinching the bronze in the 50m free final – he missed out on a podium finish by 0.02sec at London 2012 and was sixth at Rio 2016 – as the 32-year-old hugged and kissed his wife and coach Michelle Lenhardt deserved an audience and fittingly got one as hundreds of athletes, officials and guests created a rare boisterous atmosphere inside the Tokyo Aquatic Centre.
Even without fans present due to Covid-19 restrictions, it has been a roller coaster of emotions for Dressel. He was already looking forward to Paris 2024 but said his immediate priority was to take a break from the pool and spend time with his family.
“My goal is not to be Michael, my goal is not to be Mark,” he said. “I feel like I’ve already exceeded my expectations here, I’m really happy with what I did and had a really fun time being here and know I can be better.”