If you watched swimming in Tokyo, you learned that Australian sprinter Emma McKeon is a sprinting powerhouse!
With 11 Olympic medals, Emma is the most decorated Australian Olympian of all time, in any sport! She has also won more than 30 medals in other international competitions.
Emma has been an incredible relay swimmer for Australia since 2013, and has also become one of the best in the world in the 50 free, 100 free, 100 fly and 200 free. But what did she do to get there?
We’re taking a deep dive into Emma McKeon’s swimming career, including her training and what makes her so fast!
Let’s start from the beginning.
The Early Days
Emma comes from a major swimming family. Her dad and brother are both Olympic swimmers, and her mom competed in the Commonwealth Games in the 1980s. So I think it’s safe to say that swimming is in her blood.
Growing up, Emma’s family ran a swim school, so she was always around a pool. But despite her family’s aquatic background, Emma never felt pressured to swim. She got the urge to start training when her brother David started swimming — she wanted to race, too!
For years, Emma and David’s training was a family affair. Their dad was their coach until Emma was 18!
It was clear Emma had major potential. But she wasn’t so sure she wanted to commit to the life of an elite swimmer.
She had a rocky relationship with the sport, and at one point almost quit when she was 15. At the time, she cared more about hanging out with her friends than training. But she stuck it out, and that certainly paid off!
Emma broke into international competition in 2010. That year she made it on the podium at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships, the Youth Olympics and the World Short Course Championships.
A Wakeup Call
2 years later, Emma qualified for the 2012 Australian Olympic Trials at age 17.
She wasn’t selected for the Australian Olympic team, but still had a pretty impressive showing at trials. She placed 7th in the 100 free, 9th in the 100 fly, 10th in the 200 free and 13th in the 50 free.
When she was asked to reflect on that first trials experience, Emma said she was crushed that she didn’t make the team. So much so that she stopped swimming for a while.
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Looking back, she wasn’t training hard enough and wasn’t focused enough. Emma said it was a tough lesson that she needed to learn, and from then on, she understood what she needed to do to make the team.
Hitting Her Stride
So, she put her head down and got to work!
She won 2 silver medals at the 2013 World Championships, in the 400 and 800 freestyle relays.
In 2014, she snagged another silver in the 800 free relay at Pan Pacs. She was a star at the Commonwealth Games that year, too. She won a whopping 4 gold and 2 bronze medals.
After a few solid years of competition, Emma decided to go all-in for the 2016 Olympics. She moved to Queensland, swapping from her father to a new coach, Michael Bohl.
The move was good for Emma — she was forced to become more independent and even started studying at Griffith University.
She made it happen at trials this time, getting selected for the Australian Olympic team along with her brother, David. Emma had an incredible run at the 2016 Olympics, bringing home 4 medals!
She won gold in the 4×100 free relay, helping Australia set a new world record. She grabbed silver in the 4×200 free relay and 4×100 medley relay, and a bronze in the 200 free.
Emma also swam the 100 fly, but finished 6th.
After Rio, Emma took 3 months off and when she dove back in, she didn’t pressure herself to get back to her pre-Olympics fitness. She took it day by day, and enjoyed the journey. And that mindset worked very well!
By the time World Championships came around in 2017, Emma felt excited to race again. She excelled, swimming a personal best in the 100 fly, going 56.18 to secure a silver medal. She also tied for second with American powerhouse Katie Ledecky in the 200 free. All in all, she left Budapest with 6 medals. Her trophy case was getting pretty full, and she was just getting started.
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Emma was back in business after 2017 worlds.
After winning bronze in the 100 fly at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Emma came back with a vengeance in 2018 and won gold! She also took bronze in the 200 free.
That same year, she won 6 more medals at Pan Pacs, including 4 golds in the 4×100 free relay, 4×200 free relay, 4×100 medley relay and 4×100 mixed medley relay.
In 2019, Emma competed in World Championships and had another incredible meet. She pulled out of the 200 free due to illness, but still managed to win 6 medals, including a bronze in the 100 fly. She also helped the Australian team break the world record in the 4×200 free relay.
Making History in Tokyo
All of these performances were preparing Emma for what would be a historic Olympics — 2020 in Tokyo.
At 27, Emma could be considered on the older end of the competitors, but that didn’t stop her from absolutely crushing it. She won 7 medals!
She helped Australia take gold, and break the world record, in the 4×100 free relay. And, she grabbed 3 more golds in the 4×100 medley relay, 100 free and 50 free. She set new Olympic records in the 50 and 100, too.
After the 50, Emma said she never thought she could win a 50 freestyle, since she had been focused on the 200 for so long. But she did it!
She won 4 bronze medals in the 100 fly, 4×200 free relay and 4×100 mixed medley relay.
Related: Emma McKeon Wins 7th Medal, Becomes Most Decorated Australian Olympian
So we can all agree that Tokyo was an incredible Olympics for Emma…her 7 medal haul put her in the history books, in more ways than one.
She set a new record for the most medals won by a female swimmer at a single Games. She also tied gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya for most medals won in a single Games by a female athlete. Gorokhovskaya originally set the record in 1952!
Between the 2016 and 2021 Games, Emma has 11 total Olympic medals, making her the most decorated Australian Olympian of all time, in any sport!
She also tied with fellow Aussie Ian Thorpe for the most Olympic golds in Australian history. They both have 5. Incredible!
After Tokyo, Emma became a household name among swimming fans. And that comes with a lot of pressure.
But Emma is a pro at staying cool, calm and collected even in the most intense situations. Her parents have said that she has a “quiet competitiveness” about her. She goes out there and tries her best in every race.
Emma says she’s able to “switch off” her mind fairly easily, which is good for high pressure racing. She stays focused only on what she’s doing in her lane. She still gets nervous, but she’s learned that those nerves mean she cares about the sport, and uses them as fuel to swim fast!
When it comes to training, Emma keeps it simple. She trusts her coach, and focuses on getting in a swim each day. She does lots of pace work to prepare her body for the 200 free, 100s and 50s.
She films herself swimming frequently so she and her coach can analyze her stroke and find areas to improve. She also works with a biomechanics expert to perfect her starts, turns and finishes.
In the last few years, Emma has placed more emphasis on dryland training, and has noticed a difference in how she feels in the water. She does lots of chin ups! When she started, she could barely do one, but now she can pump out reps with an extra 15kg attached to her body!
That extra strength helps her crush it on relays, which are her favorite races to swim. That team energy and excitement is like nothing else, and helps her feel more relaxed.
When it comes to individual events, Emma likes the 100 fly best, but still puts pressure on herself to perform in the 200 free. She’s said that she knows she can still do better in the 200. Look out competition, Emma’s coming for you!
Ultimately, though, it’s not about the medals or the glory for Emma. She says that no amount of gold medals will change who she is as a person. But what she has learned from training and competing at the top level will stay with her for the rest of her life.
We definitely haven’t seen the last of Emma McKeon! Comment below to let us know what you think of her incredible swims in Tokyo, and what we’ll see from her next.