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Swimming’s superhumans continue to sink or swim on the finest of margins

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Thursday morning at the Ariake Aquatic Centre provided another reminder of the levels needed to be an Olympic champion in the pool.

Caeleb Dressell finally has his first individual gold, pipping defending champion Kyle Chambers of Australia in the men’s 100m. The American is off the mark in his pursuit of six golds at Tokyo 2020, though as far as dethroning a reigning champion goes, this was a battle to the death, even if he did bag the Olympic record with a time of 47.02 seconds. The margin of victory - 0.06 - the exact gap between their reactions to the starter beep.

Nevertheless, an Aussie man left the arena with gold - and another Olympic record toppled – when Zac Stubblety-Cook became their first winner in the breaststroke since 1964. The late dash during the final 50 of his 200m has been a hallmark of Australia’s swimmers, carrying the same ruthless inevitability of Ashes wins at The Gabba.

A similar burst from their women in the 4x200m relay bettered the world record three out of the four of them set in the 2019 World Championships. The only problem was China and the United States had already blown it out of the water when they tapped in for one and two. Their respective races included Yufei Zhang taking the third leg an hour after securing gold in the 200m butterfly (her coach only told her of selection after her individual event) and then aquawoman Katie Ledecky registering a remarkable 1:53.76 effort to almost chase down China on her own in the final leg.

It made Robert Finke’s victory in the 800m freestyle seem relatively tame. The 0.24 seconds separating him and silver-medalist Gregorio Paltrinieri (Italy) was a relative chasm, even if victory only assured in the final few strokes. USA now have six golds in a table-topping haul of 21, with Australia - five and 12 - comfortably second. Even in a distorted Games, with finals in the morning rather than the evening, swimming’s natural order remains.

Caeleb Dressel won his first individual gold (AFP via Getty Images)
Caeleb Dressel won his first individual gold (AFP via Getty Images)

But Great Britain hovers in third, joint with China on four but with three golds, with opportunities to add to that most important column. They have representatives in all four of Friday’s finals, including Luke Greenback (200m backstroke) and Duncan Scott (200m medley) who both qualified as second-quickest. A podium finish for Scott would put him one medal closer to becoming the first British athlete to win four at a single Games.

It is a far cry from London 2012 where the swim team contributed just silver and two bronze to Great Britain’s 65 medals. The noises of immense quality and depth among the 24 swimmers taken to Tokyo have been well-founded. The investment and wholesale changes to training methodology and better management of the person that steps out of the pool paying dividends. Where athletics picked up the slack nine years ago, the swimmers may be about to return the favour with perhaps the best squad they have ever taken to an Olympics.

The positives are evident beyond the countable successes. Those close to the camp cannot recall a more unified group, and there have been times during races where their support in the stands has come close to replicating the kind of raucous cheering usually expected from the friends and family who cannot be here.

“This is the greatest team we’ve ever had and to be a part of it is just amazing,” beamed Brodie Williams, who missed out on a finals place after finishing eighth in the semis of the 200m backstroke. “Even to race with Luke [Greenbank], it’s amazing.”

The 20-year-old was phlegmatic about his efforts: satisfied to make it as far as he had, with aspects he knows he can improve on. “Overall, it’s a learning experience which I can take and move it on towards Paris in three years.”

It is that attitude that has helped cultivate a sustainable team spirit from the bottom-up. At the top, the marquee figures are feeding off each other’s successes. Adam Peaty set off the medal cascade last Monday, which spurred Tom Dean and Duncan Scott on to TeamGB’s first one-two in the pool since 1908.

“Once we got that first medal [Peaty], it really boosted morale in the camp,” said Greenbank, whose enthusiasm in the mixed-zone suggested he wanted get back in the pool for the final before he got dry. “Everyone’s really motivated, we all get behind each other and we really want to see each other do well. That’s had a huge impact on the more recent performances.”

That sentiment was echoed by Molly Renshaw who will compete in Friday’s women’s 200m breaststroke final: “The team in general is just doing amazing, with three golds already. We’ve already smashed any performance we’ve had in a very long time. I’m planning on riding along the ride with the team.”

At the same time, Thursday also brought some bitter disappointment. Freya Anderson fought valiantly to make it to Tokyo but could only manage sixth in the 100m freestyle semi-final. An injured shoulder has been managed since December, before a torn disc in her back in February meant the 20-year-old was unable to stitch together two months of necessary high-intensity work. “It’s two weeks of good training and then a setback. I just have to be proud that I got here in one piece.”

The most heartbreaking setback was James Wilby in the 200m breaststroke. Having qualified as the second-fastest, he established that position after the first 50 but gradually dropped back into sixth.

James Wilby made a promising start but faded (PA Wire)
James Wilby made a promising start but faded (PA Wire)

Distraught at the end, Wilby titled his head back so only his face was above the surface, staring at the ceiling as the water flooded his ears to drown out the celebrations from Stubblety-Cook in the neighbouring lane four. Visibly drained, Wilby drifted to the side of the pool, lifting himself out with what little energy he had left.

“I’m just really disappointed that I wasn’t able to be up there with them and challenging for those medals,” eyes red from more than just the water.

At 27, Wilby is in that awkward period for an Olympic swimmer. Even with the Paris Games only three years away, 30 is not quite over the hill, but certainly on the way down the slope. Given the manner in which British swimmers are being churned out, maintaining his current level won’t guarantee selection. With two Commonwealth, one World and one European Championship gold, he came to Tokyo with much to be proud of already.

It speaks volumes of the programme, and Wilby in particular, that a potential end of his Olympic journey, and the personal disappointment, has not diminished his role within the team for the remaining three days of competition.

“If that’s my last swim here at the Games, I have a job to do supporting others. There are some people coming up who I train with and am very close with. I want to be there to help wherever I can with them.”

Just before his media engagement came to an end, he was asked about the support of his mum, who he says has been “putting in such a shift for me over the last 27 years”.

“That’s probably the main disappointment, which is I know I've made her proud but I haven't quite won the medal I would like to have won for her.”

After holding it together, Wilby began to cry. He occasionally won the battle with his emotions to continue the interview – “so fucking proud of her,” he beamed at the fact she is currently volunteering as a nurse to administer Covid-19 vaccines – before breaking down again.

It was when he was about to succumb fully to his anguish that Freya Anderson came up behind him to give him a hug. Wilby tilted his head back once more as she gripped him tighter, this time feeling nothing but warmth.

No doubt history will celebrate this swimming outfit for the medals they won and the manner of their victories. But here in defeat were two who embodied the squad’s camaraderie and soul. Two characteristics that, unequivocally, have been the foundations of its success.

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