The quiet achiever of Australian swimming wants to have a big voice. Emma McKeon, who collected four medals at the Rio Olympics, has set her sights on becoming one of the leaders of the next generation as the Dolphins set off on the long road to Tokyo.
That’s not to say the current senior figures are on the wane. McKeon has emphatically backed Cate Campbell to rebound and says the best is yet to come from the world-record holder after her individual disappointments in Brazil.
But with fresh faces, such as gold medallists Mack Horton and Kyle Chalmers, now at the head of the pack, McKeon says she wants to add her voice to the leadership mix leading into next year’s FINA World Championships in Budapest.
McKeon found some unwanted headlines in Rio when she was banned from the closing ceremony – then given the green light to attend – after a night out where she failed to follow team security protocols.
But in the water, the softly spoken 22-year-old was a bulldog, proving she was up for the fight with a gold and two silvers in relays and a gutsy bronze in the 200-metre freestyle behind superstars Katie Ledecky and Sarah Sjostrom.
Now she wants to add some muscle to her lean frame and take her swimming to the next level, with the immediate goal an individual gold in Hungary.
“I’d love to get some more individual medals on the world stage,” said McKeon, who trains in Brisbane with coach Michael Bohl. “Getting relay medals is just as amazing … I feel just as proud to be a part of that as well. But it’s a different feeling, I think, getting an individual gold.
“I did win four medals [in Rio], but I’m not satisfied. I want to go higher and higher and keep improving.”
Part of that improvement could involve stepping up to the Dolphins leadership group. McKeon’s stocks only rose in Rio and she feels she’s ready to start mentoring some of the newer faces as they make their way through the ranks.
“That would be nice, to become more of a leader in the team,” she said. “I’ve been on the team for four years now, so I feel like I’ve come a long way and learned a lot about myself and dealing with certain things in swimming.
“I feel like it would be nice to share that with everyone else on the team and younger people joining the team in the future.
“Most of the team was pretty young, everyone was around my age, 22. It’s definitely exciting. A lot of us haven’t done a lot of that big international racing, those big meets. That experience is only going to help.”
McKeon was floored by the support she received during the closing ceremony drama and said that would only add to her resilience as a competitor.
“I’ve definitely come out as a stronger athlete and a stronger person,” she said. “There were times that were difficult and times that were awesome. I’ve learned a lot more about myself and I’ve become more resilient, which is a good thing and can only help me in the future.
“You can do as much training, the hardest training, and you might get there and not perform how you wanted, not because of lack of training but maybe the pressure you are putting on yourself. That’s a major part of being a resilient athlete – it’s not just physical, it’s mental.”
Campbell is due to have surgery on a hernia and McKeon has no doubt the freestyle star can overcome her Rio disappointment and surge back to the top.
“Cate is an amazing athlete and an amazing person,” McKeon said. “She’s a very strong woman. She can get through anything. She still performed amazing over there, it was amazing to be part of the relay with here. I’m sure there’s much more to come.”