World record, Katie Ledecky challenge stoke U.S.-Australia swim rivalry before Olympics

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The Duel in the Pool may be back on after a pair of statement swims by Australian women who are rivals to American stars.

Australian Kaylee McKeown broke American Regan Smith‘s world record in the 100m backstroke, clocking 57.45 seconds to win her Olympic Trials on Sunday.

McKeown took 12 hundredths off Smith’s world record from the 2019 World Championships. Both are 19 years old.

“Obviously can’t believe it,” said McKeown, who became the fourth different woman to lower the 100m back mark since July 2017. “I just wanted to come in tonight and blow out the cobwebs.”

Later Sunday, Ariarne Titmus, the 20-year-old rival of Katie Ledecky known as “The Terminator,” won the 400m freestyle in Adelaide in 3:56.90, the second-fastest time in history. Ledecky set the world record of 3:56.46 at the Rio Olympics and held the seven fastest times in history before Sunday.

“[Ledecky’s] not going to have it all her own way,” Titmus said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “I can’t control what she does, if I do the best I can and put myself in the position to win a gold medal, it’s going to be a tough race.”

For the first time in recent memory, the Olympic Trials for the world’s traditional swim powers, the U.S. and Australia, are happening at the same time. In past Olympic cycles, Australia held its Trials farther out from the Games.

Australian women won zero individual gold medals between the last two Olympics, taking some of the spice out of the rivalry.

Then on Thursday, American breaststroker Lilly King said the U.S. could win every individual women’s gold in Tokyo. King wasn’t answering a question about Australia, but rather the strength of the team in the post-Michael Phelps era.

“After Kaylee tonight, I think there’s the backstroke gone,” Titmus said Sunday, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “We have chances in a lot of other events. I feel like the Olympics is not going to be all America’s way – there are other countries coming through.”

McKeown swam 10 months after her father, Sholto, died after a two-year brain cancer battle. McKeown has a tattoo across the top of her foot reading, “I’ll always be with you.”

“I think he’d be really proud,” she said on the pool deck in Adelaide.

McKeown finished fifth in the 100m back at the 2019 Worlds, plus took silver behind Smith in the 200m back.

The U.S. is so deep in the women’s 100m back — four of the top eight in the world since the start of 2019 — that Smith isn’t considered a lock to make the team, which requires placing in the top two at the Olympic Trials that begin in Omaha on Sunday.

Titmus beat Ledecky in the 400m free to open the 2019 World Championships, after which Ledecky missed races while ill. Titmus’ time on Sunday was 1.86 seconds faster than her personal best from those worlds.

“I would say we’d have a very nervous Katie Ledecky over in the United States right now,” an Australian commentator said on an Amazon Prime broadcast.

This is the first time in recent history, if ever, that the Australian trials broadcast is available in the U.S.

“I’m not going to be checking results every couple hours or anything,” Ledecky said Saturday. “The medals aren’t given this week, so I don’t think we have to get too caught up in what times people are going here versus anywhere else in the world right now.”

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