The last time an Australian man won a breaststroke gold medal at the Olympics was in 1964 when the Games were being held in Tokyo. More than half a century later, in the same city, an Australian again dominated the four-lap discipline as 22-year-old Zac Stubblety-Cook won the men’s 200m breaststroke final and broke the Olympic record.
Australia’s swimming haul at these Games swelled further when Kyle Chalmers added a Tokyo 2020 silver to his Rio gold medal in a thrilling men’s 100m freestyle final, won by the narrowest of margins by the American Caeleb Dressel.
But Australia was upset in the women’s 4x200m freestyle relay in the final race of Thursday morning’s session at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. The Australians lost their world record and an expected gold medal following a dominant performance from China. Katie Ledecky anchored the United States to silver, with Australia’s quartet settling for bronze.
Having followed in the footsteps of 1964 champion Ian O’Brien, Stubblety-Cook said it was “an honour” to occupy such rarified air. “Honestly I’m pretty lost for words at the moment. It’s still sinking in.”
The Queenslander started slowly, touching the wall in sixth at the first turn. But the Australian gradually reeled in fast-starting Dutchman Arno Kamminga, touching third at the final turn. A stunning last lap lifted Stubblety-Cook to the top step of the podium.
“I was there to execute a race plan,” he said. “I knew that there would be a few people going at it from the start, because that’s how the last Olympics were won. It was won by someone who went out in lane eight – no-one could see [them] – and they just held on. I knew today there would be someone doing that, but I was happy to execute my race plan and do what I do best.”
The Olympic debutant was the youngest finalist across a powerhouse field. But Stubblety-Cook did not show any inexperience as he overhauled Kamminga in a flawless swim. The Dutchman had to settle for second, while Matti Mattsson collected the bronze medal.
“You can only be an underdog once,” said Stubblety-Cook. “I had that luxury today. That was an experienced field, but as I stepped through the heat and semi, it was quite exciting to know that I had a little bit more to give.
“I was happy enough just to be here. This time last year we thought the Games were not going to happen. So I’m very happy just being here and even more happy with the result.”
Only four men have ever defended their 100m crown in Olympic history – none Australian – and in the blue ribband men’s 100m free, Chalmers looked set to make history as he surged home. But American Dressel touched the wall just six one-hundredths of a second ahead of his Australian rival to clinch gold.
In the women’s relay final, having qualified fastest on Wednesday evening, the reigning world champions Australia underscored their formidable depth by sending out an entirely different team for the final.
But the change backfired when the Chinese and American teams overhauled a strong Australian start from Ariarne Titmus and Emma McKeon. The gold medal for China is the first time since the 2008 Olympics in Beijing that the Americans have lost the women’s 4x200m race – but a disappointing result for the Australians, who had been predicted to comfortably win the relay.
In the first final of the morning, Jack McLoughlin was unable to add to his medal haul in the men’s 800m freestyle. The 26-year-old won silver in the 400m freestyle last Sunday, but on Thursday morning struggled to stay with Gregorio Paltrinieri as the Italian set a rapid early pace.
Paltrinieri was ultimately pipped to gold by American Robert Finke after a thrilling final flap, while McLoughlin placed fifth. It was only the second time in history that the distance has appeared on the men’s Olympic programme – the first was the 880-yard race at the 1904 Games.
In the women’s 100m freestyle semi-finals, Australia’s Cate Campbell and Emma McKeon both qualified comfortably for the medal race. McKeon set the Olympic record in her heat, and was again flying as she qualified fastest in the semi. She will race for gold from lane four on Friday, next to Campbell in lane three.
The swimming continues on Thursday evening with the penultimate night of heats. Having won the women’s 200m and 400m freestyle, Australia’s Ariarne Titmus will be back in action in the 800m heats – as will her rival, American Ledecky.
Kaylee McKeown, who won gold for Australia in the women’s 100m backstroke, will be the swimmer to beat in the 200m backstroke heats. The night concludes with the 4x100m mixed medley relay heats – the first time a mixed-gender swimming event has featured at the Olympics.