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Australia’s 4x200m relay team a focal point for coach Dean Boxall

by ZwemZa on March 17th, 2019

Australia’s big hope in freestyle Ariarne Titmus. Picture: Tara Croser

What is Australia’s single most important swimming event?

Some would say it is the 1500m freestyle, in which Australia has won more Olympic than in any other event in any sport. And that’s only the men. The women’s 1500m is on the program for the first time ever at the Tokyo Games next year.

Some might suggest it is the 100m freestyle. All that drama and rivalries. The strong characters – from the original Olympic champion Fanny Durack through to Dawn Fraser, Shirley Babashoff, Shane Gould, Cate Campbell and more. It’s the event that just keeps on giving.

Then, of course, there might be personal favourites. For Susie O’Neill, it was the 200m butterfly; for Michelle Ford the 800m freestyle, for David Thiele the 100m backstroke or for Ian O’Brien the 200m breaststroke.

Yet for many years, the most important event as far as the Australian swimming team is concerned is … the 4x200m freestyle relay. So why would an event that has produced only four Olympic gold medals — one of them won in company with New Zealand back in 1912 — hold pride of place for Australia?

The answer goes back to Don Talbot. When he took over the Australian swimming team as head coach at the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games, no one really gave a hoot about the relays. It was every man and woman for themselves.

Talbot changed all that. He made relays the priority. But he especially concentrated on the 4x200m freestyle because that involved everyone who wasn’t a form stroke specialist. It appealed to the sprinter going up in distance and to the distance specialist going down.

They all met in the middle in the 200m freestyle and it showed … at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the 2001 Fukuoka World Championships, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, all the way through to the 2018 Pan Pacs in Tokyo where the Australian women beat the Americans.

Which brings us to the events at the Noosa Aquatic Centre on the weekend, where leading coach Dean Boxall had split eight of the country’s rising 200m freestylers — Leah Neale, Koti Ngawati, Lane Pallister, Gemma Cooney, Elyse Woods, Shayna Jack, Mikki Sheridan and Ariarne Titmus — into two groups of four and then pitted them against each other over a week-long camp.

At the end, he handed out $50 notes to members of the team that came second.

“What we were trying to show the girls was you need a collective group to win a medal; you need the girls doing the heat and the girls doing the final,” Boxall said.

“The girls who win the final get all the adulation. But the girls in the heat actually got them into the final. I’m just trying to show them that both efforts are equal.

“No one is less important, no one is more and if we can get that mentality, we’re going to go a long way.”

Still, as Titmus states, it’s not a matter of flicking a switch and four 200m freestyle swimmers instantly convert to a top 4x200m freestyle quartet.

“As an individual sport, it’s a tricky situation where you are competing against girls on one night and then you come together and become a team,” said Titmus, Australia’s leading 200-400-800m hope for the worlds in South Korea in July and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“So the point of this camp was to not think of each other as rivals because we are all competing against each other to make the relay team and then, once you make it, you have to come together as a team.

“There is satisfaction from winning for yourself but when you do it as a team, it’s a different feeling. Not less pressure but more a united feeling. Everyone has played their part. One thing we have to get better at is trying to swim faster than our individual swims for a relay because we’re not just racing for ourselves but we’re racing for our teammates and country.”

Titmus broke through for her first world record in the 400m freestyle at the recent world short course titles, which is a staggering result for someone who is so, well, bad at her starts and turns. She is channelling Kieren Perkins, who at the 2000 Sydney Olympics was the fastest swimmer in the 1500m. But what she also needs is some Grant Hackett because it was on the turns that he won the gold.

At every turn Titmus concedes 0.3sec to American legend Katie Ledecky, according to Boxall, and 0.5sec to Taylor Ruck, the Canadian who pipped her for the Commonwealth Games 200m freestyle gold last April. “You’d want to fix that.”

Titmus smiles at that. “Turns? That’s something I’m working on. They’re getting better. They obviously need to improve.”

Ledecky is still in front but Titmus believes she is beatable.

“She is just like me. She is as fast as she is because she trained hard, she’s just a human. Anyone can swim as fast as they want if they train hard and have the right mentality and I think if I approach training and racing, anyone is beatable.”

Now, throw yourself forward to the Olympic 4x200m freestyle relay. The anchor leg. The Americans consider they’ve got it won. They have the greatest woman swimmer in history with them. It doesn’t matter how far ahead the Aussies might be, Ledecky can catch them. But she couldn’t last year at Pan Pacs, when Titmus, Emma McKeon and Sheridan had opened up a small but vital lead for Australia and then Maddie Groves dug deep and fought her off.

Anyone is beatable.

Wayne Smith | The Weekend Australian

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