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Sydney 2000: Remembering the moment 15-year-old Leisel Jones became Australia’s youngest Olympic medal winner since Shane Gould

by ZwemZa on September 18th, 2020

(Getty Images)

When Leisel Jones collected her silver medal in the 100m breaststroke at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, it was easy to forget that she was only 15.

Jones had qualified as the youngest member of the Australian Swim Team for the Games.

Yet the teenager was the overwhelming favourite for Australia in the event and many thought she could do the unthinkable and win a gold medal.

Years before her in 1972, Shane Gould stunned the world as a 15-year-old in Munich, winning three gold medals in three separate world-record times.

As the Sydney 2000 Olympics came around, there was an expectation that Jones might do the same.

South Africa’s Penny Heyns went into the event as the World and Olympic Record holder after an incredible four years of domination.

She had won two gold medals in Atlanta in 1996 and was looking to do the same in Sydney.

Jones had to go through a huge list of high-profile Australian swimmers to even qualify for the event.

She got past the likes of Samantha Riley and Brooke Hanson to book her Olympic ticket in a quite incredible race.

At this point, she was only 14 as well.

“I’m absolutely amazed,” Jones said after she qualified.

“First Olympic team at 14? I never imagined it.”

But Jones wasn’t the only teenager trying to cause a massive upset.

16-year-old American Megan Quann had travelled to Australia with a lot of hype around her name, as you’d expect for any teenager who had qualified for the Olympics.

But it set up an intriguing battle with no one quite sure who was going to triumph.

In the heats, Quann, Heyns and Jones were the three fastest swimmers. They were also the only three to swim sub-1:08 times.

In the first semifinal, it was a South African who recorded the fastest time, but it wasn’t Heyns.

Sarah Poewe swam an incredible 1:07.48 to qualify fastest.

Heyns qualified but it wasn’t at her usually rapid pace.

The second semifinal featured Quann and Jones and the story there was more routine. They finished first and second respectively.

But Poewe’s incredible semifinal swim had her in lane four for the final. Quann was in five, Jones was in six and Heyns was all the way out in lane two.

We also can’t forget to mention Tarnee White, the second Australian to qualify for the final with the seventh-fastest time.

With the women on the starting blocks, it was Heyns out in lane two who got the best start, diving out to an early lead.

The South African-World Record holder hit the wall at the end of the first lap 0.06 seconds quicker than her record time.

She was almost a body length ahead of the likes of Quann and Jones.

The Australian teenager that everyone had their eyes on was all the way back in 5th.

Even with 25 metres to go, it looked like Heyns’ race to lose but then she started to fade away.

The battle was then between Quann and Jones for the gold medal.

The American pushed ahead and despite an incredible final lap from the Australian, she couldn’t hunt her down.

Jones’ time in the final was a personal best. For a 15-year-old to produce an effort like that, on the biggest stage of all, speaks volumes of her character and ability.

“Never (thought I’d win) a silver medal at the Olympics, oh my god,” Jones said post-race.

“I’m so shocked.”

Her family were there to witness the start of her Olympic journey. In Jones’ words they were seven rows from the back, but they still had a ‘great view’.

Speaking on the Australian Olympic Team’s podcast, My Sydney 2000, to celebrate the 20th anniversary, Jones gave a side of the Sydney Games that not many people may have realised.

Being only 15, Jones didn’t get to enjoy a lot of the experiences of the Games that her fellow athletes might have been able to.

“My memory must be pretty awful because I don’t remember all the highlights people seem to remember and all the wonderful things, I remember really random things,” Jones said.

“I had just turned 15 so I did not get to experience a lot of the things that a lot of people got to experience like The Last Lap or really fun parties or going to nightclubs.

“People have these really incredible stories of Sydney 2000 and unfortunately I was stuck back at the village most of the time.

“I remember eating McDonald’s cookies and things like that. Really small things like that are what I remember the most because they were the things I can do.”

Head over here to listen to the rest of the recent podcast episode with Jones.

Sydney 2000 was just the beginning for Lethal Liesel.

Over the next 12 years, Jones would become one of the best female swimmers of all time.

She won a total of 21 gold medals representing Australia. That included three Olympic golds, 10 Commonwealth golds and seven at the World Championships.

After competing at the 2012 Games in London, Jones also became the first Australian swimmer to compete at four Olympics.

And to think, that all started from this incredible journey as a 15-year-old back in Sydney.

You can watch the entire Women’s 100m Breaststroke Final From The Sydney Olympics here

By Lachlan McKirdy | Sporting News

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