Emma McKeon has put the world on notice by setting a new Australian record in her first swim of what could be a lucrative Olympics, as she took her first step towards securing a possible seven gold medals.
The 27-year-old is hunting individual honours in three events and will form part of four relay teams as she seeks to add to her collection of four medals from Rio – one gold, two silver and a bronze.
McKeon blitzed through her heat of the 100m butterfly in 55.82 seconds – bettering the 55.93s she swum earlier this year – and touched the wall first in a dead heat with China’s Yufei Zhang. However, a photo of the finish caused plenty of controversy as it appeared to show McKeon touching the wall well ahead of her rival, despite the pair registering the same time.
Plenty of viewers had questions about the final result.
Former Victorian cricket legend Darren Berry couldn’t believe his eyes, tweeting: “WTF seriously Emma McKeon touched clearly ahead of China on the wall how on earth can that be a dead heat?”
Alexander Grant wrote: “Can we talk about the fact that McKeon comfortably beat her Chinese opponent in that heat but it was declared a dead heat?”
Nicole Jeffrey added: “Something wrong with the timing there. McKeon a clear winner on the video, but given same time as Zhang.”
Swimmers need to put enough pressure on the wall to trigger their finishing time and after the race an official said a light touch from McKeon was the reason why the race ended as a dead heat, as Zhang came home strong.
Fellow Australian Brianna Throssell was in the same heat and snuck into the semi-finals as the 16th fastest swimmer in the 100m fly.
McKeon said a relaxed build-up to the Games has helped her enter the competition in good shape.
“Until tonight when I was warming up I didn’t feel like I was racing, that probably worked for me,” she said. “I felt like it went pretty well. I was happy with the time.
“I didn’t really feel like I was going that quick, so I think that gives me a lot of confidence going into tomorrow morning.
“I knew the Chinese girl next to me would be fast. I saw her go pretty quick at the end of last year. I feel like everyone is on an even playing field once you get to the semis and finals.”
McKeon’s effort was the second Australian record of the night after Brendon Smith sizzled through the water in the 400m individual medley.
The 21-year-old beat his own personal best to become the first swimmer from Down Under to break 4:10.00 in the event, finishing in 4:09.27 to qualify fastest for the final.
“I want to go faster every time I swim, so really happy with that and to be first ranked going into the final is really surreal,” Smith said.
Elijah Winnington and Jack McLoughlin provided the second dead heat of the evening when they finished equal first in the 400m freestyle – an event Australia has a strong pedigree in. It was the race Ian Thorpe dominated and where Mack Horton won gold in Rio five years ago by beating controversial Chinese star Sun Yang.
Winnington and McLoughlin hit the wall in 3:45.20 and will enter Sunday morning’s final as the fourth fastest swimmers.
There was more drama with the timing on the pooldeck when the pair’s official time initially came up as being three seconds faster than it actually was.
“I was actually feeling a bit of pressure yesterday. I was quite nervous about making the final,” Winnington said. “It’s actually the first time I’ve ever swum internationally, first time I’ve raced so many of those guys so I was fortunate I was next to Jack.”
Zac Stubblety-Cook was second in his heat of the 100m breastroke, recovering from a slow start before countryman Matthew Wilson finished his heat in seventh with a time of 1:00.03.
The women’s 4×100 freestyle relay team finished off the night in style. Seventeen-year-old Mollie O’Callaghan dived in the water first and gave the Aussies a strong start as they executed perfectly to win their heat and qualify fastest ahead of the Netherlands for Sunday’s final.
McKeon was rested from the heat, as was flag bearer Cate Campbell, but both will be part of the team for its tilt at gold.
It was an impressive opening for Australia in the pool but that will only add to the pressure when it comes time to compete for medals.
“It’s a fantastic opening night but with that comes expectation that we perform not only in the semifinals but in the finals,” Ian Thorpe said in commentary for Channel 7. “The heat is going to be on this Aussie team.”