Olympic star McKeown tackles new challenge in world championships

The backstroke world is not enough for Kaylee McKeown as the dual-Olympic swimming champion begins her quest to add another event to her repertoire when she tackles the 200m individual medley at the world championships in Budapest.

McKeown was one of the standout swimmers in the Tokyo Olympic pool with gold medals in the 100m and 200m backstroke. She was already an elite medley swimmer but in her first Olympics, the decision was made to focus on her two pet events.

That would pay handsome dividends as McKeown powered to the wall to twice stand atop the Tokyo podium. Now, with her place in history safely secure, she will use the world championships and Commonwealth Games to trial an extra individual race, with the 200m IM on her program in Budapest and the 400m IM in Birmingham.

She is unlikely to swim both events at the Paris Games in 2024 and the 200m medley is the favoured path, even if she’s probably a better campaigner over the longer distance. But both are gruelling and much will be revealed on Sunday in Budapest when McKeown steps out in the shorter version.

If she swims strongly there and is able to maintain her dominance across the backstroke events, along with her relay swims, it will be a major step towards a serious tilt in Paris. If she feels the pinch later in the meet, McKeown may do away with those events for good.

Now is the right time for the 20-year-old to roll the dice with some new formats. But McKeown will have no opportunity to take her foot off the pedal, with strong competition across all her events in Budapest, beginning with formidable American Alex Walsh in the 200m medley.

Walsh will start as favourite after a 2:07. 84s effort at the US trials made her the quickest in the world this year. McKeown had little competition but went 2:09. 15s at the Australian trials in Adelaide and is the one who needs to make significant improvement.

McKeown will meet another brilliant American in Regan Smith in the 100m backstroke and even though the Australian owns the world record in that event, there is nothing between the pair. Smith is a former world-record holder who burst onto the scene at the 2019 edition and has the two fastest times in 2022.

But the Australian is nothing if not a competitor. She has moved her training base to the Gold Coast, where she competes under the tutelage of star mentor Michael Bohl.

They have plotted and planned every potential outcome on the way to Paris and McKeown won’t be giving away her backstroke ascendancy without a fight.

Three gold medals in Budapest is not beyond McKeown, with the 200m backstroke looking to be the assignment with the least room for error. But a trio of strong swims will be good work in the bank for an ambitious swimmer who wants to leave a lasting mark on her nation’s Olympic legacy.

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