By Aaron Sheldrick
TOKYO (Reuters) – Australia’s swimming coaches came out swinging in defence of their selection decisions on Thursday after their powerful women’s 4x200m freestyle relay team finished third behind China and the United States.
The Australians had set the fastest qualifying time and, with 200 and 400 freestyle champion Ariarne Titmus in their ranks, were heavily favoured to do the double after winning the 4x100m gold.
But while they swam under their own previous world record it was not enough, the Chinese coming home first to set a new world mark just ahead of the United States.
Former Olympic gold medallists Ian Thorpe and Giaan Rooney, along with the Australian media, criticized the decision to chose a different team for the heats and the final, leaving out in-form teenager Mollie O’Callaghan.
“The biggest miss was Mollie O,” Rooney tweeted, while The Australian newspaper’s headline read: “Blunder costs 4x200m gold”.
Nine-time Olympic medallist Thorpe said he was “a little curious” about the line-up, which saw Titmus joined by Emma McKeon, Madi Wilson and Leah Neale.
However, head coach Rohan Taylor and assistant Dean Boxall said they had been working on the strategy for two years.
Taylor said he wanted a fresh team for the final after learning the lessons of Beijing, where like Tokyo the finals were in the morning after night-time heats, which he said had led to some “flat” performances in the medal races.
O’Callaghan had broken the junior world record in the heats, which was faster than the other team members in the final apart from Titmus.
The teenager did not get back to the athletes village until around 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Taylor said.
“The guarantee of her (O’Callaghan) going quicker, when we had fresh cattle, fresh athletes to go in, we took that strategy and that’s what we played it out,” Taylor said.
Boxall, who went viral on social media earlier in the week after his wild celebration of Titmus’s success in the 400m freestyle, was no longer in dancing mood when asked about the decision to leave O’Callaghan out.
“I coach Mollie, Mollie is my girl,” said Boxall, adding the team’s job was “to get the girls into the final and it was eight girls”.
Asked if he would change the strategy after the criticism, Taylor said: “No absolutely not.”
(Reporting by Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by Peter Rutherford)