Olympic Swimmer Kalyee McKeown on Chasing Time and Making History

The Australian swimmer and triple Olympic gold medalist has broken world records and smashed her bucket list dreams, all before the age of 21. What’s next for Kaylee McKeown?

Article by Victoria Pearson

KAYLEE MCKEOWN_1The gold medal-winning Australian swimmer Kaylee McKeown. Photograph courtesy Omega.

Kaylee McKeown is about to turn 22. The Australian swimmer, Olympic medalist and Omega ambassador has plenty of years ahead of her, but the concept of time is one that occupies much of her professional and personal life. “It’s something I’m always chasing,” she says.

“In the pool, I’m trying to better myself every session leading into competition. Each achievement is a moment in time that I can look back on and be proud of.” Similarly, on dry land, she tries to not take time for granted. The loss of her father in 2020 “really realigned my focus to not waste time, and make the most of each moment,” she says.

Here, McKeown speaks with T Australia about breaking the world record in 2021, her pre-swim rituals and the people who keep her grounded.

Tell us about your relationship with Omega – what initially drew you to the brand? What synergies do you share?

I am very fortunate to have such a great partner in Omega, it’s not every day you get to partner with such a prestigious and global brand … For me my relationship with Omega is very special, every time I look down at my wrist it’s a little reminder of an important aspect of my life.

What first drew you to the sport of swimming? What did you love about being in the pool?

When younger swimming was always for leisure and water safety, being Australian and living on the coast means constantly being surrounded by luscious beaches and backyard pools. Gradually, swimming lessons once a week turned into nine sessions a week, I instantly fell in love with the sport. Not only for its competitiveness but the fact I could swim as an individual and as a part of a team. I love that when I dive into the pool its silent, everything gets put on hold and it’s just me and the clock.

Photograph courtesy of Omega.

At your first 2018 Youth Olympics, you won a gold, silver and bronze. Did you expect that result? How did it feel to walk away with those accolades?

2018 was monumental for my development, I was in my final year of high school, competed at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Pan Pacific Games and then Youth Olympics. Heading into the Youth Olympics I had just come off the back of a two-week break and decided to compete to expose myself to another ‘Olympic village’ simulation.

I wasn’t expecting to walk away with any medals and to be able to do so made me a proud Australian, my times may have not been the best, but it boosted my confidence and gave me experience.

In the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games you broke the 100m backstroke world record – can you describe that feeling for me?

 During the year 2021 I had a great training block and slowly started nudging my way closer to the World Record mark. When it came to our Olympic trials the 100 metre backstroke was my first event on my week program, I had an abundance of nerves and felt the pressure but ultimately I believed that pushed me to beat the World Record.

When I touched the wall I felt relieved as I had made my first Olympic team, however, to see my time have WR next to it was a moment I’ll never forget. The day happened to be my Dad’s 10-month anniversary of his passing, there were so many emotions and I knew that he’d be so proud of me – that feeling was truly indescribable.

Tell me about your team – who are the people you surround yourself with that keep you focused, grounded and nurtured and on your profession?

 My family and coach are the two biggest grounders in my swimming career, they can separate my competitive life from my ‘normal life’ and help me to relax when things become high pressure. My training group would also have to be one of my biggest motivators and supporters. I get to train alongside Olympians and multi-Olympic medallists’ day-in and day-out. My other support team consists of my strength and conditioning coach, physios and massage therapist – without this support I wouldn’t be the athlete I am today.

Who were your swimming idols growing up, and who do you look to now for inspiration?

As a youngster I gravitated towards Australian backstroke legend Emily Seebohm. I had so many shirts and caps signed by her and even scored a photo with her when I was 9. I was extremely starstruck when it came to racing her, but fast forward to Tokyo Olympics it was a surreal moment sharing the podium and singing our national anthem together.

Kaylee McKeown poses for a photo during the medal ceremony for the Women's 200m Backstroke Final on day seven of the Budapest 2022 FINA World Championships at Duna Arena on June 24, 2022 in Budapest, Hungary. Photograph by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images.

What does Olympic preparation look like to you? How do you train in the lead-up to the games?

The Olympic Games is the pinnacle of swimming, it’s where the best of the best come together to compete. My former coach guided me to not only be physically fit and strong but also mentally, he knew what it was going to take. I knew that I had to do everything I could to put myself in the best position, this meant I left no stone unturned and those 1%’s became everything. I trained in three-week blocks, which consisted of training for 17-days straight, then 4-days off. My training sessions in the pool were on average two hours long, with gym and cardio afterwards.

Are you superstitious at all? What does your pre-swim ritual or process look like?

I wouldn’t say I’m superstitious, but I am a very process driven person, everything I do before a race has a purpose. My routine for activation and race warmup is always identical. I do however, always have one item with me in marshalling which is a little blue bag, containing bag a spare race suit, cap, goggles and puffer.

Swimming can be a solitary sport – you’re often out there on your own. What do you find so compelling about its singularity?

As I mentioned earlier, I love the individuality of the sport, I find it extremely captivating challenging myself against my competitors and my own personal best times. The best thing about swimming your own race is, you only have the expectation of your own goals and dreams.

What’s a bucket list achievement for you?

My forever bucket list dream was to compete at an Olympic Games. Now that I have accomplished that and managed to come away with a few medals, my now dream is to make history. I’m not sure what that entails but to me it’s about getting up and competing against the best in the world.