TOKYO: Courageous Kaylee McKeown (pix) has a tattoo on her foot that says “I’ll always be with you” in honour of her father who died from cancer last year, and she’ll be using it as inspiration in the Tokyo pool.
The 20-year-old sensation, who has burst on the scene to be one of Australia’s hottest multiple gold medal prospects, sees it whenever she gets up for her backstroke starts.
“It just so happens that I can see the ‘be with you’, so it’s kind of cool to see that because I know that he will be with me and that’s just very precious,” she said.
One of the youngest members of Australia’s swim team, McKeown is in Japan owning the only new world record from either the Australian or American trials, touching in 57.45sec to smash Regan Smith’s 100m backstroke mark.
She also boasts the year’s fastest 200m backstroke and 200m individual medley times, with both of those world records well within her grasp and the relays offering even more gold medal opportunities.
The emotions of seeing her dad Sholto die in August last year after a two-year battle with brain cancer aged just 53 are still raw for McKeown.
A Queenslander who lives on Australia’s Sunshine Coast, she said the postponement of the pandemic-hit Games for a year was a blessing in disguise, given her father’s battle.
“We are a very optimistic family and we took every day as it came, through the chemo and the radiation. It came to around this time last year and things started to really decline,” she said.
“It was hard for me being a younger adult seeing my dad really struggle.
“But it was extra motivation. Every day seeing him in the hospital bed was just a reminder of how lucky I am to be healthy and be alive.
“So for me personally I never take a day for granted any more because I know he would be so disappointed if I rocked up to training and like, ‘I’m not going to try’.” McKeown, whose older sister Taylor was a relay silver medallist in Rio but narrowly missed selection for Tokyo, added that doing her father proud was at the front of her mind as she embarks on her first Olympic campaign.
“My dad in many ways is my big inspiration now,” she said. “I use him in the last 50 of my racing like ‘come on dad, help me cross the line’, because I know he is there.”
Coached by Chris Mooney, McKeown made her international debut aged 15 after qualifying for the 2017 world championships.
Although she narrowly missed out on a medal, the rising star finished fourth and set a new world junior record then claimed silver in the 200m backstroke at the worlds two years later, and has shown massive improvements since then.
Smith, 19, will be a key threat in Tokyo over the 100m backstroke as she attempts to win back her world record.
“We have a great relationship. We don’t know each other super well, but I always send her a congratulatory text,” said Smith after ensuring she will race her pet event in Japan.
“I was really genuinely honestly happy for her (when she broke the world record), and then it inspired me because I’ve had a tough year,”
But in a major upset, Smith failed to qualify for the 200m backstroke despite being the world record holder.
Instead, Rhyan White and Phoebe Bacon will be tasked with trying to stop McKeown, who has swum significantly faster than both this year.
Fellow Americans Madisyn Cox and Alex Walsh are shaping as her major threats in the medley. – AFP