After 100-200 Freestyle Double, Mollie O’Callaghan Secures Status Among World’s Best

Mollie O'callaghan of Australia reacts after winning the gold medal in the 100m Freestyle Women Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 28th, 2023.
Mollie O'Callaghan after winning a world title in the women's 100 freestyle -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Editorial content for the 2023 World Aquatics Championships is sponsored by FINIS, a longtime partner of Swimming World and leading innovator of suits, goggles and equipment.


After 100-200 Freestyle Double, Mollie O’Callaghan Secures Status Among World’s Best

The Australian swim team that has dominated the World Championships so far arrived in Fukuoka with established stars: Ariarne TitmusEmma McKeon and Kaylee McKeown each won multiple gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics, with McKeon earning the title of world’s top swimmer in 2021 after winning seven total medals in Tokyo and Titmus reaching the peak last year as she remained the world’s preeminent middle-distance freestyle. McKeown, meanwhile, now has five individual world titles in backstroke events, and she will be favored to earn a sixth in the 200 back Saturday.

It’s time to add another name to that list of extraordinary Aussie stars. In Tokyo, Mollie O’Callaghan was a 17-year-old relay swimmer in her first senior-level competition. She handled legs on all three Australian relays in prelims, and she ended up with two gold medals and a bronze for her efforts.

Now, at age 19, O’Callaghan is already a two-time world champion in the 100 free, and the world-record holder in the 200 free, having lowered the 14-year-old Federica Pellegrini record that was so elusive to the the elite performers in the event, even 200 free specialists, for many years. Her back-half speed? Unfathomable. In each of O’Callaghan’s world-title races, she has come from well off the pace to pick off the early leaders. Her efforts have been critical in Australia’s runaway wins in the 400 and 800 free relays.

The latest come-from-behind win the 100 free was largely unsurprising given her earlier accomplishments this week. O’Callaghan turned seventh at the halfway point in 25.75, almost nine tenths behind Hong Kong’s Siobhan Haughey. But on the way back, no one was within eight tenths of O’Callaghan’s 26.41 leg, with only two others (bronze medalist Marrit Steenbergen and fourth-place finisher Kate Douglass) within a second. That was enough for gold, O’Callaghan’s 52.16 surpassing Haughey by three tenths.

O’Callaghan’s closing speed was only two-thirds of a second slower than her outgoing lap, nearly unheard of in a 100 free. Even Kyle Chalmers, who blasted from a tie for seventh halfway through the men’s 100 free to win the gold medal, was over one second slower coming home.

Of course, O’Callaghan had been favored in the 100 free all year given her results in 2022 plus the world’s top time of 52.48 she swam in June. Not so much in the 200 free, where O’Callaghan would have to contend with Titmus, acclaimed Canadian teenager Summer McIntosh and Olympic silver medalist Siobhan Haughey. Titmus, in particular, looked like a virtual lock for the gold in that race, having just notched the best 400 free of her life in reclaiming the global standard in that event.

But there, too, it was a magical final length that lifted O’Callaghan to gold, her 28.11 split beating everyone else in the race by seven tenths. Three-quarters of a second behind Titmus at the final turn? No problem, as O’Callaghan zoomed ahead of her training partner. Titmus actually swam her lifetime-best in that final at 1:53.01, but it was O’Callaghan finally knocking Pellegrini from the record books with her time of 1:52.85. In so many attempts at breaking that record from the super-suit era, swimmers had been under pace through 100 or even 150 meters before Pellegrini’s pace on the end proved too much. But O’Callaghan was actually slower than Pellegrini at the middle two intermediate splits before a magical finish beckoned.

Mollie O'callaghan of Australia stands with the gold medal after competing in the 100m Freestyle Women Final during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 28th, 2023.

Mollie O’Callaghan with her latest gold medal — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

“It’s a learned thing. It’s not so much confidence,” O’Callaghan said of her finishing speed. “I can’t always be confident in a back end because there’s other girls and I don’t know how they train or how they race. I’ve never really raced a majority of them before. Can’t have too much confidence but you have to trust yourself.”

All this just over one month after O’Callaghan suffered a knee injury at practice which limited her training for an extended period. All along, O’Callaghan and her coach, Dean Boxall, insisted she would be ready to go by the time Worlds arrived. Was she ever?

If we’re looking for an MVP of the women’s competition thus far at Worlds, the candidates are plentiful: McKeown already has two individual gold medals, with a strong chance at No. 3 in Saturday’s 200 backstroke. Titmus, too, has collected a world record. McIntosh lost her 400 free mark to Titmus but has rebounded to finish with bronze in the 200 free and gold in the 200 butterfly, both in world-junior-record time, and she is the strong favorite in the 400 IM on the final day of competition. Katie Ledecky is expected to join the ranks of double winners when she races in the 800 free final Saturday.

But right now, the choice as top performer is O’Callaghan, taking into account her multiple individual golds and one individual world record plus her contributions to a pair of utterly dominant freestyle relays, both of which set world records. Perhaps she is the best female swimmer in the world today.

O’Callaghan is the first swimmer ever to sweep the women’s 100 and 200 freestyle at a World Championships. She will join another heavily-favored Aussie relay squad Saturday, the mixed 400 free relay, with Chalmers, Shayna Jack and Flynn Southam the most likely candidates to team with O’Callaghan to target another world record. O’Callaghan will conclude her meet with the women’s 400 medley relay, a race where Australia was considered a big longshot behind the United States entering the week but not anymore, largely thanks to O’Callaghan’s ability to erase a deficit on the freestyle leg. So five gold medals are extremely likely, and a sixth is quite attainable.

O’Callaghan embodies the growth mindset that produces the best athletes, refusing to think too highly of herself and become too comfortable with her success. Just because a race or meet has gone well does not mean that she has made it, that it’s time to rest on laurels and expect the results to remain so encouraging.

“There’s so much I could do better, and with the assistance of Dean, I think I can grow so much more as an athlete and an individual,” O’Callaghan said, fully aware that she is finishing up the best single-meet performance of her career thus far. “There’s always the next best thing to do. Heading back into training, I’ll have the mindset that all the other girls will be chasing me now, and they’re all so close, so I’ve got to take the next step and move forward.”

It’s easy to forget given her freestyle mastery, but O’Callaghan is also among the world’s top-notch backstrokers. She swam 58.42 in the 100 back at Australian Trials, only two tenths slower than the bronze-medal time in Fukuoka, and given her improvement in other events from Trials, she could have potentially snagged a medal in that race as well. Alas, O’Callaghan dropped the 100 back from her program after her knee injury, robbing the world of a chance to see her versatility on a prime stage.

No matter; her freestyle efforts have been sufficiently convincing. While she debuted in Tokyo as a role player among golden stars, O’Callaghan will head into her second Olympic season well-established among them.

Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x