Is Australian Men’s Distance Freestyle Poised for Resurgence?

Sam Short and Elijah Winnington 800m
Sam Short (left) with Elijah Winnington -- Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

Is Australian Men’s Distance Freestyle Poised for Resurgence?

Not too long ago, Australia was a supreme powerhouse in men’s distance swimming. The tradition in the 1500 freestyle began in earnest when Murray Rose, John Konrads and Bob Windle won Olympic gold medals in the event back-to-back-to-back, and the heyday came in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Australia finished 1-2 in the event at three consecutive Games: Kieren Perkins and Glen Housman in 1992, Perkins and Daniel Kowalski in 1996 and then Grant Hackett and Perkins in 2000. Hackett, then 20, stopped Perkins’ pursuit of a third consecutive Olympic gold, a feat no male swimmer had ever accomplished (until Michael Phelps did so in 2012). Eight years later, after Hackett had earned a 2004 Olympic gold medal, four consecutive world titles and set a world record (14:34.56) that would go untouched for a decade, Tunisia’s Ous Mellouli held off Hackett’s own threepeat attempt at the Beijing Olympics.

After Beijing, Hackett retired. He attempted a comeback seven years later but never raced the 30-lap race in his second act. And since 2008, Australia’s success in distance has been minimal, with only one finalist in the 1500 over the past three Olympics combined. At the World Championships, Australia’s only successes in the 800 and 1500 free have been a pair of bronze medals from Mack Horton (800 free in 2015, 1500 free in 2017). Last year’s edition of Worlds saw the lone Australian in the field, Sam Short, place ninth in the 800 free and 14th in the 1500 free.

That trend stands in stark contrast to the 400 free, where a lull following the departures of Hackett and Ian Thorpe has ended in striking fashion. First, there was Horton’s gold at the 2016 Olympics, an upset win over China’s Sun Yang. And just last year, Elijah Winnington won the world title in the event with a dramatic last-lap comeback over Germany’s Lukas Martens, becoming the fifth-fastest man ever in the process. In between those two golden swims, both Horton and Jack McLoughlin won international medals in the event.

Heading into next week’s Australian Swimming Trials, the 400 free will feature three of the 10 fastest men ever in the race: Winnington, Horton and Short, who swam a time of 3:42.46, faster than Martens’ silver-medal time from Worlds, at the Australian Championships in April. That trio swept the medals at the Commonwealth Games last year, and Thomas Neill has also been under 3:45. It’s clear that whichever Aussies make the trip to Fukuoka for the World Championships will be definite medal contenders.

Meanwhile, the landscape in the 800 and 1500 free is far less bleak than in years past, and that’s largely thanks to Short, a 19-year-old from Queensland. Short became Commonwealth Games champion in the 1500 free last year in 14:48.54, making him the fifth-fastest Aussie man ever, and he went 7:42.96 in the 800 free in April, which puts him fourth in the world so far in 2023. The only other men to swim 7:42s are Russia’s Aleksandr Stepanov (who won’t be at Worlds) and the German duo of Martens and Florian Wellbrock. Winnington and Neill are also entered in the Trials with sub-7:50 times in the 800 free.

So far, Short is more adept in the 400 and 800 than the 1500 free, but let’s see if he can qualify for Worlds in multiple events and then how he performs in the various distances on the international stage. The past few years have seen a surge in speed in the two longest races with the likes of Wellbrock, Gregorio Paltrinieri, Mykhailo Romanchuk and Bobby Finke pushing the envelope. It took 7:40.05 to make the podium in the 800 free last year while all the 1500 medalists were under 14:37. Wellbrock and Ireland’s Dan Wiffen have both recorded 14:34s so far this year.

Of course, Short does have age on his side. He could be the only teenager to make the Worlds final in either race this year, and he has continued dropping time this year, even before his primary focus meets. Combined with Winnington, 23, and Neill, 21, Australia heads into Trials in its best position for the longer men’s freestyle events in years.

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11 months ago

Unless you designate 400free as clearly falling into the distance bracket; I’m not seeing anything in advance of what we have seen from others in recent years.

McLaughlin has retired and Mackenzie Horton’s good swims per year have been decreasing in both number and quality.

Winnington’s optimal event is 400 and is respectable but not stellar at 200 and I see Neill being similar in that regard.

It’s yet to become clear which is Short’s optimal event but at this point, he looks contender status at 400 and at least finals level at 800. On current evidence, he’s “fringe” final at best at 1500.

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