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The family tragedy driving Australian swimming star’s bid for Games glory

McKeown is exactly the kind of character you would expect to inhabit the youthful ranks of the Australian swimming team. She’s bright, effervescent, absurdly fit and impossibly motivated. Along with the likes of world champion Ariarne Titmus, she’s at the vanguard of a new wave of athletes that could herald another golden era for our most bountiful Olympic sport.

She swam at the 2017 world championships when she was only 15, missing a podium finish by just one place in the 200-metre backstroke. After gold in the Youth Olympics in 2018, she claimed silver in the 200m at the dramatic world championship meet in South Korea in 2019, a swim that announced her arrival on the world stage in no uncertain terms.

Rising swimming star Kaylee McKeown has been in remarkable form in recent months as she eyes multiple medals at the Tokyo Olympics.

Rising swimming star Kaylee McKeown has been in remarkable form in recent months as she eyes multiple medals at the Tokyo Olympics.Credit:Delly Carr/Swimming Australia

All the while, McKeown was enduring the most profound heartache as Sholto underwent round after round of treatment to try and beat the grade-four glioblastoma that was first diagnosed in June of 2018. Her close-knit family, mum Sharon and sister Taylor, a 2016 Olympian and Commonwealth breaststroke champion, showered him with love and compassion until he could fight the good fight no longer. He was 53.

“Honestly, I think COVID was a blessing in disguise for my family,” McKeown says. “My dad was quite ill, in and out of hospital, and on August 13 he passed away. So that was really hard, but we knew it was coming. It was a hard pill to swallow, but it’s made me realise how much life is worth living.

“I just take every day as it comes and I honestly think that’s the main reason I’m swimming as well as I am. There’s no point in wasting the opportunities that you have in life.”

McKeown has refrained from speaking publicly about her loss, but as her star rises, the interest in her backstory will only grow. In any case, she is now ready to publicly honour Sholto’s memory. Her eyes well with tears the moment she begins to talk, but she speaks of her dad with fierce, stoic pride. Those traits run in the family: “Brave, strong and determined.”

Sholto had desperately wanted to see his daughters race together at the Tokyo Games in 2020. The thought of that ultimate proud dad moment was something that spurred him onwards during his illness. Then came COVID-19 and the postponement of the Games. Sholto passed away just days after the date of the scheduled closing ceremony.

What is clear is that if McKeown soars at her maiden Games in July, it will be on the shoulders of her Dad, who remains her greatest and enduring inspiration. There are hurdles yet to be cleared – the fate of the Games among them – but it is a promise she intends to fulfil.

Rising swimming star Kaylee McKeown trains on the Gold Coast.

Rising swimming star Kaylee McKeown trains on the Gold Coast.Credit:Delly Carr / Swimming Australia

“My dad always said he would love to have seen us swim at the 2020 Olympics together,” McKeown says. “It’s amazing, we would have been able to race at the Olympics if it had gone ahead, then come home and be able to see him. He timed it perfectly … he had the run of his life to have potentially seen us race at the Olympics [before they were postponed].

“That’s my biggest goal, to tick that box off for him. He always wanted to see that and you never know what they are doing up above; whether or not he can see that. It’s always in the back of my mind. That’s something he wanted to see us achieve.”

While most of the swimming world stood still last year, McKeown was busy on the Sunshine Coast taking the kind of giant strides that have rocketed her into the top echelons of the sport. With long-time coach and mentor Chris Mooney in her corner, she attacked her training with renewed vigour and drive.

It worked. Big time.

In November, she swam a 1:58.94 shortcourse 200m backstroke, beating the world record previously held by the “Iron Lady” of swimming, Hungarian great Katinka Hosszu. In a two-month blitz, McKeown also clocked the third fastest 200m longcourse backstroke in history (2:04.49), then went on to become only the second woman to dip below 58 seconds for 100m.

“I’m choking up just thinking about it. It’s been a tragedy, but she’s had some amazing support from family and team members.”

Kaylee McKeown’s coach and mentor Chris Mooney

Throw in some eye-popping individual medley times and it’s been enough to have McKeown ranked as the third best female swimmer in the world by American aquatics bible SwimSwam.

McKeown was already well on her way before events out of the pool demanded her attention. When she felt ready to return to the water – which has always been somewhat of a sanctuary – it was with a razor-sharp focus and supercharged determination.

“We were able to start training around June [2020],” she says. “We had a bit of swimming and Dad got worse, so I went and focused on my family. After the initial grieving I just wanted to get back to it and do the best I can.

“That’s when I really started to knuckle down and get back swimming and in the gym and get my nutrition right. It just made me want to keep chasing it.”

Mooney has a long association with the McKeown family and always had confidence Kaylee, who was such an accelerated talent that she was often the youngest swimmer in an older squad, had the mindset of a champion. Even armed with that knowledge, how she has dealt with the sorrow of Sholto’s passing and channelled her energy into performance has left him almost speechless.

“I definitely believe that she’s focused,” Mooney says. “She’s not just doing this because this is what we do … she’s doing this for a couple of reasons. There’s no doubt about what’s driving her now.

“This is real life. I’m choking up just thinking about it. It’s been a tragedy, but she’s had some amazing support from family and team members. She’s a pretty resilient kid … it’s a hard one to answer.


“Just to go through all of those emotions would have been really challenging for her … it still is … and we respect how tough it has been and how tough it will be in the future. But her resilience around that event was just unbelievable.

“You grow up really fast when you go through something like that. She’s very special.”

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