China shocked everyone by setting a new world record, Katie Ledecky led America to silver and Australia finished third in the women’s 4x200m freestyle relay as questions were immediately raised about team selection and swimming order for the girls in green and gold.
The Chinese performed out of their skin and celebrated an emotional win that left some members of the team in tears on the pool deck.
Australia used four new swimmers for the final, completely revamping the team that performed in the heats. None of Ariarne Titmus, Emma McKeon, Madi Wilson or Leah Neale competed in qualifying, instead kept on ice for the main event.
Titmus has won gold medals in the 400m and 200m already in Tokyo, but was beaten to the wall by Xang Junxuan in the lead-off leg as she delivered a split of 1.54:51. Emma McKeon (1.55:31) was next, followed by Wilson (1.55:62) and Neale (1.55:85).
Titmus told Channel 7 after the race: “We were under our previous world record, so it was still a good swim from us.
“I would have liked to have done a bit more for the team. I feel like I should have been better.
“It’s been a big couple of days, so I’m happy with a podium.”
McKeon elaborated: “We’re under our world record time from 2019 … You can’t really ask for more than that.
“To get on the Olympic podium is very special.”
There was plenty of criticism about the decision to put our two fastest swimmers first.
Journalist Julian Abbott tweeted: “Surely it should have been Titmus last. The US would have always run Ledecky last.”
Reporter Jonathon Gul wrote: “Awful decision. Awful. Think back to what Thorpe did in the 4x100m relay in Sydney. There’s a reason why the champions swim last.”
The race was Neale’s only swim for the Olympics. She was left out of the heats but had to be chosen for this event. If you’re selected specifically for a relay, as Neale was, Olympic rules dictate you must swim otherwise your team is disqualified.
Seventeen-year-old Mollie O’Callaghan missed out on selection despite arguably being Australia’s form 200m swimmer alongside Titmus. The teenager’s split in the heats was faster than each of McKeon, Wilson and Neale in the final, sparking an angry backlash. People questioned whether the Aussies were trying to get eight swimmers a medal, knowing everyone who competes in the heats also receives some bling if their replacements finish the final on the podium.
Swimming writer Emma Greenwood said the team overhaul – which left Neale without a chance to find her rhythm in qualifying – showed Australia was far too cocky.