Duel in the Pool: USA hold on to their crown but Australia are getting closer

In a famous scene in the cult TV show The Wire, after a failed attempt on his life, the character Omar Little warns: “You come at the king, you best not miss.” On Sunday Australia attempted to take the world swimming crown off the US during the final night of the Duel in the Pool. They missed, but only just.

The US has long reigned supreme in international swimming. The nation has finished atop the Olympic swimming medal tally at every Games since 1988 and is undefeated across two decades of the head-to-head match-ups, variously against Australia and Europe, in the Duel format.

In Tokyo the Australians came close – finishing just two gold medals back from the Americans on the medal tally. And, over the past three days, starting with an open-water relay at Bondi beach, followed by two nights at the Aquatics Centre at Sydney Olympic Park, the Australian Dolphins threw everything at their US counterparts.

Specialist ocean swimmers for the Bondi relay, an all-star lineup in the pool, smart tactics, mind games and more. They came for the king, and they came close – the closest Australia has come across four editions of the Duel in the Pool. But at the end of the night on Sunday, the US remained the dominant nation in international swimming, continuing an unbeaten sequence with a 26-point overall victory, 309-283.

“We thought we had the opportunity today, but they were too good at the end of the day,” said the Dolphins head coach, Rohan Taylor. “They know how to race and they probably do the strategy a little bit better. But we’re going to learn.”

Taylor suggested that after a 15-year absence from the calendar, Australia v US would be back with more regular frequency. “Back to the drawing board,” he said.

The Australians entered the third and final day of competition trailing the US by 13 points, after an 11-point deficit overnight was extended following a points recalculation. The Dolphins quickly ate into the American advantage, winning the opening event – a 6x50m freestyle relay involving three swimmers from each nation, with each swimmer was required to swim two non-consecutive legs.

The American lead see-sawed throughout the night, as both nations demonstrated their dominance in different disciplines. Twice Australia finished first and second in “skins” events – where a field of six was slimmed to four, and then two, over successive races.

In the women’s 50m freestyle, the Australian stars Shayna Jack and Madi Wilson won through to the last race – purposefully swimming a slow, recovery lap with maximum points for Australia already in the bag. “We were trying to tie,” Wilson laughed afterwards, having been beaten to the wall by Jack by less than a 10th of a second.

It was more of the same in the women’s 50m backstroke skins, with Kaylee McKeown and Mollie O’Callaghan sharing the plaudits in a one-two finish. The placings also foreshadowed what could become an intriguing intra-team rivalry in the years ahead, as the 18-year-old O’Callaghan, better known for her freestyle, continues to improve in the backstroke.

But despite these star turns, the Americans showed their breadth and depth to maintain a double-digit lead for much of the second half of the evening. Midway through the US won a thrilling men’s 4x100m freestyle relay, and claimed double points having deployed a power play. North Carolina’s Justin Ress won the 100m backstroke, while the US went one-two in the men’s 50m freestyle.

Even a late charge from the Australians was insufficient to reel in the Americans. The rising Australian para-swimming star Will Martin won a staggered 100m start race that saw the field compete across different classes and different strokes. McKeown then won the penultimate contest of the meet, a 200m mystery individual medley (with the swimmers given their own random stroke-order just before the race). The 21-year-old held on despite her stroke-order ending with breaststroke, the slowest stroke. But the format was enough to confuse her compatriot Mikayla Smith, who was disqualified after swimming in the wrong stroke-order.

The Australians won the last race of the night, a mixed freestyle relay where the US raced 2×200, with a head start, while the Australians raced 4×100. O’Callaghan caught the US prodigy Bella Sims in the final lap. The unusual format continued the weird, wacky and wonderful that defined this edition of the Duel.

The final night was a swansong for Ellie Cole, Australia’s most decorated female Paralympian, who hangs up her goggles having collected 17 medals (including six gold) across four Games. Cole made history as she competed in the first integrated relay in international swimming, with the 4x50m freestyle relay on Sunday including both non-disabled and para swimmers. Despite teaming up with Australia’s most-successful Olympian, Emma McKeon, plus Martin and Grayson Bell, the Dolphins were beaten by a fast-finishing American relay team.

“It was the perfect way to finish off a career,” Cole said. “To swim here, as my last swim as an Australian Dolphin, with a mixed able-bod, para relay, it is something I never dreamed would ever happen. Well, I always hoped it would, but never thought it actually would. To have Duel in the Pool in a format where we were able to showcase our para swimmers alongside our Olympic swimmers was really cool.”

Cole was given a standing ovation from the crowd as she was paraded around the pool deck on the shoulders of teammates. Sunday was also the final competitive swim meeting for the retiring para-swimmer Matt Levy, who has won three gold medals across five Paralympic Games for Australia.

The Duel in the Pool concludes a busy 2022 campaign for the Dolphins, after the team starred on the international stage at the world championships in Budapest and Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. A select few national team swimmers will back up at the Australian shortcourse championships in Sydney, from Wednesday, which serves as the qualification event for the shortcourse world championships to be held in Melbourne in December. Shortcourse events take place in a 25m pool, compared with the typical 50m pool.

For the rest of the team, a long overdue holiday beckons – indeed, some stars are already on European beaches, having opted out of the Duel. After a well-deserved break, focus will turn towards the road to the Paris 2024 Olympics. At the world championships next year, and again in Paris, the Australians will come at the king. For now, at least, the US remains the world’s best swimming nation. But how long until the Australians don’t miss?