Australia keep pace with United States amid wacky races at Duel in the Pool

Over the years, the Aquatics Centre at Sydney Olympic Park has played host to some of the most iconic moments in Australian swimming history. Think Ian Thorpe breaking the world record to win gold in the men’s 400m freestyle at the 2000 Olympics, Grant Hackett overcoming Kieren Perkins in the 1500m a week later or Stephanie Rice breaking two medley world records at the Olympic trials to foreshadow her dominance before a golden 2008 Games. These feats and more are immortalised in a hall of fame as fans walk through the venue’s entrance.

Day two of the 2022 Duel in the Pool between Australia and the United States, the first night in the pool after Friday’s open-water relay at Bondi Beach, was never going to match that illustrious past. After a punishing 12 months for Australia – the Tokyo Olympics (this time last year the Dolphins were barely out of hotel quarantine), the world championships in Budapest in June and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham – expectations were modest. But it took only a few minutes on Saturday night for a parochial crowd to raise the roof and reaffirm the nation’s love for live swimming.

Duel in the Pool may be a gimmicky, made-for-television product, full of delightfully strange rules, a world away from the staid seriousness of a major international titles. Yet as Australia trailed the Americans with two legs remaining in the opening race of the evening – the mixed 4x100m medley relay – the roar from the crowd said it all.

A 3,500-odd crowd willed Olympic superstar Emma McKeon and 18-year-old freestyle sensation Mollie O’Callaghan home for Australia to claim a first victory of the night. There are no gold medals on offer this weekend but the Dolphins mean business all the same. “The energy and the environment is just outstanding,” O’Callaghan said.

The passion might have been infectious but the complex rules perplexed many observers. The second race of the night, the women’s broken 400m freestyle, saw six swimmers (three from each nation) race a 200m leg, followed by a short break, then a 100m leg, another break and a final 100m sprint. Points were awarded for the winner of each leg plus the overall winner based on cumulative time. The Americans won – although many in the crowd did not realise. “I think we might need a PhD to understand this,” offered one observer.

The women’s 3x50m butterfly “skins” event was another atypical format. A field of six competitors was slimmed to four after the first race, and then again to two after the second (with a minute or so between each). McKeon looked unusually slow in the final, up against American Beata Nelson. But it had all been a ruse – Australia played its “double dip”, meaning the pair had to swim one final 50m lap to decide the race, which McKeon won comfortably. Two events later the Americans got their revenge, deploying the same tactic to similar effect as Kaitlyn Dobler won the “double dip” fourth leg of the 3x50m breaststroke.

After winning the women’s 50m freestyle midway through the night, Australian Meg Harris summed up her experience of the multi-format meet. “You don’t know what’s happening,” she said. She wasn’t the only one. “They explained [the rules] multiple times to me,” offered O’Callaghan. “I just sit there and it goes in one ear and out.”

These weren’t criticisms – swimmers and fans alike took a shine to the unusual rules and unlikely match-ups. As if to underscore the point that this was a swimming event like no other, the Dolphins head coach Rohan Taylor strutted the pool deck with a wireless microphone, chiming into the live television coverage. Big Bash cricket eat your heart out.

Yet another odd event was the men’s mystery 200m individual medley. Each swimmer was only told the stroke order just before the race, and each had their own, random order. Australia’s Se-Bom Lee built an early lead but was always going to be vulnerable with breaststroke as his last leg. He battled valiantly but was mowed down by American Trenton Julian, swimming butterfly, in the final metres.

Australia hit back in the very next event – the women’s 100m backstroke – with the Dolphins throwing down their “flag” for a “frenzy” round midway through the race (the winning team earns double points). It was a safe bet, with Olympic and Commonwealth Games champion Kaylee McKeown an unstoppable force. A late charge by compatriot O’Callaghan, finishing second, added to Australia’s points haul.

The night concluded with a random, mixed 4x50m freestyle relay – with the teams spinning pre-race to determine the format. The spin landed on medley and an exhilarating evening of racing ended much as it began. McKeon and O’Callaghan, the golden girl of the Australian swim team and her successor, leading Australia in yet another relay. It was not to be – McKeon, Australia’s anchor swimmer, unable to reel in Linnea Mack in a dash to the wall. It had been an unlucky spin; Australia would have won comfortably in a freestyle relay. But such is the way of this weird, wacky and wonderful event.

The United States has never lost a Duel in the Pool across the event’s seven prior editions (the first three against Australia, followed by four against a composite European team). But as the Duel returns for the first time since 2015 – the first on Australian soil since 2007 – the Americans’ undefeated run is on the line. The Dolphins were just two gold medals shy of the United States in Tokyo, a resurgent effort after a fallow decade in the pool.

At the end of the penultimate night, the Americans hold a narrow lead on the scoreboard, 159 points to 148. It would be a heroic achievement if the Dolphins can finally knock the Americans off their perch and, with such a slender deficit, it remains all to swim for between the two heavyweight nations.

“If you look at the history, the Duels have normally been a blow-out,” said Taylor. “But we’re hanging in there.” If the Dolphins can triumph on Sunday, they might even find themselves added to that illustrious hall of fame.