THREE-MINUTE BIOGRAPHY: How focus and commitment made Emma McKeon our most decorated Olympian

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Malcolm Quekett
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Emma McKeon’s 11 Olympic medals overall broke the previous Australian record of nine by Ian Thorpe and Leisel Jones.
Emma McKeon’s 11 Olympic medals overall broke the previous Australian record of nine by Ian Thorpe and Leisel Jones. Credit: Tim Goode/PA/Alamy

Call it calmness. Or focus. Or presence.

Whatever you call it, there is something about Emma McKeon.

And the image of her in Aussie swim team colours and a big smile, holding yet another medal, is engrained in the nation’s sporting memory banks.

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With 11 Olympic medals — including five gold — McKeon is the most decorated Australian Olympian ever.

And just quietly, she is also the green and gold’s most successful Commonwealth Games athlete. Her Commonwealth medal haul now stands at 20, including 14 gold.

Although there is plenty of outside noise around superstar athletes such as McKeon — she is in a relationship with pop star turned elite swimmer Cody Simpson — she has remained understated. Humble. Focused.

Emma McKeon competes in a Women's 100 meters Butterfly semifinal during the Commonwealth Games at the Sandwell Aquatics Centre in Birmingham, England, Friday, July 29, 2022.
Despite her record-breaking success in the pool, and a high-profile relationship outside it, Emma Mckeon has remained humble an focussed. Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

Anyone who has spent any time in a pool swimming up and back, up and back, up and back, knows that the mind can roam.

Champions like McKeon who spend day after day clocking up the kilometres clearly have the power to tune into the task. Or maybe just tune out.

Let’s face it, the rest of us will never understand what it is.

But we do know that such success demands a laser-focus on combining strength, aerobic capacity, determination and technique.

And there is a sense that the Wollongong kid was born for it.

Her family has notched a lot of laps in Australia’s swimming history.

Her father Ron McKeon swam at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics and won four Commonwealth Games gold medals.

Her uncle Rob Woodhouse swam at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, winning bronze in Los Angeles.

Her brother David McKeon swam at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Games, where he won silver.

Her mother Susie (nee Woodhouse) was a Commonwealth Games swimmer at Brisbane 1982.

Success for me in Paris would be to swim faster than I ever have before.

David Rieder in Swimming World magazine says McKeon’s childhood revolved around the pool and the beach, and her parents ran a Wollongong swimming school.

Ron McKeon coached Emma and her brother David in the early days, before the siblings moved to Queensland to continue training.

In 2012, at age 17, McKeon finished seventh in the Olympic trials 100m freestyle, one spot away from qualifying for her first Olympics in the 400m freestyle relay.

McKeon stopped swimming not long after the trials and during a time-out assessed what was needed to beat the best.

She dived back in in late 2012.

And so McKeon took her performance to the next level.

Her long-term coach Michael Bohl told the ABC: “She just gives everything her all.

“It’s very rare to see her put in a half-baked effort … if she’s having an off day, the effort will still be there and that’s probably the thing that sets her apart from most people.”

At the 2014 Commonwealth Games she claimed six medals in six events. And since then the medals and the accolades have kept flowing.

At the Rio Olympics she was Australia’s most successful swimmer, taking home one gold, two silvers and a bronze medal.

At Tokyo 2020, McKeon won four gold medals and three bronze.

The tally of seven was the most by any female swimmer at a single Olympic Games and the joint-most medals across any sport with Soviet gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya.

McKeon’s 11 Olympic medals overall broke the previous Australian record of nine by Ian Thorpe and Leisel Jones.

Young Australian Of The Year Emma McKeon accepts the award from Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during the 2024 Australian of the Year Awards at the National Arboretum in Canberra, Thursday, January 25, 2024.
In 2024, Emma McKeon was named Young Australian Of The Year. Credit: Mick Tsikas/AAPImage

In 2022, McKeon broke the record for the most Commonwealth Games medals ever with six gold, one silver, and one bronze medal, bringing that total medal count to 20.

That year she was made a Member of the Order of Australia.

She has completed a bachelor of public health at Griffith University and was Young Australian of the Year this year.

Now 29, she says July’s Paris Olympics will be her last.

She told Olympics.com: “Success for me in Paris would be to swim faster than I ever have before.

“I would see myself as someone who is, I suppose, calm and well balanced, and I think quite grounded.”

“And I hope to be someone that inspires other people to go after their goals and dreams.”

We should not be surprised if that bag of medals gets heavier.

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