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Emma McKeon has spent most of her life racing against the clock.
A four-time Olympic world record holder, the 27-year-old has spent her swimming career with one eye on the dial of a watch. “Looking at the time is what kind of drives me,” she tells DMARGE. “I want to get faster and faster.”
In many respects, the rest of the country also associates McKeon with time. When they watched her swim her way to four gold medals and three bronze at the Tokyo Olympics last year, a timer aired on the bottom televisions across the world as she gracefully glided past her competition.
“Swimming is all time. We look at time every single day at training,” she concedes.
McKeon has very much lived a life on the water. “Both my parents were swimmers on the Australia team, that’s actually how they met. They started a swim school before I was born,” she says.“
But really, I was just around the water, playing at the beach. As I got older I kept swimming because I loved the social side of it then kind of led into competition.”
Much like swimming, her relationship with the Olympics began at a young age. “When I was young I remember watching the Olympics and watching people do incredible things. I remember watching when they would win or finish a race, the emotion that was behind it. You could tell how much it meant to them and how much hard work was behind it,” she says.
“Even from a young age, I think that really stood out to me and made me really think I wanted to do something special like that.”
So a young McKeon put an Olympic games in her future sights, despite how far away it may have seemed at the time. “Back then it was more of a dream for me, but as I got older it became a goal.”
As she grew up, she began to compete more and more. At age 19, she moved to Queensland and began training with a different group of athletes. And that’s when her career as an athlete really began to take off.
“I love pushing myself and working hard as that is how I just kept going in the sport.”
While McKeon may make it look easy to the home viewers, becoming one of the world’s fastest swimmers was very much a rollercoaster ride.
Like every athlete, she’s had her ups and downs. And unlike other sports where a few centimetres or metres may go unnoticed, the stopwatch doesn’t afford such luxuries to a swimmer. “It’s quite a perfectionist sport. As an athlete we definitely are perfectionists – we want to get everything right.”
But unfortunately getting it right isn’t always an option. “I’ve definitely had years when I haven’t achieved what I wanted to and as disappointing as it is at the time, I think it’s actually been a blessing … you can’t always win and you can’t always just go straight to the top.”
As the old saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. “Focusing on my goals all the time and knowing what I want to do is what keeps me motivated every day,” she says. “Everything I do inside of training and everything I do outside of training is what’s going to get me there; it’s gotten me to where I am now because it’s allowed me to learn how to deal with failure.”
McKeon’s hard work paid off, particularly in Tokyo. She recalls the moment that she finished the 100m freestyle event as one of the greatest in her life. “For so long I had wanted to win an individual Olympic gold medal and then to actually pull it off is the thing I’m most proud of,” she says.
“Touching the wall, knowing I’d won and I’d broken an Olympic record while doing it – it still kind of gives me goosebumps, it still doesn’t really feel real.”
When she’s not in the water, McKeon maintains her relationship with time, opting for a staple timepiece on her wrist –
“Well, being a swimmer, I don’t really get the chance to wear a nice watch that often – but I love dressing up and going out for dinner and events like that so I’m really excited to wear an IWC watch,” she says.
“I love how it looks against my skin and I feel like it’s a really good size for my wrist.”
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