Australian swimmer Kaylee McKeown has a tattoo on her foot. It reads: “I’ll always be with you.” The 20-year-old had the ink added after her father, Sholto McKeown, lost his battle with brain cancer last August. True to the tattoo, at Tokyo 2020 McKeown’s father has been by her side.
“He was with me that entire race,” McKeown said after winning the women’s 100m backstroke gold medal on Tuesday. “It’s kind of a little superpower I have to myself.”
In a moving exchange at the press conference that followed her win, McKeown explained: “I know it’s stupid of me to say, but I can feel his presence – there’s certain things that have popped up on my phone that are something only he would say to me. There’ve been a few moments where I’ve been like ‘oh okay, that’s definitely my dad here by my side’.” The journalist who asked the preceding question, long-time swimming scribe Phil Lutton, replied: “It’s not stupid at all, by the way.”
McKeown is not the only one in Tokyo who thinks her father’s spiritual presence has guided her to gold medal glory. “Whose to say, whose to know – in that last 10m [on Tuesday], her Dad wasn’t there helping her get over the line?” asked her coach, Chris Mooney – visibly-affected by emotion. “It was a quick race. The Canadian girl was coming fast. It took something special in that last 10m. Who knows where that came from?”
On Friday, McKeown will return to the pool for the semi-final of the women’s 200m backstroke. She qualified comfortably on Thursday evening, touching the wall first in her heat and fastest overall, to earn lane four for the semi-final.
While the 100m final was a straight shootout – the Olympic record tumbled four times in the qualifying heats and semi-finals, with Canada’s Kylie Masse and American Regan Smith tough competition – McKeown is considered a firmer favourite in the 200m. The Australian holds four of the five fastest times in the world this year. She will have the chance to double her Olympic medal tally in the final on Saturday.
McKeown is also an outside prospect for a spot in the 4x100m mixed medley relay on Friday, and an almost-certain selection for the women’s 4x100m relay on Sunday. But whether she finishes the Olympic meet with one gold medal or three, the Queenslander – only just out of her teens – has a long and bright future ahead with the Dolphins. McKeown also endeared herself to the Australian public with her post-victory reaction, telling a journalist: “Fuck yeah!”
The swimmer’s emotion was readily understandable, given the journey she has been through. Sholto McKeown was diagnosed with a stage four brain tumour in 2018; he declined just as Covid hit. “It’s not necessary what I’ve been through – everyone has a journey of their own,” she said this week. “It just so happens that mine has been a really tough one.”
A tough journey, but not a journey McKeown was walking alone. Supported by her squad and coaches at the University of the Sunshine Coast Spartans swimming program, McKeown has managed the grief.
“It’s been a team effort,” said coach Mooney. “We’ve really surrounded ourselves with an amazing team of people. With that comes trust and when you’ve got trust, you can allow yourself to be a little bit vulnerable.”
Mooney was insistent that he never doubted McKeown would return for the road to Tokyo following the bereavement. “They’re a resilient family,” he said. “I think we throw that word around a little bit lightly sometimes, ‘resilience’, but she’s showed that in spades over the last couple of years. There was no doubt that she was going to be here [on Tuesday] and give it her best. And that’s what she did.”
At Australia’s swim trials last month in Adelaide, after McKeown broke the 100m backstroke world record, the swimmer talked about the motivation she had drawn from her father’s tragic passing.
“I guess with Covid and the passing of my dad in August last year, it has been a huge, huge build up to this trials,” she said. “I have turned it into a bit of a hunger and motivation behind me – every day that I wake up I know it is a privilege to be on this earth and walk and talk.”
In Tokyo, McKeown is doing more than walking and talking. She is winning gold in the pool – with her father by her side.