Little mermaid now the giant of swimming

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Emma McKeon was twice a fish out of water.

Aged 18, she pondered quitting after not making Australia's swim team for the 2012 London Olympics.

Aged 27, McKeon considered retiring after last year's Tokyo Olympics.

She had just won seven medals - four gold, three bronze in Tokyo. No female athlete has won more medals at a single Olympics.

And no Australian has won more Olympic medals than McKeon's career haul of five golds, two silver, four bronze.

But McKeon was uncertain whether she could commit to striving for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

After three months out of the water, she again took the plunge.

Now McKeon, by measure of gold medals, is the most successful athlete in Commonwealth Games history - 11 golds.

Australia's Ian Thorpe, Susie O'Neill and Leisel Jones are next-best with 10 golds each.

Not that such achievements resonate deeply with the introverted swimmer.

"I haven't done the maths," McKeon told reporters in Birmingham before creating the fresh high-water mark.

"I don't read the news that you guys write.

"I'm not looking at medal tallies ... I'm not setting out to break any of that. Just do my best and see what I'm capable of."

Her capabilities in the water surfaced early.

The Wollongong-born McKeon is the daughter of elite swimmers who competed for Australia.

They also owned a swimming school.

So McKeon's childhood was largely spent in the pool with her father dubbing her 'little mermaid'.

Her father Ron is a dual Olympian who also won four Commonwealth gold medals.

Her mother Susie, nee Woodhouse, swam at the '82 Commonwealth Games, where she and Ron fell in love.

McKeon's Uncle Rob - Rob Woodhouse - is a two-time Olympian and three-time Commonwealth Games silver medallist.

And her brother David is a dual Olympian who also won two gold and a silver medal at Commonwealth Games.

Emma and David's love of the water flowed from playing as their parents worked at their swimming school.

"Me, my brother and sister would always just be playing in the pool while they were working," McKeon has said.

But as she got older, the fun of swimming morphed into seriousness for McKeon. And things overflowed when missing selection for the 2012 Olympics.

"As I got a bit older I started to put a bit too much pressure on myself and lost my enjoyment for it pretty quickly," she said.

She contemplated quitting the sport. But didn't.

And the following year, 2013, McKeon won three silver medals at the world titles - all in relays.

In 2014, McKeon decided to leave her close-knit family in Wollongong to join esteemed coach Michael Bohl's program in Queensland.

That same year, she won her first gold at an international meet - the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, where she also collected three other golds in relays.

In 2016, McKeon departed the Rio Olympics as Australia's most successful athlete with one gold, two silver and a bronze.

All but the bronze were in relays. The theme was: brilliant relay swimmer, undoubtedly good but not yet great individual swimmer.

In fact, after the 2019 world championships, McKeon had a collection of 17 medals from the worlds. But only two silvers and a bronze weren't in relays.

The lack of individual gold wasn't a burden, but a bugbear.

"I never started to wonder or lose belief of anything like that," McKeon said.

The theme was also evidenced at Commonwealth Games.

In 2014 in Glasgow, McKeon claimed four gold and two bronze. Only one gold and the bronze pair were individual events.

In 2018, she also won four gold and two bronze. Yet again, only one gold and the pair of bronze were from individual swims.

Then, aged 27, came her breakout meet at last year's Tokyo Olympics. Much of it stemmed from Bohl changing her training program.

"She is a very light athlete," Bohl said of McKeon, who weighs 67 kilograms dripping wet.

"But the power to weight ratio is pretty good."

More strength work in the gym; less swimming and focus on a technique that was already near perfect.

"She has got very clean technique," Australia's head swimming coach Rohan Taylor said.

"When you watch her swim, great swimmers move themselves through the water very efficiently."

The little mermaid had become a swimming giant.

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