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Australia win 4x200m freestyle relay gold medal, smash world record

Australia’s golden girls have been rocked by a huge boilover in the 4x200m freestyle relay, with China smashing the world record to win gold in a tight finish over the USA.

After starting the race as overwhelming favourites, the Aussies were unable to live up to top billing, with Ariarne Titmus touching second after leading out, and Emma McKeon unable to better that position after diving in next.

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From that moment on it was always going to be a big task for the lesser lights of Madi Wilson and Leah Neale and they came up short, albeit in a time that bettered the previous world record, with China’s anchor swimmer Li Bingjie first to the wall in an astonishing time of 7:40.33.

A sluggish changeover between Wilson and Neale cost the Australian team desperately needed hundreths going into the final 200m and by the time Neale started stroking she had American megastar Katie Ledecky breathing down her neck.

In arguably her most impressive swim of the meet so far, Ledecky hauled the Americans from third into a photo finish for the gold but in the end the deficit to Li when she entered the water was too much to overcome. The USA stopped the clock at 7:40.73, with Australia half a second behind in 7:41.29.

After the race Titmus, who has been Australia’s shining star at this Games, struggled to comprehend what had just happened.

“It was really fast, I mean we were under our previous world record, so it was still a good swim from us,” she said.

“I mean I would have liked to have done a bit more for the team, I feel like I should have been better but it’s what you can do on the day and it’s been a big couple of days so I’m happy that we’ve come away on the podium.”

Reiterating that they had just swum a better time than had been swum in history prior to the scorching final, McKeon added “you can’t ask for much more than that”.

It was a scorching final that rocked the swimming world, with the world record line that paced the race lagging a bodylength behind both China and Australia for most of the race. That mark of 7.41.50, set by the team that represented Australia at the world championships in 2019, now looks a sluggish fourth fastest time in history.

“I am absolutely stunned by that,” Lizzie Simmonds said on Eurosport commentary.

“That was an extraordinary swim. I think everyone had Australians eyed up, could the Americans catch them?

“We were not even talking about the Chinese swimmers. What an unbelievable swim from China!”

While the race will be remembered for the incredible swims of China’s lead out swimmer Yang Juxuan, who swam a national record to give her team a lead that they’d never relinquish, and the remarkable swim of Ledecky to catapault the USA to silver, there will be questions to answer about Australia’s curious strategy.

For starters there was the selection of the team to swim in the final, which was a completely different line-up to the team that qualified fastest through the heats.

Out went Mollie O’Callaghan, Meg Harris, Brianna Throssell and Tamsin Cook and in came Australia’s final swimmers, with Neale in particular considered a questionable replacement.

In the post-mortem it was clear to see why, with O’Callaghan’s heat split faster than both Wilson and Neale’s splits in the final.

The other curious decision was to have Australia’s two fastest swimmers, Olympic heroes Titmus and McKeon, swim the first two legs. It was an all or nothing move that was likely designed to break their rivals by establishing a huge lead, yet with those bullets fired, the chamber was empty when they needed something special in the closing stages.

Both are just minor quibbles in thbe context of what these women have achieved so far in Tokyo, yet such is the power of elite sport to ground a champion, even one as all-powerful as theis relay team seemed.

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