For 21-year-old Elijah Winnington, the Tokyo Olympics will be unlike anything he has experienced before, literally.
Winnington is no stranger to competing at big events, having won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in the 4x200m freestyle relay.
But this year’s Olympics will be a special moment for him.
Not only will Tokyo be his first Olympic Games, but it will be the first time in his career that Winnington has entered a senior international swimming competition.
Sure, he competed at the World Junior Championships and cemented himself on the Australian scene, but it represents a leap of a whole different kind.
When Winnington treads the blocks for the 400m freestyle for the first time this week, he will be the overwhelming favorite.
His time of 3: 42.65 at Australian trials makes him the fastest in the world this year. All eyes, including those of his competitors, will be on him.
Due to COVID-19, Winnington did not have the opportunity to compete against its fiercest rivals abroad before the Games.
It would be an intimidating feeling to enter your first Olympics without that international experience behind you, not to mention the pressure of being the number one ranked swimmer in your discipline.
But it’s a testament to the maturity on Winnington’s shoulders that he already feels ready for the event of his life.
“I have never raced against the people I meet unless I raced them as a junior,” Winnington told the media before heading to Tokyo.
âI really don’t have any expectations because I don’t know how they run, and they don’t know how I run. I’m just going to do my best.
“I can only really focus on the effort I put in in training and the race plan I can run on the same day. Whatever others are doing or whatever the experience, I have to just shrink it and shrink it until I do what I can control. “
You might be wondering what difference does it actually make? The pool is the same, its event is the same, nothing really changes.
However, Winnington’s only preparation to take on some of his rivals in Tokyo will be to watch them on TV.
As a result, it might be easy to try to convince him that “It’s just another race”.
But for Winnington, he feels he thrives under pressure and hopes the Olympics will take him to the next level.
âAs a swimmer, and in most sports, the Olympics is the pinnacle, isn’t it? It’s the top you can reach,â Winnington said.
“So it’s pretty hard to sit down and say ‘I’m going to treat it like another meeting.’
âBut at the end of the day, I like to think I can perform under pressure and I perform well on my nerves.
“So if that makes me a little more nervous or if I have a little more pressure on my back, I don’t see that as a bad thing. I like using it.”
The Australian swim team for Tokyo 2020 will include 21 athletes who will make their Olympic debuts.
Among those are other favorites for the gold medal, Ariarne Titmus and Kaylee McKeown.
It can be a difficult task for those around these potential Olympic champions to balance expectations while setting them up or preparing for one of the biggest events of their lives.
For Australian swim team head coach Rohan Taylor, he believes the key is not to overwhelm his athletes and to make sure they feel they have a relaxed environment to return to the village of athletes every day.
âI think the most important thing is not to introduce anything new to us and to create an environment where they feel comfortable and can do whatever they need to do,â Taylor said.
“As coaches and team members, we just work to allow them to rest, have a good meal, go to work out, give them the space they need and let them socialize. .
âWhat we’re seeing in the bubble now is that they love being together. It’s a very compatible bunch of athletes and that in itself keeps them nice and relaxed, but they’re also super competitive and they really want to. perform well. “
Taylor admits the lack of international competition due to COVID-19 over the past year and a half could be one of the major issues for his team heading into the Games.
Along with increased biosecurity measures in Tokyo, he hopes the processes they put in place ahead of the Olympics, especially at their training camp in Cairns, will limit any risk of athlete distraction along the way.
This included introducing regular COVID testing throughout their camp to familiarize their team with the routine.
âI think the most important thing for our group and every athlete who competes in these competitions is that the last 15 months have been a complete distraction,â said Taylor.
âThey went through it extremely well. They just need to maintain and continue with that skill set.
“Probably one of the things we didn’t have access to [in the last year] was it an international competition or at least part of it.
“We’ve done everything we can at the national level and I think the two challenges for this team are to get into the international arena and be made up and perform when it counts.”
HOW MACK HORTON HELPS WINNINGTON TRACK IN HIS FOOTSTEPS
As Taylor said, it’s pretty clear that the Australian swim team is a pretty tight-knit group.
They love spending time together and are always more than willing to exchange ideas and advice on each other.
This is something Winnington has found with some of the more senior members of the group, especially Mack Horton.
Horton is the reigning Olympic gold medalist in the 400m freestyle, but failed to qualify for Tokyo after placing third at the Australian swimming trials in June.
His time was actually the third fastest in the world this year, but he was edged out by Winnington and Jack McLoughlin who recorded the two fastest times.
While it came as a shock to many that Horton failed to qualify for an individual, that didn’t stop him from imparting some wisdom to the man who could take his place on the podium.
After the trials, Winnington admitted that Horton was one of his heroes in the sport.
And Winnington already recognizes how valuable Horton’s advice has been along with other seasoned Olympians like Cate Campbell, Emily Seebohm and Cam McEvoy.
âIt’s amazing, Mack has been there and done it. Five years ago he was an Olympic champion, and it’s so precious to have someone like that standing by my side in the pool. ‘training, you know, giving me advice or even just a casual chat here or there, âWinnington said.
“Even if it’s not directly about the way he approached things because everyone is different, but even just seeing his attitude towards the way he’s preparingâ¦ now I can sort of see how he approaches the Olympics. “
âIt’s not even just Mack, we have Cate and Emily who are four times Olympians, I’m staying with Cam McEvoy, it’s her third Olympics. I’m training with Mitch (Larkin), it’s her third Olympics I’m surrounded by veterans who haven’t just done it once or twice, you know they’ve been there over and over again.
âIt’s really people like that that I try to stay around, just to make sure I can approach it in the best possible way.
“Each of them says every Olympics is different, and I have no doubt this one will be the same.”
Winnington will be among the first group of Australian swimmers in action with the men’s 400m freestyle playoffs taking place on Saturday, July 24 from 8:48 p.m. AEST.
He will also participate in the men’s 200m freestyle which will start the next day.