“mecognac” word of the day. As Australian and American swimming stars gathered at Bondi Icebergs to watch the opening event of the three-day Pool duel – an open-water relay – the adjectives flowed freely. It was an “iconic” event, said one swimming executive, at Bondi’s “iconic” beach. “There is no more suitable location than Bondi,” offered state tourism minister Ben Franklin. “Iconic.”
Hyperbole is often associated with sport, but this was probably fair enough. Australia v the United States, the two heavyweight swimming nations, head-to-head. Not at the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Center (coming this weekend), but at Bondi beach – the spiritual home of Australia’s aquatic culture, the nation’s own swimming mecca. Not a duel in the pool but a battle from one end of Bondi Beach to the other and back, and then out and back again – “four under almost 800 meters,” said one event organizer, noting the difficulties of establishing a precise “course” in the middle of the ocean.
Pool swimming is a sport defined by millimeters and milliseconds. It is a sport of determination and fine-tuned preparations. As the sun rose over Bondi on Friday morning, there was none of that. The American and Australian teams presented details as they sat on the beach steps, and the crowd asked last-minute questions. It was clear that both nations were entering the unknown.
“It’s really cool to be racing here at Bondi,” Australia’s Kareena Lee, an open water bronze medalist at the Tokyo Olympics, said as she sprinted onto the sand. “a little different from what we’re used to!”
All four Australian swimmers – Lee, Chelsea Gubecka, Kyle Lee and Kai Edwards – are specialist open water swimmers, although they have more experience racing 10 or 20 kilometres, rather than 800m. The Americans went for a different approach, throwing their swimming trunks into the ocean. The Australians were used to the conditions – Edwards lives nearby and was training in Bondi – while the Americans were more suited to the distance. “I think it will be a level playing field,” Kareena said.
“Bondi is an iconic place,” said Kyle (the first of a double-digit count for the “i” word this morning). The quartet joked about sharks and mind games with the Americans; fortunately, no bright lights would be seen. The waves rolled in, with 50 or so surfers scattered across the beach, even though the relay course was just beyond the breakers. “We’d love more taps,” Kyle said. The bigger the waves, the more pool specialists would struggle.
At Icebergs, swimmers from both nations rubbed shoulders with the state government outfit and its tourism agency, which is underwriting the event. Pop star turned swimmer Cody Simpson took selfies with Australian swimming legend Grant Hackett and young fans in turn. “This is a great way to start the open water relay,” Simpson said. “This is probably one of the most iconic pool sites in Australia, if not the world.”
Hackett, who captained the Australian team this weekend, eyed the waves with a hint of desire. “I would love this,” said the now-retired three-time Olympic gold medalist. “A lot of people don’t know this, but I actually grew up surfing more than swimming in a pool. I wanted to be an iron man.”
Perched looking out over the picturesque ocean pool, the Americans gazed enviously at the swimming pool of the locals below. A few people came up to say hello, wrapped in flowing hugs and not sure what it meant.
“Australia has never beaten the United States at the Duel,” Swimming Australia boss Eugenie Buckley said. The competition was a regular feature of the swimming calendar in the 2000s, when Hackett and co faced off against the American superstars, but there hasn’t been a Duel in the Pool on home soil since 2007. After ten years in the (relative) doldrums a national team is Australian swimming – the Dolphins – are back, finishing neck and neck with the United States in the pool in Tokyo. This weekend, the Australians may claim their first head-to-head scalp.
But if the two nations’ swimmers were serious about this weekend’s meeting, it didn’t show on Friday morning. After a hectic international calendar, “fun” and “iconic” seemed to be the buzzwords of the day recently at the world championships in Budapest and then, for Australia, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
“This is the fun part of swimming,” said American Annie Lazor, world short-course breaststroke champion and Tokyo bronze medalist. “It’s arguably the best two swimming countries in the world going head-to-head, but it’s such a nice opportunity to have a much lighter competition – albeit a competition.” The weekend’s action in the pool includes a range of atypical events: “broken” relays, “random” medleys and, for the first time in an international swimming meeting, an “integrated” relay featuring both able-bodied and para-swimmers. .
Simpson chatted with his girlfriend, Australian swimming champion Emma McKeon, as the cameras lingered on the pair. One viewer offered: “I just came to see Cody Simpson.” The Dolphins’ coalition of Kaylee McKeown and Mack Horton looked on, while the American team – mini-flags in hand, voices ready to cheer – took the best spots on view.
Swimming pool events are usually managed to the minute, but no one seemed too fazed as the designated 9am start time ticked down. “Have they started yet?” someone asked at the end of five minutes, as the meeting looked intently at one spectator who remembered binoculars. Finally at 9.10am the race began, one swimmer from each nation setting off from a makeshift pontoon on the south side of Bondi. “Iconic” was omitted again – perhaps ironically this time.
Someone was ahead, although it was hard to tell which nation gained the early advantage – from such a long distance, with no discernible features. “Australia is always ahead,” offered one member of the Dolphins. Luckily another bystander had a phone number to call an officer who was supposed to be on the pontoon: “Are you on the pontoon? Are we ahead?”
It became clear that the Australians were not ahead. The USA had made a tactical gamble – opening the race with two male swimmers, and finishing with two women. The Australians had gone the other way: woman, woman, man, man. The Americans built a steady lead, but they would have to stop the fast-finishing Australians. At one point the gap between the nations almost led to a mid-water collision; a fresh American swimmer heading towards a finishing Australian, only for the two to slip past each other.
From the vantage point of the icebergs, Lazor surveyed the scene. “It’s amazing,” she said. Lazor recalled how she and her teammates joined the open water relay team on a scouting mission earlier in the week. “And we thought we’d jump in this iconic pool. I mean – it’s a bucket list item, right?” Asked if he could have had more laps after the race, Lazor demurred. “It was a little too cold for me the other day, and it’s a little cold this morning.”
As Australian anchor swimmer Kyle Lee started his 800m leg, he was 17 seconds behind. But he ate it up steadily. As Sydneysiders went about their day – surfers enjoying the morning waves, iceberg regulars doing their rounds, personal trainers working with clients in the background – the first Australian Dolphins v Team swim relay went USA at Bondi beach down to the wire.
“Let’s go Australia to the Aussies,” he cheered to the small crowd, as Lee headed home to narrowly win the relay. Half an hour later, after drying off and warming up, and joining the rest of the team as they discussed pastries at the icebergs, the open water swimming star summed up the event. “It was nice to do something different, in such an iconic place,” he said.