Mollie O’Callaghan had been training at a small club called Waterworx in Springfield, on the outskirts of Brisbane with coach Paul Stansby. As an age group swimmer, she had shown tremendous potential in backstroke. At age 15 in early 2019, she made the move to St. Peters Western just up the road in Brisbane, where coach Dean Boxall took the young teenager into his high-performance group that was quickly becoming one of the best in the world.

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O’Callaghan was going from a club team filled with peers similar in age to sharing lanes with established stars Ariarne Titmus and Mitch Larkin.

“It was different training styles and it was a switch of doing more high-intensity training and different sets more structured to you,” O’Callaghan told FINA.

“I think it was hard for the initial transition but it’s something you have to adapt to over time because there was stuff that I never did before like gym and bike, and the structure of the sessions was a lot different than what I was doing at my previous club.

“I struggled with that, and I’m not going to lie, the first few months I did hate it because I had to move schools and clubs. I just wasn’t enjoying it because it was difficult and I was quite young and the other guys were older so I found it a little bit hard to settle down in the group.”

Towards the end of 2019 however, she started to already see her move pay off when she finished fourth three times in individual events at the 7th FINA World Junior Swimming Championships Budapest 2019 in the 100m freestyle, and the 50m and 100m backstroke.

Although her first international meet for the Australian was “scary,” it lit a fire that one day she could represent the green and gold on the senior stage, and for O’Callaghan, that opportunity came quicker than expected.

Opportunity Knocks

In 2021, O’Callaghan took advantage of the extra year of preparation to make the Olympic team at age 17, where she swam on all three of Australia’s women’s relays in the heats, winning two golds and a bronze.

Although she didn’t race under the bright lights of the Olympic final, being a part of the Games left her wanting more. She stood in the stands and watched some of her idols like Emma McKeon, Kaylee McKeown, and Cate and Bronte Campbell secure relay gold medals. There was disappointment that she couldn’t stand there on the podium with them, but it left her with the determination to be a part of it in 2022.

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And in 2022, she really took off.

After qualifying for four individual events at the World Trials in Adelaide, O’Callaghan entered the 19th FINA World Championships as the gold medal favourite for the 100m freestyle. And with Olympic gold medalists Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell electing to sit out the FINA World Championships after an exhausting extended Olympic preparation to Tokyo 2020, that left O’Callaghan as the star for Australia’s sprint free relays.

In 2021, she had no pressure swimming on the relays in the heats. In 2022, she was all of a suddenly asked to be on four finals relays, starting off with the all-important 4x100m freestyle.

And the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay in Australia is a big deal to the country - the Dolphins have won four of the last five Olympic gold medals in that event, and five of the last nine World titles. Coming into this year, four different Australian women had won the 100m freestyle world title since 2005, and three of them have held the world record.

In 2022, Australia had five of the ten fastest women in the world in the 100m freestyle.

The 100m freestyle is such a big deal in the lexicon of Swimming Australia that some athletes like Madison Wilson, who was a World Championship medallist in the 100m backstroke, switched event specialities to be a part of the relay.

“In 2016 I was racing backstroke and I kind of got thrown into the 4x1 (at the Rio Olympics) as a bit of a surprise,” Wilson told FINA. “It’s not something I had planned on doing or I even trailed for and I had a taste of the relay, and I never looked back. I knew that was what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be.”

"I had a taste of the relay, and I never looked back."
By Madison Wilson

In Budapest, O’Callaghan delivered for the relay, leading off in 52.70, not far off her Trials time of 52.49, as she was joined by Wilson, Meg Harris and Shayna Jack at the top of the podium - a statement swim from a group missing two Olympic medalists from the year previous.

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“I’ve never experienced going straight into a final because (the Olympics) was my first international so I was very very nervous for it,” O’Callaghan said. “But starting off having a relay swim was amazing because it’s the group environment. Being in the marshaling (room) and having the girls around me is a very positive and exciting environment, because no matter what you do, the girls are always going to support you.”

O’Callaghan followed with individual gold in the 100m freestyle, the fifth Australian to do so, the most in the last two decades. She also picked up individual silver in the 200m freestyle and three more medals in relays for a grand total of six in her World Championships debut.

“Mollie is a really special kid,”

Madison Wilson said of her St. Peters Western teammate. “She has a mind unlike something I’ve seen before. She is absolutely unbelievably talented and hard working.”

A Star is Born

After the FINA World Championships, a debut at the Commonwealth Games in England followed for O’Callaghan, who won another gold in the 100m freestyle, this time taking down reigning Olympic champ McKeon.

In the 200m freestyle, she pushed another Olympic champion, Ariarne Titmus, for all she was worth to the very end - Titmus won gold in 1:53.89 with O’Callaghan at 1:54.01 for silver, both faster than the winning time at the World Championships.

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“I think doing Worlds first made me more comfortable to do Commonwealth Games,” O’Callaghan said. “Worlds, I kind of freaked out a little. I would say I had some amazing races and some not so good - it was kind of a mixture but I think it was nice to start off and learn and get used to it and it was just such….even at Trials I felt it straight away because Emma and Cate not being there, it made me feel a bit scared because I had to live up to the girls’ legacy a bit to help Australia in the 100 freestyle.”

The pressure was there, having taken on a big event load at both Worlds and Commonwealth Games, but she performed well under the lights, even when she might have thought she couldn’t.

“I’d say my nerves were a lot better at Commonwealth Games,” O’Callaghan said. “I think I had a lot more control over them and I learned from Worlds. I got a bit sick after Worlds but I stepped back into my normal training and I felt more comfortable in training and I guess I have to trust myself a little bit more and learn from the other girls. I would say for the majority of my races I felt a lot more comfortable. I am always going to have nerves but I felt a lot more comfortable racing (at the Commonwealth Games).”

Now that she has proved herself on the international level twice in one year, all of a sudden O’Callaghan is the next face for the Australian women’s team in the lead-up to the 2023 World Championships and the 2024 Paris Olympics. For sprint freestyle specifically, O’Callaghan adds to the list of names like McKeon, Campbell, Libby Lenton, Jodie Henry, and even further back to the likes of Dawn Fraser as 100m freestyle champions for the nation.

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In 2019, she was ranked just 78th in the world in the 100m freestyle at age 15. In 2021, she was fifth, and in 2022, she was first. The history is not lost on her, especially when being on a relay with the reigning Olympic champion McKeon.

“It’s quite epic, to be honest,” O’Callaghan said of being on the 4x100m freestyle relay team for the Australians. “It’s crazy to think I get to race alongside such amazing athletes and they are very inspirational and I think watching and learning from them has made it so much easier for me to transition into swimming in the open category compared to the age.

“They are such amazing people and so humble and it is just great to be surrounded by them and inspiring to watch them achieve so much. I don’t really know what to say because it’s such a cool thing to be like, ‘oh my God, we have a team of Emma McKeon and Shayna Jack and Meg (Harris), Madi (Wilson),’ I could name all these names and they have achieved so much and it’s pretty cool to say you have swam alongside them and you are friends with them.”

The success of the Australian 100m freestylers has helped O’Callaghan rise up the ranks and has helped the relays succeed.

“I just think it’s the depth and it’s always going to cause someone to come up,” O’Callaghan said. “It’s the support from all the girls and they inspire you a lot to continue to strive forward to be like them. I think that is why we have produced such amazing freestylers. I guess a lot of them have been amazing across all different events but women’s freestyle is just incredible and I feel like there will always be someone there to guide you.”

Melbourne Calls

Up next O’Callaghan is the 16th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) in Melbourne, where she will shift her focus to the 50m and 100m backstroke, but will surely be used for the freestyle relays as well. It’ll be her first major international meet in Australia.

O’Callaghan took a lengthy break after the Duel in the Pool in August, as she had surgery on her nose to repair a deviated septum, and recuperated from some bouts of illness.

Her preparation for Melbourne didn’t start until late September but she will be one of the fan favourites amongst the Australian crowd coming to see their Dolphins in a major international meet for the first time since the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

“I think it’s extremely exciting especially because it is close to where we all live, and it is something different,”

O’Callaghan said: “We are so used to travelling to other countries to compete internationally and this time it gets to be in front of a home crowd which is really exciting.

"Typically for Trials, and swimming doesn’t get a lot of hype, but in Australia, we are hoping the crowds will be amazing - something similar to Duel in the Pool. That is what we are hoping for because that would be really special for us.”