Silver linings as Jack McLoughlin swaps retirement for Olympic podium

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<span>Photograph: Matthias Schräder/AP</span>
Photograph: Matthias Schräder/AP

Jack McLoughlin does not have good eyesight. “I normally wear glasses,” he explained on Sunday when asked if he could see his rivals in the pool. “To be honest, I couldn’t really see all the way over. I could see some splashes.” McLoughlin may be short-sighted, but he has shown 20/20 foresight to stick with swimming.

“Last year I was pretty close to quitting,” McLoughlin recently admitted. After making his Olympic debut at Rio 2016, the 26-year-old from Queensland thought he would be at his best for the Tokyo Games. “I thought 2020 was when I was going to be at my career peak,” he said. When the Olympics were postponed last March due to the pandemic, McLoughlin almost walked away. “Last year I was really struggling,” he said.

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With uncertainty swirling around the Games, and with McLoughlin close to finishing his civil engineering degree at the Queensland University of Technology, the freestyler contemplated his options. “It’s pretty hard not knowing if something is going to be on or not,” he added. “I train up to 10 or 11 times a week – so to do that, while not 100% sure if you’re going to get to where you want to be, it’s pretty hard.”

Ultimately, at the encouragement of his friends and family, McLoughlin stuck it out. That decision paid dividends on Sunday when he won silver in the 400m freestyle on the opening day of swimming finals. With the 800m and 1,500m distances still to come, he could yet go from the edge of retirement to an Olympic champion.

Following a day off on Monday, McLoughlin returns to the pool on Tuesday night for the 800m heats. The Australian has the second fastest 800m time in the world this year, 7:42.51, behind only the Italian Gregorio Paltrinieri, who swam sixth tenths of a second faster in April.

“I’ve come from the 1500m down to the 400m,” McLoughlin said, “800m I feel like is one of my better events – it’s kind of smack-bang in the middle of 400m and 1500m. So I’m really looking forward to it.”

The men’s 800m freestyle event is making its return to the Olympic calendar in Tokyo, more than a century since it was last raced at this level (at the time, in the 1904 Olympics, it was the 880-yard race). “It’s going to be a really tight race with all the boys,” McLoughlin said. “[The 800m has] come a long way in a couple of years – everyone’s starting to learn how to swim it now.”

The middle distance means the race is accessible for a range of swimmers; there will be five heats on Tuesday night. “You’re going to have the 400m guys come up and the 1,500m come down. I just think it’s going to be fantastic to watch.” The fastest eight across the heats will progress to the final on Thursday morning.

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McLoughlin will then return to the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Friday night for his third event of the meet, the 1,500-metre freestyle. He made his Olympic debut in the long-distance discipline five years ago at the Rio Games, where he finished ninth, before winning gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. McLoughlin holds the 10th fastest time over the distance this year, but with his current form, anything is possible. “I’m swimming well – which means other events, I’m feeling pretty confident about,” he said.

Having almost walked away from the sport last year, McLoughlin is undecided about whether he might retire after Tokyo or continue through to the next Commonwealth Games or even Paris in three years’ time. “I’m not sure to be honest,’ he said. “I’m going to have a big break. I still have 800m and 1,500m to go, so I’ll see how they pan out. I’ll just take one step at a time.”

Even if the Australian calls it quits after his last swim this week and begins his next career, as an engineer, McLoughlin’s silver medal on Sunday has ensured his place in Olympic history. But with two races to come, a gold medal remains very much within sight – glasses or not. “It’s the Olympics – anything can happen,” he said. “There are so many stories and now I’m one of those stories.”

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