The absence of both Jenna Strauch (knee injury) and Chelsea Hodges (hip surgery) from international competition this summer leaves Australia without its top two breaststroke specialists for the 2023 World Championships next month in Fukuoka, Japan. Strauch and Hodges have handled breaststroke duties on the Australia women’s 400 medley relays for the past two years since the Tokyo Olympics.
The most likely medley relay replacement for Strauch and Hodges is 25-year-old Abbey Harkin, who won the 100 breast title at the Australian National Championships in April with a time of 1:07.77. The other options involve more moving parts. 100 backstroke world record holder Kaylee McKeown could switch to breast, Mollie O’Callaghan could lead off the backstroke leg instead, 29-year-old Olympic champion Emma McKeon could anchor on the freestyle leg, and 27-year-old Brianna Throssell could fill in on the butterfly leg. Or McKeon could remain on the butterfly leg and Shayna Jack could anchor instead.
Here’s how the three relay combinations compare on paper with their best flat-start times:
|The Harkin Option||The Throssell Option||The Jack Option|
|100 Back||Kaylee McKeown, 57.45||Mollie O’Callaghan, 58.42||Mollie O’Callaghan, 58.42|
|100 Breast||Abbey Harkin, 1:06.88||Kaylee McKeown, 1:06.86||Kaylee McKeown, 1:06.86|
|100 Fly||Emma McKeon, 55.72||Brianna Throssell, 56.96||Emma McKeon, 55.72|
|100 Free||Mollie O’Callaghan, 52.49||Emma McKeon, 51.96||Shayna Jack, 52.60|
|400 Medley Relay
At first glance, the choice seems obvious with Harkin’s quartet more than a second faster than the alternatives. But there are a couple additional factors to consider.
First, even though Harkin’s lifetime best (1:06.88) is just .02 seconds slower than McKeown’s, it came at last year’s Australian National Championships and she went on to add time at the World Championships (1:08.12) and Commonwealth Games (1:07.47) later in the summer. At this year’s Australian National Championships, Harkin was nearly a second slower than last year’s meet. For reference, Strauch went 1:05.99 on the breaststroke leg at last year’s World Championships.
Meanwhile, McKeown swam her personal-best 100 breast (1:06.86) in February, untapered, at the Victorian Open Championships. Recent history suggests that the difference between McKeown and Harkin could be more like a half or full second rather than just a blink, as their best flat-start times indicate.
What’s more, O’Callaghan has showcased recent improvements in the 100 back. The 19-year-old shaved nearly half a second off her lifetime best from 2021 at this year’s Australian Championships in April (58.42). Meanwhile, in the 100 free, she hasn’t been sub-52.5 since her personal best from last year’s Australian Championships.
At last year’s World Championships, Throssell filled in for McKeon on the butterfly leg and posted a 57.19 split to help Australia take silver in 3:54.25, about half a second behind the U.S. (3:53.78). McKeon is the national record holder in both the 100 free (51.96) and 100 fly (55.72), so she should be fit to swim either stroke on the back half. Jack’s best 100 free time (52.60) came at last year’s Australian Championships, but she was only off her lifetime best by .04 seconds at this year’s meet.
Sticking with Harkin is probably still the safer option this summer, but it could be a lot closer than it initially appears on paper. The fact that shuffling the medley relay lineup to move a world record holder (McKeown) and world champion (O’Callaghan) off their signature events is even a debate for the Aussies underscores the impressive versatility of their roster.