BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Not too long ago the Australian swim team entered world championships talking about challenging the Americans for top spot on the medals table.
Not this year. Coming off its worst Olympic showing in 20 years by winning only one gold at the London Games, the team and federation have been in complete upheaval The goal at this competition, where the pool events begin Sunday, is simply modest improvement.
"We come into this meet with some very good rankings on paper but that is a paper assessment," said Michael Scott, who was appointed as director of high performance three months ago. "The ship isn't broken in Australia," Scott added. "But we need to refine it and we've started working on that. And the positive steps that I've seen have been significant."
Scott's appointment was part of a shake-up that came after an independent review into the Olympic flop described a "toxic" environment, including the misuse of prescription drugs and bullying. Leigh Nugent resigned as Australia head coach in March and Swimming Australia president Barclay Nettlefold then temporarily stood down following accusations of inappropriate behavior toward a female team consultant.
Still, sprinters James Magnussen and Cate Campbell are top medal contenders for the once-proud swimming nation, as are breaststrokers and medley swimmers Brenton Rickard and Christian Sprenger. "We have a very talented team and if we achieve that significant improvement from our trials to world championships, then the medals will flow," Scott said. "But our focus is individually and collectively achieving that improvement. And doing that by being professional in and out of the pool in everything we do but at the same time doing that with team unity and enjoyment."
In London, Australia's only gold came in the women's 4x100 freestyle relay. The team won 10 medals overall, including six silver and three bronze. Perhaps the biggest disappointment in London came when the favored Magnussen failed to win the 100-meter freestyle, instead settling for silver behind American rival Nathan Adrian. That came after the stacked men's 4x100 relay team didn't win any medal, finishing fourth in a race won by France.
Magnussen was a notable absence Friday at Australia's team presentation but he is still a contender here. And after years of health issues, Campbell leads this year's world rankings in both the 50 and 100 free, setting her up for a showdown with two-time Olympic champion Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands.
"I've never been in this position before, so I'm just enjoying it," Campbell said. "I'm definitely taking a lot of confidence over the past few months. "I've been able to build a really solid foundation, whereas before every time I started trying to build the tower there would be an earthquake and my foundation would crack up," she added. "So I've been focusing on the foundation and maybe it's time to put in a few levels now."
And with all that Swimming Australia has gone through, Campbell acknowledged how important team unity is. "When you go away the swim team becomes your family," she said. "So healthy family, healthy swimming."