Brush off the air guitars as Aussies prepare to face US in Duel in the Pool

Anyone with a memory that stretches back to the Sydney 2000 Olympics will recall it as one of the highlights.

In the men’s 4×100 metres freestyle relay — an event the United States had won every time it had been contested since the 1964 Olympics — Australia ended the unbeaten record of the Americans on the opening night of the swimming program.

The Australian quartet’s celebration gave the event its own name, known both in Australia and the US as the “air guitar race”.

Ian Thorpe, Michael Klim, Chris Fydler and Ashley Callus had strummed imaginary guitars as they looked over to the beaten Americans, particularly Gary Hall Jr.

When asked about the Australian swimming team in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics, Hall Jr — known for his outgoing personality and ability to generate headlines — said he believed the US would “smash them like guitars” when they met in the pool.

How words can come back go bite. The packed-to-the-rafters pool deck in Homebush was pumping, with everybody there that night on their feet.

Michael Klim (centre) plays the air guitar on the pool deck in Sydney in 2000.(Getty Images: Darren England)

It was swimming’s equivalent of an AC/DC concert. In true sportsmanship, Hall Jr was the first to congratulate the Australians after their victory.

From that moment emerged a biennial series known as the Duel in the Pool, with Australia’s best taking on their US rivals on three occasions between 2003 and 2007.

The US later competed against teams from Europe and the rest of the world.

The Duel in the Pool will be brought back to life at Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre in August. It will feature a few innovations, including an open-water relay at the iconic Bondi Beach.

In announcing the news from Bondi, Swimming Australia (SA) chief executive Eugenie Buckley described it as a “return of swimming’s most celebrated rivalry”.

“Australia and the United States of America will face off for both points and pride as Swimming Australia and USA Swimming re-imagine the Duel in the Pool,” Buckley said.

Teams of 30, competing in the pool and open water, will feature the superstars of the US and Australian Olympic and Paralympic teams.

The revival of what was once a high-profile televised event is the start of a decade-long build-up to Brisbane’s 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Swimming has wasted no time in getting in early.

Australia’s most successful Paralympic swimmer, Ellie Cole, was considering retirement after this year’s Commonwealth Games but has decided to push that out so she can compete in the Duel in the Pool.

Cole said she hoped to add to her 31-medal haul from numerous Paralympic and Commonwealth Games, and world championships.

“For me as a young girl watching [the Duel in the Pool] in 2007, [with] Libby Trickett chasing down Michael Phelps, I never imagined that a Paralympic swimmer would have an opportunity like this,” Cole told ABC Sport.

“I was going to retire … but I’m going to stick around for a few more weeks because I’m certainly not going to miss this one.”

Intense rivalry

Twenty-two years after strumming an air guitar, Fydler said there had always been rivalry with the US in the pool.

But Fydler said something special happened on the Sydney Olympic pool deck that September night back in 2000.

“[The rivalry] has really built since then … the rivalry is really what makes sport and I’m really excited about the opportunity to see the best in the world come and compete in Sydney, and the best in the world are the Australians and the Americans at the moment,” he said.


The US claimed 11 gold medals to Australia’s nine at the Tokyo Olympics last year, proving the rivalry is intense again.

SA president Tracey Stockwell is herself a three-time Olympic gold medallist for the US.

Stockwell is as excited as anyone to see the return of the Duel in the Pool.

“This is a great opportunity for all of our athletes to compete against the best in the world and also in a fun and different format, and a team environment,” she said.

“A great competition will be had.”

Australian head coach Rohan Taylor said the event was a chance to build on the momentum from the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

“It provides another meaningful racing opportunity,” he said.

“And with it being a teams event, that just brings so much more meaningful racing to the athletes. It’s not just about them and the time … it’s them, their competitors, they’re swimming for the team.

“We want to do more of that.”

The Duel in the Pool will be held from August 19 to 21.

It is time to brush off those air guitars and relive some of the glory days from the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.

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