Australia's Stewart McSweyn can mix it with stacked 1500m field in Tokyo

Australia's Stewart McSweyn [L] in action during the heats of the men's 1500m at the Tokyo Olympics, August 3, 2021 Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images

Between Rohan Browning's heroics and Peter Bol's excellence, it's already been a pretty good Olympic Games for Aussie athletes on the track. And fresh off advancing to the semifinals of the men's 1500 metres on Tuesday, Stewart McSweyn looks set to add a bit of his own hype in the coming days.

With the likes of Brit Josh Kerr, Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen, and Kenyan Charles Simotwo assembled in Tokyo, the field for the 1500m at the Games of the XXXII Olympiad is both a highly credentialed and daunting one -- and that was before reigning World champion Timothy Cheruiyot received a late reprieve from his shock failure to qualify and was added to Kenya's team.

Indeed, examining such a group, it's difficult to mount a case for any outside athlete being capable of crashing their party.

And yet McSweyn's resume across the past 18 months suggests that, yes, he might just be able to find a way to the podium.

Already the national record holder in the 3000m after smashing Craig Mottram's mark by more than four seconds in 2020, the Tasmanian became the first Australian to ever dip below the 3.30 barrier in the 1500m just weeks out from the Games when he ran a 3.27.51 time at a Diamond League meet in Monaco -- breaking his own Australian record in the process.

Earlier that month, he had taken another of Mottram's markers: his 16-year-old Australian record for the mile falling when McSweyn covered the 1610-metre distance in 3:48.37 -- besting the previous mark by .61 seconds.

Combined with the expected conditions in Tokyo -- his third-place finish in Tuesday's heat was run in muggy, near 30-degree conditions -- McSweyn's performance in Monaco sealed his decision to drop also qualified for 5000m and 10,000m events and focus solely on the 1500m; his final preparations taking place at an altitude camp at St Moritz in the Swiss Alps.

With such impressive form, the dyed-in-the-wool St Kilda fan has been touted in Australia as a genuine chance to secure the nation's first medal in the event since the legendary Herb Elliott won gold at the 1960 Games in Rome.

"I think to be mentioned in that kind of way is a huge honour," he told ESPN. "It shows that people believe in what you're doing and that you can bring a high level to the Olympics.

"But, for me, I don't really worry about external expectations. I know I'm going to be turning up ready to give it 100% and that's all I can do. Once you have the Aussie guernsey on, there's no bigger source of pride. I'll be 100% committed to giving it everything once I'm out there, focus on the process and what comes of it, comes of it -- I won't overthink it too much.

"I feel like I've gradually built momentum throughout the season. I think everything's coming together well and I've been able to showcase the form that I'm coming into. To break any record is a huge honour and also gives me a lot of confidence going forward.

"I've improved over those 12 months the Games were delayed]. It gave an opportunity to reset and work out how we're going to be peaking when Tokyo came around. I feel like I was able to get better from where I was last year and I'm a better athlete.

"I've only turned 26 this year, so I feel like if I was 25 or 26 -- I'm still in that peak window."

The confidence born from his record-setting form not only lifted McSweyn's spirits heading into Tokyo but also provided an extra impetus for him to keep up the hellacious level of work that being one of the best middle- and long-distance runners in the world demands.

On an average day during his final stages of preparation, the 26-year-old would put in multiple running sessions and a gym workout -- plus recovery -- almost every single day to peak condition, adopting a mantra of getting just a little bit better each and every day.

And when you can measure this intermittent progress via personal bests on the track, finding the motivation to continue that work is just that little bit easier.

"It makes you feel like you're close to where you want to be and it makes it easier motivation wise; getting up every day for hard training, doing the little things, the rehab, and eating right," McSweyn explained.

"It's probably a little bit easier when things seem to be going pretty well. Motivation-wise it's definitely a lot easier but there's also that expectation that you want to keep trying to perform at that level.

"Once you get to that standard you want to keep trying to get better, you don't want to go backwards -- that's a big focus.

"I think it's crazy the amount we eat. The biggest thing is making sure you eat enough because you're burning so much training.

"I'll be eating four main meals a day plus a lot of snacks and a couple of protein shakes to make sure that when I finish the day, I feel like I can back it up. I think re-fuelling is a huge thing and that's been a big focus -- making sure I get enough food in during the day.

"[People are] surprised you can be so lean based on how much you eat, especially if you're out for dinner and when everyone orders one meal you order two because you feel you need the extra calories. People are initially surprised how you stay so lean but then they see how hard you train they realise you burn a fair bit so you need it."

McSweyn grew up on a beef and sheep farm on King Island, a small island off the coast of Tasmania whose population of 1600 was sent into a panic recently when a storm knocked their television and radio reception out just days before their favourite son made his Olympic bow.

Playing a variety of sports, he spent his teenage years boarding at Ballarat Clarendon College in Victoria and with the regional town being a hotbed of distance running, he began to specialise in track in his mid-teens: progressing from steeplechasing to a variety of distances.

"Growing up on King Island, I always loved sport," the first-time Olympian recalled. "I wasn't sure what sport I was going to do. I played them all: tennis, cricket, footy and running. It probably wasn't until 18 until I made my first world juniors team that I kind of thought that maybe I was a chance to do something, that maybe I could be alright at running.

"I guess I was a solid junior but I wasn't setting the world on fire. It really wasn't until maybe the 2017 season where I kind of fully committed and thought I could do pretty well on the world stage and hopefully represent Australia a few times in my career.

"I'd say my big moment was at the end of the 2016 cycle and the start of 2017 that I realised I had the potential to do pretty solid at running, so that was the big moment.

"They're the tough years, when you come out of juniors.

"I had a few jobs on the side and was also studying, they were probably the hardest years because you've got so much on. You're at uni, you're working and trying to run at a high level.

"That's obviously pretty tough but I feel that builds your resilience and gets you strong because it's not easy, you're pretty time-poor, so once you get to the point where you can focus fully on your running it makes everything easier.

"My favourite job was... I was working in communications, working for National Australia Bank. It was pretty good because I was working customer service; people were calling up and wanted help if they forgot their login details or something. That was pretty nice because you wouldn't have to get up or do anything, you'd be sitting at a desk and taking calls."

Now a Nike athlete and one of Australia's premier track and field competitors, McSweyn doesn't have to worry about working odd jobs to support himself anymore but that's not to say that he doesn't have pursuits away from the track.

Passionate about education, the Olympian is in the final stages of completing a teaching degree at La Trobe University and earlier this year -- fresh off two weeks of hotel quarantine after competing in Europe -- he completed a period of on-site learning at a Dandenong high school.

"My PE teacher was the guy that got me into running," said McSweyn. "I loved physical education at school and now I'm in my final year of secondary school physical education and English teaching.

"I always loved seeing what teachers did when I was at school and I feel like you can ultimately have a large effect on kids' lives. I always had a passion for education and I definitely want to go into that field once I'm finished running.

"Hopefully next year I'll finish my degree and have that in my back pocket and get a teaching job at some point."