Leading Australia at the World Aquatics Junior Swimming Championships will be the Gold Coast-based teenager who is one of the rising global stars in sprint freestyle at the moment.
Eighteen-year-old Flynn Southam has always felt natural in the water. The Australian used to play Australian Rules Football in his youth, but as a tall skinny kid, he found himself a bit awkward on land.
“I would bang my knees together and drop the ball all the time,” Southam told World Aquatics. “I was pretty uncomfortable on land but in the water I felt really at home.”
The water has been a safe haven and a place of success for Southam as the Aussie gears up for what will be his first and final World Junior Swimming Championship this week in Netanya, Israel. Southam is the fastest seed in the 50m, 100m, and 200m freestyle, and should play a big role on Australia’s relay teams.
There has been some hype generated around Southam’s name the last few years in Australia as he made his senior debut at the Commonwealth Games last summer at age 17. There, he swam on two gold medal winning relay teams and placed tenth in the 50m freestyle.
It was valuable experience for the Gold Coast based teenager, who continued that momentum into the Junior Pan Pacific Championships a month later in Hawaii. Southam won four gold medals in Honolulu, including a sweep in the 50m, 100m, and 200m freestyle events, as well as the 4x200m freestyle. But it was in the 100m freestyle where he turned some heads - a 48.23 to put him as the second fastest Australian for the year only behind 2016 Olympic champ Kyle Chalmers (47.36).
Flash forward to June 2023 at the Australian Swimming Trials where Southam swam his lifetime best to snag an individual spot in the 100m freestyle for the World Aquatics Championships behind Chalmers at 47.77. It was a promising sign for Swimming Australia, who hadn’t had more than one male break 48 seconds in the event in six years.
At the World Championships in Fukuoka this past July, Southam swam the second leg of the gold medal-winning men’s 4x100m freestyle relay team alongside the likes of Chalmers, Jack Cartwright and another rising star in Kai Taylor.
It was the first time Australia won that event at an Olympics or World Championships since 2011. Since that time, Swimming Australia has had a major change in its relay culture, ensuring that those walking behind the blocks are representing themselves and the country with discipline and the best possible mentality.
“There’s a lot more professionalism in the team culture of being there for your friends,” Southam said. “Worst case scenario we don’t win a medal - we are still going to be there for each other and have respect for each other. We all chip in more than what we’d chip in for an individual race. When you come together and it’s bigger than you, it is something special. I think we all just lift for the occasion and we are definitely representing the country and the rest of the team, but most importantly you’re representing the three other guys that you’re racing with.
“They’ll be your brothers that day and they’ll be your brothers for life based on the memories you made that day. It’s pretty special to be a part of something like that and I’ve lifted in relays through junior swimming and that. When Kyle retires, the torch will be passed down and I just want to make sure the younger guys coming in after me feel the same way that it is bigger than yourself.”
Learning from the Best
Southam, who swims for coach Chris Mooney at Bond University, has already become a big contributor on relays at the senior level, winning five relay medals at the World Short Course Championships in December, as well as three relay medals at the recent World Championships in July. On each of these relays, he swam with the 25-year-old Chalmers, who has imparted a lot of wisdom on the teen.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from Kyle that I am trying to apply to my individual development is that depending on how your preparation goes into a meet, it could be good or bad or you could be injured or not really motivated to swim,” Southam said. “Something that Kyle does really well is he can get up on the blocks on race day and put it in a box and put it away and still race the best he’s ever raced regardless of an injury or any of those uncontrollable factors sometimes and I think that’s pretty admirable. It’s definitely worked for him - he has every major title in the 100m freestyle now which is incredible. Being able to be that resilient is something I looked up to in Kyle.”
Being around elite company like Olympic champions Chalmers and Ariarne Titmus has helped Southam has learned to instil a trust in himself and realize he is one of the best in the world. Southam raced the 100m freestyle in Fukuoka last month where he was 11th in the semi-finals and did not advance to the final. This week in Netanya, he is top seed in three events and one of the headlining athletes at the meet.
“There’s no pressure on me. I’m just doing what I love to do,” Southam said. “Whether there is pressure on me or whether there isn’t, I will still swim the same way, I believe. It’s definitely a different kettle of fish when you’re David Popovici or Kyle Chalmers or Caeleb Dressel. But I believe when I get to that level, it’ll be about me and my lane and my race plan. It’s got nothing to do with anyone else.
“I was talking to my coach Chris about it. Winning and being successful are two different things. You can win sometimes and not feel successful, and you can win or not be happy with how you swam or be disappointed in the little one percenters. For me, if I can touch the wall and without looking at my time, say to myself that I am really happy I put 100% of my effort into this, and I worked as hard as I could and I did the best I could with that race plan, I’d be really happy regardless of the time.”
Even at just 18-years-old, Southam is about as locked in to his swimming career as any seasoned veteran. Taking one’s health and diet seriously is a must for any athlete wanting to be elite, and Southam has learned to take ownership and be disciplined in his swimming every single day.
Last year in 2022, he had his tonsils removed due to being sick and needing to miss training so frequently. This year he has worked with his dietitian Amy Bohler to ensure he is consuming exactly what he should during important training blocks and during competitions.
“Now I am a lot healthier,” Southam said. “I haven’t missed a session in the pool at all this year. I haven’t been sick - I might have had a little bit of a rundown after a competition but for me that’s huge. I can train consistently every day and do the times I do in training and eventually it’ll pay off. I think this year is all about being consistent.”
It’s the consistency that has landed him as not only a star to watch this week, but as a star to watch in the lead-up to the Paris and Los Angeles Olympics.
All the World’s a Stage
Many current swimming stars utilized the World Juniors as a stepping stone for their senior success in the future. Current world record holders Mollie O’Callaghan and Leon Marchand swam at the 2019 World Juniors, while last year’s meet in Lima saw the likes of Diogo Ribeiro and Krszysztof Chmielewski win gold medals a year before winning their first major international medals at the 2023 World Aquatics Championships.
This year’s meet is another big opportunity for the sport’s young talent to take aim at a global stage, with some doing it for the first time. The United States and Australia are expected to be at centre stage battling it out for the medal count. There is mutual respect between the two nations that have long dominated the aquatic venue. Last month at the World Aquatics Championships, Australia won the gold medal race over the Americans 13-7, while the United States won the overall medal count 38-25. In relays, the Australians and the Americans stood somewhere on the podium in all eight events, showcasing the stranglehold and dominance they have over the rest of the world.
On the psych sheet for this week’s junior meet in Netanya, Australia is seeded to win six individual events while the United States is seeded to win five.
“Australia and the US really push each other to compete and I am excited to race the best in the world,” Southam said. “That’s all there is to say. I really respect the Americans and they’re really competitive and it brings out the best in both of us. It’s another good opportunity for me to refine my process and refine my race plan and gain as much experience as I can leading into Paris.”
Southam is the face of the Australian men’s team as he is over a second ahead of the second-best placed 100m freestyle swimmer, Maximus Williamson of the United States, in the field while he is just 0.16 ahead of American Diggory Dillingham in the 50m freestyle.
The 200m will be his toughest gold medal task as he will do battle with Bulgaria’s Petar Mitsin on Tuesday night where the winner is expected to challenge David Popovici’s championship record of 1:46.18 set last year.
“I’m going there with intentions to do as well as I can in all of my events and definitely not just focusing on the 100 or the 200 or the 50. It’s the opportunity to get up and perform when the spotlight is on me. For me, it’s going there and doing some PB’s, learning some stuff and leading the team the best I can.”
It has been a long season of racing at peak performance for the 18-year-old, who raced the Australian Age Championships in April into the Trials in June, followed by the World Championships in July. Now he is finishing with the World Juniors in September and will get right back up and race in the Swimming World Cup in Europe next month.
“My coach and support team have structured my training blocks and my aerobic work,” Southam said. “All my training is in the hands of my coach and I trust that so much and we all know that is related back to the mental part. We planned it out that it’s going to be a very hard three months with racing, and having to get back up again without a break and seeing everyone else is on break. But at the same time, the mental side for me is I know I will have a break at the end of it so I can just get through it. Just being careful with the burnout side of things and not getting caught up in the results and moving on to the next one. I’m just having fun with it really. That’s as simple as I can put it.”