• Reuters

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Reigning Olympic champion Mack Horton was the major casualty on Day 1 of the Australian Olympic team swimming trials as he fell just short of qualifying in a scintillating 400-meter freestyle final.

Horton, who is widely known also for his strong anti-doping stance, was edged out on a night of high drama and quality in Adelaide.

The 25-year-old missed the top-two finish that would have allowed him to defend his title in Tokyo next month by just 0.65 seconds as young gun Elijah Winnington, 21, swam the fastest time in the world this year in 3:42.65 with Jack McLoughlin in second place. The first three men swam the fastest three 400 freestyle times in the world this year.

“This means everything to me, I dreamt of this moment as a kid,” Winnington said before paying tribute to Horton.

“I pretty much told Mack that he is my hero,” he said, a sentiment mirrored by McLoughlin.

“He (Horton) is probably my most admired swimmer. I see what he does in training, he is an animal and I have so much respect for him. I feel like it is now Elijah’s and my duty to go and do well in the Olympics.”

Horton wished his teammates well after the race.

With just 41 days until the Olympics begin, there was a cracking atmosphere all night as swimmers fought it out across five different events at the South Australia Aquatic Centre.

There was little mistaking what was on the line: Behind the swimmers’ starting blocks flashed a large digital banner to underline the do-or-die nature of the occasion. “Who will represent Australia?” it asked.

The questions were soon answered as records began to tumble.

Emma McKeon, who won four medals in Rio and is widely tipped for another robust Olympics, kicked the night off with a blistering swim in the 100 butterfly to break the Australian record in 56.82.

She said the enforced time out following the postponement of the 2020 Games helped her enormously.

“That extra year definitely helped as well and I’m a lot stronger and more confident in my ability to compared to March last year,” she said.

There was heartbreak for second-place Brianna Throssell, who missed the Olympic qualifying time by just 0.01 second. Minutes later another Australia record fell when Brendon Smith romped home in the men’s 400 individual medley.

Zac Stubblety-Cook clinched the men’s 100-meter breaststroke final but failed to meet the Olympic qualifying time as did 17-year-old Jenna Forrester, who won the women’s 400 individual medley outside the prescribed time for Tokyo.

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