“I remember I was 15 watching Mack do what he did in Rio and I just thought he was a superhero.”
Those were the words of 21-year-old Elijah Winnington, who beat his hero Mack Horton in the 400 metre freestyle at the Australian Olympic swimming trials earlier this month to earn a spot at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
Horton will miss the chance to defend his 2016 Olympic gold medal, after finishing third behind Winnington and second qualifier Jack McLoughlin.
"We had an incredible race and it was unfortunate for Mack,” Winnington told SEN’s The Sporting Capital.
“I've looked up to Mack for years. He's an all-round great guy. He's really gracious and he wished us all the best for Tokyo.
"I said to him that he needs to keep his chin up. He still is one of the best swimmers in the world.
"Australia keeps proving that we're such a strong nation in swimming and I think that's because we have these tough qualification standards. If you want to make the team, you have to be one of the best in the world."
Five men swam under the Olympic qualifying time for the event, but only the top two are granted a spot in the Australian team.
To win the race, Winnington swam the fastest time in the world this year, and the fourth fastest in Australian history.
His time of 3:42.65 leaves him sitting behind only Ian Thorpe, Horton and Grant Hackett.
"There were a lot of emotions that were running wild when I touched the wall,” Winnington said.
“I saw that I went under the Olympic qualifying time so that was a dream come true moment. But then I realised, that's a pretty competitive time, I'm not just going to the Olympics - I'm in there with a pretty good shot."
Winnington’s chances will be boosted by not having to face controversial Chinese swimmer Sun Yang, who won the Olympic silver medal behind Horton in the 400m freestyle in 2016.
A Court of Arbitration for Sport retrial this week banned Yang from the sport for four years.
The decision cut his original eight year ban in half, meaning he will miss out on the Tokyo Games but will be eligible again in time for Paris in 2024 due to the ban being backdated to February 2020.
Winnington said, however, he will be doing his best to just focus on himself in the lead up to the Games.
“I just want to make sure I prepare the best I can and I do all the work in the pool so when I get over to Tokyo, I just need to go through my process and execute the race I know I can," he added.
“I remember dreaming about winning an Olympic gold as a 12-year-old-boy. Now I'm weeks off that moment instead of 10 years. It keeps me motivated because I have to push myself the best I can to make those dreams become a reality. Not long ago, I was dreaming about just making the team. Now that's done and it's time to make the other part of the dream come true."
The Tokyo Olympics will be unlike any before it, with only a small number of domestic spectators allowed, but Winnington isn’t fazed going into his first Games.
"I've always had this picture of what I think the Olympics is going to be, but I talk to people who have been to multiple and they all say every Olympics is different in its own way. You can't go there thinking it's going to be something. So I'm going in with that mindset, knowing that everything is going to be an unknown for me.”
35 swimmers have been selected in Australia’s team for Tokyo, with 21 to make their Olympics debut.
Three athletes have been selected for their third Games, while Emily Seebohm and Cate Campbell join swimming legend Leisel Jones as the only Australian swimmers to make four Olympics.