By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Four years after flopping in London, Australia's swimmers took a confident step towards redemption at the Rio Olympics with a string of impressive performances at national trials in Adelaide.
The week-long meeting ended on Thursday with sprint queen Cate Campbell setting the South Australia Aquatic and Leisure Centre alight with the second fastest 50 meters freestyle of all time.
Her time of 23.84 seconds was 0.11 seconds shy of Britta Steffen's 2009 world record which was set in a synthetic swim-suit that has since been banned.
It capped an outstanding week for the statuesque 23-year-old Campbell who also set the year's fastest time of 52.38 seconds in the 100 freestyle, edging her sister and world champion Bronte who was a gallant runner-up despite carrying a shoulder injury.
The Campbell sisters, who have fought a thrilling duel in the blue riband event in recent years, are set to clash in the 50 and 100 freestyle in Rio in August while teaming up in a 4x100 relay team with strong claims for gold.
"It's great to be feeling like I'm back in full form and it's great to see Bronte swimming so well despite her rocky preparation," said Cate.
"I feel like I've been really close to world records for a really long time now."
The women's 4x100 freestyle relay was Australia's sole title in the London pool where the once-mighty swimming nation registered its lowest Olympic medal haul in 20 years.
A review reported a "toxic" culture pervading the team in the leadup to London, with allegations of drunkenness and bullying.
A new regime led by Dutch coach Jacco Verhaeren has worked hard to repair the team's image and Australia regained some of its swagger at the 2015 world championships in Russia where they finished second in the medals table behind a below-strength United States.
Cameron McEvoy, who missed out on the men's 100 freestyle gold in Russia despite being overwhelming favorite, will head to Rio with confidence after storming to the national title with a blistering time of 47.04 seconds.
He is likely to spearhead another quality 4x100 relay team that has yet to qualify for the Games but set an encouraging mark of three minutes 12.26 seconds in a time trial.
Teenager Mack Horton ensured the meeting finished on a high by blitzing his rivals to win the 1500 freestyle with a personal best 14:39.54, issuing a warning to Olympic champion and world record holder Sun Yang of China.
"It's pretty good," the 19-year-old said. "Craig (Jackson), my coach, said if I swam under 14:40 he'd actually get up and dance."
Double world champion Mitch Larkin set the year's fastest times in the 100 and 200 backstroke while Australia can also hope to win an Olympic medal in the women's 200 butterfly after Madeline Groves posted a season's best.
There were inevitably disappointments among the heady celebrations of Rio tickets booked and former 100 world champion James Magnussen cut a dejected figure after failing to qualify in the 50 or 100 freestyle.
Having been favorite to win gold in London, the swimmer nicknamed 'The Missile' was pipped by American Nathan Adrian in the final and has spent much of the past four years speaking of his determination to grab the title in Rio.
Magnussen can still claim a spot on Australia's 4x100 relay team but another shot at individual glory seems a distant dream for the once all-conquering 25-year-old.
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)