The Manchester Aquatic centre was a cauldron of noise tonight before the swimming had even started, for which the meet organisers must take credit having really wound up the crowd, but the first final of these games almost took the roof off the pool.
Karen Pickering had qualified fastest from the morning heats, but the shadow of the three Australians in the final loomed large over her medal hopes. Pickering, clearly lifted by the home crowd, produced a sensational swim to control the Australian challenge in the first 100 then blow Petria Thomas in the adjacent lane away in the second half, bringing the last 50m home in style to clinch her 11th commonwealth medal and her first gold over this distance. Incredibly, Karen Legg went with her from the 100m turn and also pipped Thomas to the silver medal. So one race down and Gold and Silver for England. The meet could not have got off to a better start.
But the race everyone wanted to see cam later in the session. The talk beforehand had been that Grant Hackett might just be the man to dethrone Ian Thorpe in the 400m. Thorpe had win every major championship since 1999 and he was in no mood to give up without a fight. Leading from the start, with Hackett struggling to hang onto his coat tails, Thorpe produced a magnificent swim, controlling the pace superbly over the first 200 then driving hard through the 3rd 400 to destroy Hackett’s challenge well before the last 50m IN the last length it was all about Thorpe and the clock. Aussie Performance Director Greg Hodge had criticised the pool, saying it was not suited to world record swimming. Someone obviously forgot to tell the Thorpedo as he recorded a new World Record time of 3.40.08. Only a tired looking finish prevented the first time under 3.40. Hackett took the silver and a rejuvenated Graeme Smith held off the challenge of third Aussie Craig Stevens to win a well deserved Bronze, Scotland’s first swimming medal of the games
In what was fast developing into a remarkable session, the Women’s 200 IM produced a major surprise. The race was always wide open, but no-one had expected neither Canada or Australia to win the gold. Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry produced the swim of her life from lane 8, improving her breastroke leg massively from the heats, to hold favourite Liz Warden of Canada over the first 150m then held off the fast finishing Marianne Limpert and Warden over the freestyle to take a hugely unexpected gold. Limpert and Warden completed the medallists, with Australia amazingly not taking a medal of any colour. They are protesting the disqualification of Jennifer Reilly who originally finished second, but do not appear likely to get the decision overturned.
The men’s 200 fly was another race with huge domestic expectation. James Hickman and Steve Parry had made it through comfortably from the heats, as had Aussie pair Heath Ramsay and Commonwealth record holder Justin Norris. Local boy and defending champion Hickman went off like a rocket, turning close to world record pace at the 100m mark, but paid dearly for his early pace in the second 100, as he was overhauled by Norris and then Parry in the last 25m. He will be very disappointed, with the atmosphere and the adrenaline obviously getting the better of him. Norris took a deserved gold in a games record time, having swum his own race, with Parry the silver. Both Englishmen will be set up well for the 100 later in the week and if Hickman can translate his early pace in this race, he should have a strong chance of a medal.
In the last final of the session, it was all about the Australians in the 4×100 relay. They won it comfortably to give Thorpe his second and Hackett his first gold, Ashley Callus and Todd Pearson making up the victorious team. They were challenged strongly by Canada until Thorpe went in and brought them home in a games record. time Canada eventually took the bronze after being pipped by a strong anchor leg from South Africa’s Ryk Neethling. England came in 4th, although the decision to swim their fastest man Matt Kidd in second raised a few eyebrows.
Elsewhere, in the women’s 50 breastroke semis, Zoe Baker was in great form, having set a new European record in the heats. She did not disappoint in the semis smashing the world record of Penny Heyns by almost 0.3s to record 30.57, more than a second clear of her nearest challenger and must now be a huge favourite for tomorrow’s final. European Junior Champion Kate Haywood also made it into the final at just 15 years of age. Riley Janes and Matt Welsh headed the qualifiers in the 50m backstroke semi-finals, with England’s Martin Harris at 36 the only home swimmer to make it to tomorrow’s final. An intriguing race is in prospect, with Janes looking very comfortable in winning his semi. In the women’s 50 fly, Alison Sheppard continued her recent good form to qualify easily for the final behind Petria Thomas and Nicole Irving of Australia. Number one ranked Ros Brett also made it into the final. Both Sheppard and Brett will have their eyes on the medals.