The third day of swimming competition had already had its fair share of controversy before we event got to the finals session with Matt Welsh’s perhaps harsh disqualification in the heats of the 200m backstroke. If the evening lacked such shocks then it more than made up for it with pure drama and some tremendous racing.
The first final of the evening would have been Welsh’s chance for a second gold, but in his absence the scene was well set for a British triumph. That was exactly what we got, but not in the order we had expected. Scotland’s Gregor Tait must have thought he had the gold in the bag, but he was undone by a superb swim from lane 2 by England’s James Goddard. Goddard showed amazing maturity and control to lead form the front but still have enough to see off the late charges of both Tait and team-mate Simon Militis, and break the 2 minute barrier for the first time. Tait eventually took the silver and Militis the bronze, to give the Manchester crowd a home nation 1-2-3.
It didn’t take long for the green and gold to get back atop the podium however, as in the very next event they held off the English challenge to take yet another gold. The women’s 100 free final saw the two Karen’s Pickering and Legg back in action with team mate Melanie Marshall also in the final and Scotland’s Alison Sheppard looking for her second medal. But the gold went down under and not to the pre race favourite Sarah Ryan, but the 18-year-old Jodie Henry, who held off a superb late charge from South Africa’s Helen Muller and Legg who took the silver and bronze respectively. Ryan was out of the medals in 5th place being caught by Pickering in the last 5m of the race. Henry though looks to have bright future in this event.
The men’s 100m freestyle semi finals were full of questions; could Matt Kidd get under 50s again? How fast would Thorpe swim and would Ryk Neethling, who had recorded the fastest split of the meet in the 4×100 relay, upset everyone? The answers were in the end very satisfying, as Kidd led out the first semi from the gun, turning in 23.8, before blasting down the second 50 to beat world short course champion Ashley Callus by a clear margin and set a new British record of 49.72s. His reward is place in the final in the lane next to the Thorpedo, who looked as though he was taking an early morning stroll whilst winning the second semi in the fastest time of the two, a new Games record of 49.32. Neethling also went through to the final and is one to watch closely for the medals shakedown. Wales’ Steven Evans produced a superb lifetime best to claim the last lane in the final ahead of the other English swimmers, Howard and Cozens.
Petria Thomas was taking it easy in the 100 fly semis, just wanting to make the final without expending too much energy and she did just that recording 1.00.15 to touch out Canada’s Jenny Button. Georgina Lee made it to the final from third in that heat. Mandy Loots will be a threat for the lesser medals, wining the first semi, but still being almost 2s slower than Petria Thomas’ games record of 58.45 from the morning heats. In the same race Gemma Howells set a Welsh record, but like Margie Peddar just missed out on the final. Thomas remains an overwhelming favourite for gold, but Lee could win a medal, although she may need to break her own British record to do so.
The men’s multi disability 50m freestyle saw a world record in the S8 class form Australian Ben Austin to take the gold, with Canadian S10 swimmer Philippe Gagnon sharing the podium, having equalled his team-mate Benoit Huot’s world record. Huot took the bronze being just 0.03 outside his old mark and just pipped England’s Darren Leach for that position.
The women’s breaststroke was all about the southern hemisphere, as Olympic Silver medallist Liesel Jones went for her first Commonwealth Title. She lead from the start, opening up a considerable lead in the first 50m, but South African Sarah Poewe wasn’t going to let her have it all her own way as she attempted to go with her, moving through the field into the 100m turn. Brooke Hanson and Kelli Waite, the other two Aussies in the final were well down as they battled for the bronze with Canadian Leir. But Jones was not to be denied, taking everything Poewe could throw at her to take the gold with a clear margin form the South African who therefore prevented an Antipodean clean sweep. Waite eventually took third, despite swimming most of the race in the wake from Jones in the adjacent lane. England’s Heidi Earp and Jamie King were well down the field.
It was all over in a flash, but the men’s 50m Butterfly title went, as expected, to world record holder Geoff Heugill, tonight with his trademark shaven head. He set a new games record of 23.57 as he overhauled the early leaders, South African Ronald Schoemann and England’s Mark Foster. Foster, swimming from lane 1 after below par swims yesterday, stepped up to win the bronze, despite clearly not being at ease with his swimming. South African Schoemann took the silver, but could have easily taken the title with a better finish. Scotland’s Cameron Black finished in 8th but should be pleased to have made the final, having set a national record in the semi.
The home favourite Sarah Price went into the women’s 100m final off the back of two Commonwealth Records yesterday, and started with a great chance for the gold. To do that though she would have to overcome defending Champion Giaan Rooney and Australian number one Dyana Calub. Also challenging would be surprise 200IM champion Kirsty Coventry. The race went almost perfectly to plan for Price, who led to 50m then destroyed the field from the turn to 75m with a devastating burst, as she opened up a clear lead over Calub. She finished strongly and recorded her third Commonwealth and British record in as many swims, with 61.06. Calub took the silver and Rooney pipped Charlene Wittstock to take the bronze. The second English qualifier Jo Fargus pulled out of the final to concentrate on the 4×200 relay later in the session, although the 200 back represents her best individual medal chance in any case. Price now moves into that event full of confidence that she can double up, and on this form, she could even take the 50m title as well.
If Price was a big hope for gold, then so were the three English men in the breaststroke final. Adam Whitehead had surprise everyone with the fastest time and a games record in the semis, but Darren Mew, James Gibson and Canadian Morgan Knabe were determined not to let him have it his own way. Surely one of them would win it, but could England take a 1-2-3? Well win it they did and took two medals although the clean sweep eluded them. It was Whitehead who took the gold with a very late surge into the wall to overtake silver medallist Knabe and early leader James Gibson, who just hung onto the bronze medal. Gibson had flown down the first 50m like a man possessed, but paid for his early efforts in the closing stages, just holding off the equally fast finishing Mew who had to be content with 4th place. They will both be back in the 50m event later this week and will be clear favourites for the medals.
The crowd were breathless as we moved into the final events, the 4×200 relays. A disappointing entry of 4 teams contested the women’s event, but Canada and Wales were eventually reduced to bystanders as the real grudge match from last year’s worlds in Fukuoka, England versus Australia, took centre stage. Legg and Lee went out first and held the Australians all the way, the two teams never more than .01s apart, but it was the third leg from Jo Fargus that was to prove critical in determining the outcome. Her decision to miss the backstroke final was fully justified as she shadowed Rebecca Creedy in the Australian team for 175m then burst through at the end to give individual champion Karen Pickering the slightest of leads as she hit the water with Petria Thomas in hot pursuit. As always, Pickering produced a phenomenal anchor leg to bring the team home for the gold in a new games record. The brave team selection, with Fargus and Lee not usually freestylers, had paid off in massive style. Pickering could barely walk at the end, but now has an amazing 12 Commonwealth medals to her name.
As usual though, Ian Thorpe had the last word, anchoring the Australian men’s 4×200 team home to a convincing victory and games record time. Grant Hackett destroyed the field on the opening leg and from that point on the race was over as a contest. Canada challenged briefly as Dunne and Cram, the relatively weaker members of the Australian team were in, but Thorpe still started with a 5m lead and never looked in trouble. Canada came through for silver and the England team of Faulkner, Salter, Parry and Burnett took the bronze. The biggest cheer, however was reserved for the Kenyan team, who finished over 100m down, but epitomised the spirit of the entire competition.
So a great session’s swimming, and one that was not dominated by the Australians as much as they might have hoped. England pushed them close, winning 4 golds to Australia’s 5. Roll on day 4!