The penultimate night of finals in the Manchester Aquatics centre was the one with the biggest uncertainty of the competition so far, as the backstroke events took centre stage. Could Ian Thorpe win his 6th gold medal in the 100m backstroke? Could Sarah Price add two more golds in the women’s events? The races on the way to those results were quite simply outstanding.
The first final of the evening was the men’s 100m fly saw Geoff Heugill retain his title from Kuala Lumpur. He went out hard, turning under world record pace, but still had not shaken Mike Mintenko at the turn. Heugill was obviously hurting in the final metres, but just had enough to hold of the Canadian’s challenge in the last few metres. Behind the front two, James Hickman was locked in his own battle with Adam Pine and looked as though he would pick up his second bronze, but faded to leave the Australian with the third medal.
There was huge expectation ahead of women’s 50m freestyle final, that Alison Sheppard could win Scotland’s first swimming gold for 28 years, following her Commonwealth records in her heat swim. Those hopes were fulfilled as Sheppard left the blocks like a rocket, leaving nearest challenger Jodie Henry of Australia wallowing in her wake and ending the race as a contest by the 25m mark. She was in a different class as she recorded 24.76, just outside her own record, by over half a second. Toni Jeffs picked up New Zealand’s first medal of the week in third, with Henry taking the silver. This is now the most successful Commonwealth games for Scottish swimming since 1974.
England were clearly in control of the men’s 50m breaststroke final, with three of the top four seeds from the semi finals in the shape of James Gibson, Darren Mew and 100m winner Adam Whitehead. The possibility of a home clean sweep was in the forefront of everyone’s minds, but South African Brett Petersen and Canada’s Morgan Knabe were determined to spoil the party. They couldn’t do it however as the three English swimmers went clear of the field by the 15m mark and never looked like being caught, the only question being who would come out on top. In a fantastically tight finish, Gibson lead home Whitehead in silver and Mew in bronze with all three swimmers covered by less than a tenth of second. This was the first England clean sweep since the 100m breaststroke at Auckland 1990.
All of which brought us to one of the most anticipated races of the evening. England again had the top three qualifiers but could Sarah Price, Jo Fargus and defending champion Katy Sexton match the men’s breaststroke effort in the 200m backstroke. To do so they would have to counter the challenge of top Aussie Clementine Stoney, but counter it they did in great style. Price was the massive favourite and it was no great surprise that she lived up to that billing, leading from start to finish, winning by a clear margin in 2.10.58 and setting yet another new games record. It wasn’t as fast as she might have hoped, but the time was immaterial. Fargus paced her race immaculately, tracking the field for 150m then moving clear down the final length for the silver, but Sexton’s medal was the most remarkable. She seemed to be well out of the frame at the final turn being well down the field, but produced an amazing final 50, 1.5 seconds quicker than that of the champion, to swim straight through Stoney into the bronze medal position.
The pool was buzzing following two England clean sweeps in as many finals as the semi finalists of the Men’s 50m freestyle took to the deck. All eyes were on Mark Foster to see if he could improve on his seemingly lacklustre heats swim. Swimming in the second semi the real Mark Foster finally showed himself, as he finished second behind semi winner Brett Hawke who posted a fast 22.26,a new games record. Foster now goes into the final ion second fastest with more to come. South African Roland Schoeman, the commonwealth record holder, led the way home in the first semi final in a time of 22.52, ahead of compatriot Ryk Neethling. Again there seems to be far more to come from these two in the final tomorrow and they could take Foster and Hawke all the way for the gold. Matt Kidd was fourth in that race, recording a time of 23.06 to qualify for the final
The English dominance couldn’t keep going all the way through the session however, as the Aussies struck back in the women’s 100m breaststroke final. They had the top three qualifiers fort his one and were desperate to show that hey could clean sweep an event as well, Olympic silver medallist Liesel Jones aiming to lead them home. The gold indeed will go back down under with Jones who won in 68.74, with team-mate Brooke Hanson in second. Sarah Poewe nipped in to spoil the party and prevent the 1-2-3, taking bronze as Tarni White faded into the wall. Kate Haywood in her first senior international finished 6th in 1.10.20, with Jaime King in 8th.
The most anticipated race of the week took the attention next, as the men lined up for the 100m backstroke final. All eyes were on Ian Thorpe as he attempted to win his 6th gold medal, but he would have to beat world champion Matt Welsh to do so. Welsh went off hard form the gun and got well clear of the field at the 50m turn. He increased his advantage down the second length and came home in 54.72, another games record. Thorpe eventually took silver but was well down. Alex Lim of Malaysia proved to be the surprise package pushing Thorpe all the way as he took bronze. Gregor Tait in 5th was the best placed home swimmer, just 0.1s over the Scottish record.
Rebecca Cooke had set a 400m personal best on the way to her 800m title last night and had qualified fastest for the 400m final tonight, with a time some 2seconds slower. She therefore started as a clear favourite, but the challenge of Australian 200m specialist Elka Graham could not be underestimated. But Cooke produced a tremendously paced swim, starting steadily and then gradually winding up the pace to break the field. With 100m to go she was over 1.5s ahead of Graham, but there still lingered a fear that Graham could reel her in over the last 2 lengths. But the lead was simply too great and even started to increase as Cooke struck for home. She set another best time of 4.09.89 and is now closing in on Sarah Hardcastle’s British record. Graham took a well deserved bronze, ahead of Jamaica’s Janelle Atkinson, who took her second bronze with a superbly fast last 100m.
The men’s multi-disability 100m freestyle final produced another high quality race, with no fewer than 4 world records being broken. Australia’s Ben Austin won his second gold and a clean sweep of the EAD events of the meet, as he set one of those records. South Africa’s Scott Field was second and Wales’ Dave Roberts was the best placed home swimmer coming in third to win the first Welsh swimming medal of the games. Benoit Huot of Canada set a new world record of 53.76 but amazingly was only able to finish 4th. The Isle of Man’s Ian Sharpe was his team’s first individual finalist of the meet and finished 8th.
By a strange scheduling quirk, Sarah Price was then back in action in the 50m backstroke final. Speaking to pullbuoy before the games, Price had stressed that the 50 was purely a bonus and that she was aiming to win the longer events. Having achieved that goal in winning those two gold medals, she will be delighted to have added a bronze medal behind favourite Dyana Calub, who set a games record of 28.97, and world short course champion Jennifer Carroll of Canada. The sprinters got off ahead of Price and although she closed down in the latter part of the race it was just too much to ask. In the end the race could have gone any way, as the first three ladies were covered by just 0.1s, with Calub not hitting the front until the last half metre.
The last individual final of the night was the 200m IM for men. Canada had high hopes that Brian Johns could win their first gold medal of the week, in what would appear to be their last realistic chance to do so. 400IM champion Justin Norris was not going to let him have it all his own way however and led the field home, having hit the front with 30m of the freestyle to go. England’s James Goddard had the lead down the backstroke leg and hung on through the breastroke but had no answer to the Norris front crawl. But Goddard held onto his form to take an impressive bronze medal, his second medal of the week. Adrian Turner improved on his lifetime best by over a second to also move past Goddard and take a fantastic silver with a very fast final 50m. Johns was disappointing, fading badly through the race, and the possibility of Canada not winning any individual golds in the able bodied events now seems distinctly likely.
With so many high quality English swims the stage was now set for the ladies 4x100m freestyle team. They had three swimmers in the individual 100m final, including bronze medallist form the race Karen Legg and had high hopes of beating the Australian. On paper however the Aussie team was the stronger, also having had three swimmers in the individual final including the champion Jodie Henry. The race unfolded in a most dramatic fashion and eventually came down to England, Canada and Australia for the medals. In the end the Australian depth told as they opened up a 1.5s lead by the time anchor swimmer Sarah Ryan hit the water, leaving Karen Pickering just too much to do. Australia came home first in a new games record, England took silver and Canada the bronze, just holding off a fast finishing Alison Sheppard in the Scotland team, who set a national record by more than 5.5 seconds in 4th. Wales also broke their national record by 2 seconds finishing 5th.
And so a remarkable evening’s swimming drew to a close, with the session completely dominated by Australia and England, who won 6 and 3 gold medals respectively, although England shaved the overall medal count thanks to those clean sweeps. With one more night to go this has been a competition to remember, and there are plenty more fireworks to come tomorrow.