CG day 6: Aussies bounce back in some style

The final evening of competition at the Manchester Aquatics centre saw the final 7 events decided as swimming brought the 17th Commonwealth Games to a close. The session proved a fitting finale to a quite outstanding meet and saw yet more high quality swimming, as everyone battled for those last few golds. In the end though it was Australia’s night as they finally asserted their dominance on the 2002 games.

First up was Mark Foster who was attempting to win an unprecedented third consecutive title in the men’s 50m freestyle. He was up a against it with Aussie Brett Hawke and Commonwealth record holder Roland Schoeman of South Africa determined to stop him winning. In the end it was all over in a flash and a huge wave of white water as Schoeman went form the gun and was never headed, despite the best efforts of Hawke and Foster. The South African hung on hard in the final 5m to win his country’s first gold of the meet in the able bodied events in a slower than expected time of 22.33. Foster picked up a bronze, but was disappointed with the way he swam. He will be back for the short course season later this year.

The women’s 200m fly final saw Petria Thomas aiming to compete a clean sweep of the butterfly events, having already won the 50 and 100 races. On paper she was well clear of the field and so it proved in the pool as well. The world record had been broken just a few hours earlier in Berlin at the European Championships, and for a while it looked as though that was on for Thomas, but she fell behind schedule in the latter stages as she won in 2.08.40. Behind her Georgie Lee was consolidating a fantastic second place in a time of 2.10.78. Meanwhile Marge Peddar was doing a fine impersonation of her Portsmouth team-mate Katy Sexton, overhauling Canadian Jenny Button in the last 10m to take an hugely unexpected bronze, her first at this level.

The breaststroke events have been a profitable hunting ground for the English swimmers so far this week, as the home team have won 5 of the 6 available medals, and they were hopeful of continuing that dominance in the 200m final. Joining 100m winner Adam Whitehead were Northern Ireland’s Andrew Bree who set a superb lifetime best to qualify for the final, and Scotland’s Ian Edmond, who swimming from Lane 8 could not be discounted for the medal placings. The favourite on rankings was Australian Commonwealth record holder Jim Piper, although he has looked out of form in the Manchester pool, so hopes were high of a British triumph. The race that developed was an intriguing one, as Piper, Whitehead and Edmond too k the race by the scruff of the neck in the first 50m, but it was Piper who headed the way through the halfway stage on world record pace. He had a 1.5s lead at the 150m turn and held on to win in 2.13.10, holding off a superb charge form South African Terence Parkin who finished like a train. Canadian Mike Brown took the final medal, and for once there were no home swimmers on the rostrum. Whitehead was 4th, Bree 5th in a new national record and Edmond faded to a disappointing 6th.

It was starting to look as though Australia were going to totally dominate the session as the swimmers took to the deck for the women’s 400IM. Jenny Reilly had qualified significantly faster than the rest of the finalists and surely could not be prevented from taking her first gold of the week. Canada had all their hopes pinned on number 1 ranked Liz Warden to win their first gold of the week, their last chance to do so, and New Zealand were hoping the Liz van Welie could take their second medal. Van Welie took it out hard and lead from the fly leg, having competed in the 200 fly final earlier in the session, faded slightly on the backstroke. Reilly and Warden came though to battle for the lead, despite Reilly completely missing her backstroke turn and not using a tumble. Warden made a brave bid through the breaststroke 100 and pegged the Australian back as did van Welie, but Reilly turned first into the last leg. Reilly had won silver on the 800 freestyle, so the battle that ensued was not at all expected as the Kiwi closed the leader right down. In the end the distance pedigree showed as Reilly held on to take the gold. Van Welie took silver but Warden couldn’t hold on for third, which went to Aussie Jessica Abbot, despite a phenomenal last 100m from Rebecca Cooke who came from absolutely nowhere at 300m to challenge hard for the bronze. In the end she had to settle for 5th, but set a new lifetime best by 3 seconds in 4.47. She is now only one second over the longest standing British record on the books, Sharron Davies’ 4.46 from the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

The men’s 1500m freestyle was the nearest you could have to a sure thing in sport, as World record holder and world and Olympic champion Grant Hackett took to the water. He ahs not been beaten over this distance for 6 years, but would have to contend with Scotland’s Graeme Smith to maintain that winning streak. Smith was after another sub-15 minute swim and was aiming for the European Record of 14:50, held by Germany’s Jorg Hoffman. The race started as it was to go on, as Hackett took it out hard leading by more than 2m after only 30m of the race and was 3 seconds ahead after 100m. By 200m the race was over as a contest and Hackett was set in for a solo swim against the clock. Smith was locked in a battle with second Aussie Craig Stevens for the minor placings and England’s Adam Faulkner was never far behind. At the halfway point, Hackett was 10s ahead, but Smith was just on course for a sub 15-minute swim as he led Stevens and Faulkner through 750m. The pace of the race dropped though the second half though, as Hackett took his foot off the pedal and the rest of the field seemed to do so as well. Hackett still won easily in 14.54.29 the only man under 15 minutes. Whatever he tried, Smith just couldn’t shake Stevens though, until he finally managed get clear water over him in the last 100m to take silver, but will be disappointed with his time of 15.07. That medal crowns a fantastic meet for the Scottish team. 17-year old David Davies smashed the Welsh Record in 15.17.87 to finish 5th.

That only left the two medley relays to finish off the evening and the competition, The Australians being the clear favourites to take both. The England team did not include Karen Pickering for the first time in a many, many meets, but still had an outside chance of upsetting the form book, provided they could counter the Canadian and South African challenge. They could not have got off to a better start as Sarah Price opened up a lead of three quarters of a second over the favourites. It was always a big task for Kate Haywood on the breaststroke as Liesel Jones and South Africa’s Sarah Poewe took her on, whilst Rhiannon Leier put Canada well back in contention. Nonetheless, Haywood held onto Jones but it Poewe who set Mandy Loots off ahead of the field onto the third leg. Loots was hunted down by Petria Thomas, but the final leg was next and neck as England were left to battle for bronze with Canada. Individual 100m winner Jodie Henry was just too tough on the anchor though and Australia took the gold in yet another games record. Meanwhile fantastic anchor leg form Karen Legg saw England in bronze with a creditable British record of 4.05.65. Scotland set a Scottish record by 6 seconds in 6th.

So the final event, the men’s medley relay, brought the curtain down on Manchester 2002 and it was highly appropriate that one Ian Thorpe would have the final word as Australia clinched every gold in the session. He anchored home the Australian team to a commanding victory in the 36th Games record of the week and he won his 6th gold. Matt Welsh had given them the lead from the start and from that point on the result was never in doubt, despite the best efforts of the England team who took the silver in a new British record, with a superb anchor leg from Matt Kidd who held off the challenge of South Africa’s Ryk Neethling despite swimming though Thorpe’s wake. Canada also pipped the South African’s to take the bronze.

It’s been a fantastic week’s swimming and one that was far better than was expected for the home nations. Australia will probably be the best team in the Commonwealth by quite some margin. Roll on the world championships in Barcelona next year!