The Para swimming competition at Birmingham 2022 got off to a great start with the first world record of this year’s Commonwealth Games, an emotional farewell and a stunning win from a crowd’s favourite.
Alice Tai brought the house down at the Sandwell Aquatics Centre on the third night of finals on Sunday (31 July) with her victory in the women’s 100m backstroke S8 final (1:13.64).
It was Tai’s first major gold in three years as an elbow injury prevented her from competing at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, and she started this year with a surgery to amputate her foot.
“I can’t believe that just happened. I’m trying hard not to cry,” the 23-year-old said. “It’s a bit surreal. I started last season with surgery. I had to pull out of Tokyo and had an amputation in January. I’ve been learning to walk this year and then getting back in the pool was a just a bit of fun - I missed swimming.”
Asked what went through her mind when she saw she had won, Tai said:
“Insanity. First of all, I just felt I was gonna cry. For where I am in training, I’ve not trained enough so I’m not as fit as I should be.
“I saw the New Zealand girl when I came off the turn and I was like, ‘Whoa, not in front of a home crowd.’ I swum for my life pretty much,” Tai added, referring to Tokyo 2020 champion Tupou Neiufu who finished second (1:17.91).
Lily Rice took the bronze medal for Wales (1:23.06).
New generation shines
Youngest athlete on New Zealand’s swimming team at Birmingham 2022, 17-year-old Joshua Willmer picked the other gold medal up for grabs on Sunday beating Australia’s Timothy Hodge by 0.07 in the men’s 100m breaststroke SB8 final.
Third place also went to Australia with Blake Cochrane (1:18.97).
It was Hodge’s second medal in Birmingham as he had already triumphed in the men’s 100m backstroke S9 in the first day of competition on Friday (29).
The Aussie set a new Games record in 1:01.88 leaving New Zealand’s Jesse Reynolds in second (1:03.65) and Northern Ireland’s Barry McClements in third (1:05.09).
The Australian Dolphins were also responsible for the first world record* set at the Sandwell Aquatics Centre.
Katja Dedekind won the women’s 50m freestyle S13 in 26.56 on Saturday (30). Her mark was 0.11 faster than the previous record from Italy’s Carlota Gilli in 2018.
"Is it? Oh wow, that’s icing on the cake, my first long-course world record and to do it at the Commonwealth Games where it’s the first vision impaired competition for Para athletes to be invited is pretty exciting," the 20-year-old said.
The victory came only 44 days after her world title at Madeira 2022.
“I thought Worlds was [the] best time that I could do this year and to be honest, if that was my best time of the year, I would have been happy but a personal best and a world record, Commonwealth Games champion and world champion all in the same year … stoked."
England’s Hannah Russel took the silver medal (27.67) and Dedekind’s teammate Kirralee Hayes, the bronze (28.24).
Pasco wins in Cole's farewell
There was another emotional final in the women’s 100m freestyle S9 on Friday (29). New Zealand’s Paralympic legend Sophie Pascoe bagged her fifth gold in the Commonwealth Games (1:02.95) in a race that marked the farewell to Australia’s most decorated Paralympian Ellie Cole.
“Walking away from the pool and looking behind me one last time, I think that's when it really hit me,” said Cole, who embraced long-time rival Pascoe after her final event. “It's really special to be a Paralympian, I don't think I can really put into words how much the Paralympic movement has completely changed my life.”
Winner Pascoe said she has considered a similar decision but will take time off the sport to reflect on her future steps.
"I really shouldn't say this… The goal was to take every year as it comes and I'm going to revaluate life after this, whether I get back in the pool or I don't,” the 11-time Paralympic champion said. “I wouldn't say this is the end in the pool for sure."
Cole finished fifth in her last race as her teammate Emily Beecroft picked a silver (1:03.74) with mere 0.01 separating her from Scotland’s bronze medallist Toni Shaw.
Canada was the other country to bag a gold medal over the weekend. Nicolas Turbide won the men’s 50m freestyle S13 on Saturday (30) in the closest Para swimming final so far at Birmingham 2022.
He clocked 24.32 beating Scotland’s Stephen Clegg by 0.01. Australia’s Jacob Templeton ended in third (24.47).
The swimming programme continues at the Sandwell Aquatics Centre until Wednesday (3 August) with two Para swimming finals per session.
Complete schedule and results are available here.
*World record subject to ratification by World Para Swimming.