By Mark Etheridge
Team South Africa’s Paralympic medal chase is off to a golden start after swimmer Kevin Paul powered his way to breaststroke gold in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday night.
Paul, 25, won the SB9 100-metre event in 1min 04.86sec to win his second Paralympic gold medal after doing the same in Beijing eight years ago.
In London four years ago, Paul had to settle for silver in his keynote event.
Paul, formerly of Port Elizabeth but now training in Pinetown, KwaZulu-Natal with national swimming coach Graham Hill, got off to a great start.
But at the halfway mark he was lying second and Ukraine swimmer Denys Dubrov looked to have stolen a march on the South African. But Paul is noted for his strong finish and that came to the fore as he got up to edge Dubrov into silver (1.05.10).
Earlier Paul had dominated his heat, winning in 1:06.19 to book his place in the final.
’It wasn’t my personal best but tonight was never about time, it was about getting into that pool and getting to the 100m first. I can jump into the pool next week and swim a faster time but it’s not going to get me a Paralympic gold,’ said Paul after getting gold.
‘My coach and I discussed this beforehand and it was about going out comfortably and steady.’
‘Looking back at Beijing and getting on to those blocks as a 17-year-old and getting away with a gold I don’t think I really knew what it meant but now I truly appreciate it now and also how much work goes into it.’
Referring to his training group, Paul said: ‘It’s such a competitive group and you get there at 5am and just see everyone there with the same goal as you. It wasn’t just me in the pool tonight, it was the whole squad, coach and family etc.’
Paul can now take a bit of a breather before his 200 Individual Medley later in the Games.
In other swimming action teenager Alani Ferreira started what could be a long and successful Paralympic career as she competed in the S13 100m butterfly.
She ended sixth in 1:24.23, more than 17sec off the pace but the Epworth High School (Pietermaritzburg) schoolgirl can be excused her share of debutant nerves.
Although she failed to progress to the final, she was still over the moon, if a little shell-shocked.
‘Wow wow wow wow wow….what an experience! It hit me on my way to the call room that I was at the Paralympics.
‘I felt ready to go for it but when I got behind the block my legs did not agree￼, they went numb, and nerves and the shock hit me like a brick wall￼. I hit a blank and went out way too fast but I can surely say I tried my best￼.
‘And despite all my first time race effects I still swam an S13 100m fly African record and have had the experience of a life time swimming my first ‘big race’ which I will never forget.
‘Now its time to focus on the next one, and really push myself to the limit. This is definitely the beginning of something new.’
Ferreira certainly has something to look forward to as she qualified in no fewer than four events for Rio at the nationals in Durban earlier this year.
In track action it was Hilton Langenhoven in T12 400m semi-final action and there was heartache for the veteran Olympian as he ended second in 49.99 behind Portugal’s Luis Goncalves (49.99) but ended up being disqualified for running outside his lane.
Langenhoven had opened his Rio road with an easy victory in the heats as he cantered to a season’s best 50.26.
T44 track action saw Arnu Fourie safely through to the final of the T44 100m action.
And he was part of a Paralympic record race as 2012 Paralympian gold medallist Jonnie Peacock won in 10.81sec. Fourie, a gold medal winner in 2012 as part of the 4x400m relay team, clocked 11.19 to book his place in the final.
In the second heat fellow South African Mpumi Mhlongo was fifth in 11.33 as Kiwi Liam Malone blitzed to a T43 record or 10.90.
Mhlongo, originally from KwaZulu-Natal but now studying at UCT, blasted out of the blocks to be right up there but fell back in the final 30m.
And two-time Paralympian Roxy Burns was the first Team SA cyclist in action in the C1-3 3km Individual Pursuit.
The Cape Town rider ended 11th in 4min 43.478sec. That was 38.098 behind winner Megan Giglia of Great Britain.
But there was consolation in disappointment as she is in action in three separate events in Rio and this was certainly not her best event.
The world record got smashed twice during the day’s action and as cycling coach Ricky Kulsen (he served in the same position four years ago in London) said: ‘She rode a personal best as a C3 athlete. She lost valuable time by riding too wide but otherwise it was good.’
Her previous best was a 4:46.