Three more medals, two of them gold, went into the bank as South Africa’s swimmers continued to do their part to ensure the country has something to celebrate, writes GARY LEMKE in Gold Coast, Australia.
Chad le Clos outclassed a quality field to win his third straight 200 metre Commonwealth Games butterfly title, breaking the event record in the process and ensuring he becomes part of Games folklore.
And on a truly memorable evening for South Africa, Tatjana Schoenmaker produced the performance of her life to claim the gold in the 200m breaststroke. The 20-year-old from Pretoria has planted herself well and truly on the international swimming landscape and her 2:22.02 performance was an African record. It also sliced some 1.55 seconds off her personal best and she left England’s Molly Renshaw trailing in her wake.
Having finished a close fourth in the 50m breaststroke final, Schoenmaker has thrust herself into the spotlight and next on the radar is the 100m. South Africa hasn’t been as excited about a female breaststroker since Penny Heyns ruled the world – and here at the Commonwealth Games, Schoenmaker has gone faster in both the 50 and the 200m than the legendary Heyns ever did. Records might be there to be broken – the 200m belonged to Suzaan van Biljon – but one gets the impression we’re on the verge of something really special.
‘I was surprised by the fast time. I saw underwater that I had touched first and then turned and saw the time on the scoreboard. I gave it my all and don’t think I can go faster. I gave it my all,’ she said, clutching her gold medal from the medal ceremony while the tears weren’t far away. This was the first of her major championship medals. It certainly won’t be the last.
Someone who is used to medals though is Le Clos. ‘I wanted to get the three 200m titles, which makes me the first man to win the same event three times in a row. Tonight was all about history. It was business right from the start and I was out to get the job done and come back unscathed. I want to be in the mix of things in the 100m freestyle final which is tomorrow night,’ South Africa’s superstar said afterwards.
Le Clos had 24 hours earlier won the 50m butterfly gold and he’s now odds-on to get the full house, with the 100m as well. He arrived on the Gold Coast on a mission and while the all-time Commonwealth Games record of 18 is out of reach, his two medals thus far put him on 14 – and counting.
‘I wanted to go out hard tonight. It was my fastest ever 150m split and with complete respect to the rest of the swimmers, at that point, I knew the race was over, even though it was physically painful. I just wanted to stay comfortable but on the final 50m. I heard the crowd pick up a bit and thought they were catching me. And I thought, “oh my goodness please not”. But, it was a good time, and I’m very happy.’
The reality is that Le Clos was in a league of his own and led from start to finish. He reached 50m first in 24.83 and from there simply kept on stretching that lead. Halfway arrived in 53.41 and at the 150m mark, the clock showed 1:23.15. He came home alone, leaving plenty of water between himself and David Morgan, of Australia. Le Clos touched in 1:54.00, some 2.36 seconds ahead of the silver medallist.
He was back in the pool just over an hour later for his 100m freestyle semi-final. The event is an Australian institution but Le Clos was intent on shaking things up. He flew off the blocks and was never headed, coming home ahead of Australia’s Olympic champion Kyle Chambers in 48.61, placing him second fastest going into Sunday’s final.
This was a good night for South Africa’s swimmers. Cameron van der Burgh settled for the bronze in the 100m breaststroke and he admitted that nowadays it’s all about the love of the sport and that’s what keeps him going. England’s Adam Peaty was a predictable winner in a Games record 58.84, and his countryman James Wilby flashed up late to grab the silver in 59.43, a hundredth of a second ahead of Van der Burgh.
The 2012 Olympic champion and multiple major championships gold medallist and former world record holder is always brutally honest and he admitted that ‘I’m at that stage of my life where I’ve got a lot of (good) things happening outside of the pool and I’m swimming for the love of the sport.
‘The boys have been having a fun time at these championships and it’s been great to be part of the group. I came into the race – which was swum a matter of 10 minutes after Le Clos’ 200m butterfly final – motivated by Chad’s gold and I’m so happy for him and the rest of the team. I knew there wasn’t going to be a world record and it wasn’t going to be that fast, given the open air pool and the conditions, but I came to race and am happy with the medal. At the end of the day, people remember the medals, they don’t remember the times.’
Van der Burgh is now the senior statesman of breaststroke swimming and he turns 30 in May. These are his last Commonwealth Games and he still has the 50m breaststroke to look forward to – ‘that’s probably my best race at this stage of my life,’ he said – but he hasn’t closed the door on another Olympics, at Tokyo 2020.
‘We’ll have to see how things go, but I’m enjoying swimming and if I go to Tokyo it will be for the right reasons.’
Someone at the other end of their career is 19-year-old Erin Gallagher who marked her arrival on the big stage with a fifth-place finish in the 50m freestyle, where she timed 25.03 in her first major championship final. ‘I probably tried to rush things a bit and lost a bit of rhythm, but I’m learning all the time and this experience will help me going forward. There’s a lot more to come,’ she said.
Photo: Chad le Clos by Roger Sedres/Gallo Images