Tiffany Keep started the gold rush on the dirt in the morning but Team SA’s swimmers sprinkled pure stardust into the water as they enjoyed a memorable evening in the pool at the African Games on Wednesday, writes GARY LEMKE.
Keep gave the team their first gold of the Games at the women’s mountain biking cross-country, after judo secured two silvers at the weekend. However, the evening brought a flood of medals as the swimmers won six golds, three silvers and two bronzes.
That gave the code 11 medals on the day – and the good news is that there are still three more days in which to add to that tally.
Head coach Graham Hill, who was at his first African Games in Johannesburg in 1999, couldn’t wipe the smile off his face as he watched the hard work pay dividends in Casablanca. ‘You have to enjoy nights like these,’ he said. ‘It’s impossible to pick out a single performance when it comes to excellence, but we had three swimmers break African records and then to see both the men and women win the 4x100m freestyle relays was inspiring. What a way to end off an incredible night,’ he said.
South Africa climbed all the way up to third on the medals table by the end of the day’s programme, with seven golds, five silvers and two bronze medals, and only Egypt and Algeria ahead of them. The golds in the pool came from Erin Gallagher, Kaylene Corbett, Michael Houlie, Martin Binedell and the two relay teams, while Samantha Randle scooped two silvers of her own and Christin Mundle also claimed a silver, and Emma Chelius and Carla Antonopoulos took bronzes.
We have become accustomed to our swimmers hitting the high notes on the big stage, bigger it has to be admitted than what the African Games has to offer. However, one has to recognise the depth of South African swimming. There is no Chad le Clos at these Games, no Tatjana Schoenmaker and, obviously, no Cameron van der Burgh.
Yet, the next generation is gathering momentum and the first gold medal of the night was delivered by the 20-year-old Erin Gallagher, who broke the Games record in the women’s 100m freestyle, going from start to finish to touch first in 55.13sec, with Emma Chelius taking the bronze.
However, Gallagher is no ‘newbie’; she’s someone who has been on the blocks for quite a while now. ‘It’s weird to be considered a senior in this squad,’ she said. ‘I feel like a mom, I suppose I have been around a long time. I was in the national team at 15, but got injured for two years. It feels like a long career, but I’ve got more than enough time to still set my mind to it and achieve what I want to achieve.
‘Tonight I went out too quick and felt it the second 50 [metres]. That’s why the time wasn’t so great, but the best part of it was sharing the podium with Emma,’ she added.
Facilities inside the arena are more than adequate and there was nothing wrong with the acoustics either as the South African anthem rang out loud and proud six times during the course of the evening.
Binedell, who won the 200m backstroke, found the roof to be a bit of a distraction, but hastily added that ‘It’s the same for all of us’. In the Gold Coast at the Commonwealth Games last year he had the luxury of staring at the mostly blue sky but at the indoor swimming arena in Casablanca the roof has a circular set of spotlights and countries’ flags. ‘It can be a bit disorientating. We backstrokers work off lane ropes, so it’s kind of misleading … want to follow the curves of the roof. In the last 25 metres of the third 50 I hit the lane and had to put in a big turn after that, had to stick to my process,’ the 24-year-old said after winning in 159.03.
It was the second time in the day that he had broken the Games record, but Binedell knows that he can go quicker – after all, this was less than his personal best. ‘The morning plan was a 2:02 because I wasn’t feeling too great, but I went 2:01 and blew out the cobwebs and then tonight I pulled out a 1:59, so I have to be happy.’
There were smiles all round as Team SA made a huge statement, and one of those beaming was Houlie, who won the 50m breaststroke gold in 27.41. The University of Tennessee freshman – he left South Africa at the beginning of this year after matriculating at Bishops in Cape Town – said he was loving life at the moment. ‘I’m having so much fun and my swimming has gone to the next level. It took me time to get used to yards swimming in the USA, but I love the environment and it’s on another level when it comes to being competitive.
‘I just want to improve … the goal for me is the Tokyo Olympics next year. I have to work hard. But, I’m happy and positive when it comes to on pool deck. I’m having fun and loving it,’ the 19-year-old said.
With 14 medals now in the bank – and swimming having the lion’s share of them on 11 – the pressure has been taken off the other codes, but history has shown that when South Africa’s swimmers bring their A game it rubs off positively on to the rest of the team. Thursday could be another big day.