In a week where, at any one time, you could turn on your TV and take your pick of The Open, the Davis Cup, Tour de France, and the Ashes, one would be forgiven if they missed a particular piece of sports news along the line. However, when the world’s elite are in your own backyard, it should be pretty easy to keep up, right?
Well, in the case of the IPC World Swimming Championships, perhaps not so much. From 13-19 July, the world’s best para-swimmers competed at Tollcross Swimming Centre in Glasgow. And yet, surprisingly, the coverage by the mainstream media outlets amounted to little more than the occasional report on the BBC whenever a British swimmer succeeded in breaking a record or winning a medal (or in some cases, both). In the aftermath of a home Olympic and Paralympic Games in London in 2012, as well as the success of integrated para-sport in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, one would have thought that the hosting of a world championships for the first time on British soil would have deserved more recognition.
Having found out about the championships in the weeks leading up to the event, I went along to the Friday evening session to sample the competition and the atmosphere for myself. Arriving at Tollcross, the venue for the swimming events at Glasgow 2014, what immediately strikes you is how much it still feels like a community facility (which it, in fact, is). This can lead to some fairly unique experiences, like witnessing a fair number of the Irish swimming team in the café, or walking past members of Team Mexico on the way to the stands. The facility itself lends itself magnificently well to hosting elite competition, with the crowd generating a great atmosphere, despite a few empty seats.
Now, if you’ve watched para-swimming before, you’ll be aware that each swimmer is classified according to the type and severity of their impairment, as well as their chosen stroke. However, if you’re not a regular follower of the sport, such as yours truly, it can become quite confusing quite quickly. Thankfully, the organisers of the event swiftly put paid to such confusion, with helpful and informative videos on the big screen prior to the first race. As a result, I’m now able to tell you that classes S1-10 are for physical impairments (the lower the number, the more severe the impairment), classes S11-13 are for those with visual impairments (once again lower numbers mean more severe impairments), and S14 is for those with intellectual impairments, which comes in pretty handy when you’re trying to accurately report what happened!
The competition itself had everything. On the one night I attended, there were no fewer than six world records set, along with three additional championship records and innumerable area records. From a host nation’s point of view, there was success to cheer as well. Two of the surviving members of the London 2012 squad, Olly Hynd and Ellie Simmonds (left) both broke world records in claiming gold medals in front of a raucous crowd. Hynd’s record in the 400m S8 Freestyle, in particular, brought the house down, coming as it did in the first race of the night. Tully Kearney, one of the breakout stars of the championships, took home gold for the first time that week, going on to claim another the following evening, whilst at the other end of the experience spectrum, Sascha Kindred, in his seventh world championships, pipped his rivals to the gold medal in the S6 200m Individual Medley. Medals of different colours were cheered just as loudly, with Alice Tai claiming a surprise bronze in her race and Jessica-Jane Applegate coming off best in a battle for a silver medal.
But it wasn’t just about British success. The usual heavyweights of the pool threw their respective weights around, with Russia continuing their dominance of the medal table. Their victory in the 34 point 4×100 freestyle relay was one of the performances of the night, breaking the world record in the final race of the day. The USA, too, took their share of success, with Jessica Long cruising to victory in the 400m S8 Freestyle. And the Australians, whilst not taking home any gold medals on the night I attended, made their presence known through vocal support and a clutch of silver and bronzes.
Some races provided us with examples of absolute dominance. Daniel Dias (right), Brazil’s poster boy for para-sport, took home one of his seven gold medals for the championship, whilst Sophie Pascoe of New Zealand finished with clear water between her and the rest of the field. Yet there were close races too, with two tenths separating the top four in the women’s S5 50m Freestyle, and the aforementioned Kearney winning her race in a blanket finish.
There were outstanding performances, too, from nations you wouldn’t immediately associate with swimming. The national anthems of Cyprus, Thailand and Belarus were all heard, with Vietnam, Israel and Colombia all taking their places on the podium at various points in the evening. In short, success was truly global, as the previously casual fan of para-sport left Tollcross reliving some of the choicest highlights of the evening.
All of this, and more, begs the question ever louder- why, with such elite-level competition happening on our doorstep, are these athletes still the best in the world that you’ve probably never heard of?