Commonwealth Games: Swimming: Pickering shows mettle

AUSTRALIA'S arrogance was quickly diminished here on Friday night when 22-year-old Karen Pickering won the first of the swimming finals that the Australians had boasted they would dominate.

Australia had done enough harm to the 'Friendly Games' through comments about disabled sportsmen and women by the head of their delegation Arthur Tunstall, but claims by their swimmers that they would complete a clean sweep of gold medals invited an instant reply.

Pickering, from Ipswich, provided it in the 100 metres freestyle, thus adding to the world short course championship gold medal she had already won. Her aim is to become the first English swimmer to win both the 100m and 200m freestyle events since June Croft 12 years ago.

Pickering dented the confidence of both the Australians and Canadians who are still expected to dominate the swimming events at the Saanich pool here. Her time of 56.20 seconds, a Commonwealth Games record, forced Australian Karen Van Wirdum into second in 56.42 with Marion Limpert third in 56.54. Undeterred, Van Wirdum immediately used a TV interview to propose to her boyfriend back home in Australia. 'Now he can't say no,' she said.

The English record-holder gave notice of her gold medal chances by being the fastest qualifier. Van Wirdum, who won the gold medal four years ago, said after the heats: 'Karen Pickering is the one to beat.' After 50 metres of the final it was obvious that she was right.

Australian Sarah Ryan was first at the split, but she faded over the second half and Van Wirdum came through for the silver ahead of Limpert.

'It's brilliant,' Pickering beamed. 'After the heats this morning I knew I was in with a good chance of taking the gold medal. I knew Karen would be tough to beat because she tends to rise to the occasion, but I was watching out for her.

'I just wanted to be in the top half at 50m because I know I am strong over the second half.'

Limpert admitted being intimidated by having Pickering next to her. 'I just couldn't help myself watching her out of the corner of my eye - that's always my fault, minding other people's business,' she said.

Pickering's victory in the opening final at the Commonwealth pool was a welcome tonic for the England team - and she added to her medal collection when she anchored the 4 x 200m relay team to silver.

'I'm just hoping that everyone else can follow suit and get the same buzz as me,' Pickering said. 'Morale is great and I'm sure there's more to come from the team.'

The relay quartet, which also included Sarah Hardcastle, Clarie Huddart and Alex Bennett, clipped one and a half seconds off the British record with a time of 8:09.62, behind Australia, who won five of the six swimming golds on day one.

One of the most keenly anticipated events in the pool, the 100m breaststroke clash between England's veteran 27- year-old Nick Gillingham, from Sutton Coldfield, Australia's Philip Rogers and defending champion Jon Cleveland of Canada, fully justified its billing when Gillingham put up a massive challenge to Rogers, missing out the final touch by only three hundredths of a second to the clearly relieved Australian.

Gillingham, the world short course champion, so nearly compensated for winning only bronze medals in Auckland four years ago. Even so he has now won medals in every major championshp: Olympics, World, European, and Commonwealth.

'Obviously I am disappointed,' Gillingham said. 'I thought I had won and to lose by three hundredths of a second is frustrating.

'But I came to these championships with the aim of winning gold in the 200m breaststroke and that's still my aim.' Claire Bishop, a 17-year- old student from Buckinghamshire, just failed in her bid to win a gold as she was overhauled by Australian Melissa Carlton over the last quarter of the 100m for disabled swimmers.

(Photograph omitted)