Commonwealth Games 2014: World-class Fran Halsall back to her best in the pool
English swimmer is reborn after disastrous time at London 2012 while Adam Peaty upsets Ross Murdoch
Sunday 27 July 2014
Fran Halsall has been like a swimmer reborn here. Before the race her rivals for gold, the Campbell sisters, labelled her the "pocket rocket" and "smiling assassin" but in truth Australian siblings Cate and Bronte were expected to beat Halsall.
Instead, the English swimmer produced the quickest time – 23.96 seconds – ever recorded by a female in the 50m freestyle since the space-age suits were scrapped at the start of 2010. Currently the fastest woman on water, she is effectively the Usain Bolt of the pool.
It proved a golden night for England in the pool with Adam Peaty upstaging home favourite Ross Murdoch in the 100m breaststroke, with a world-class performance to match that of Halsall.
To add to Halsall's achievement, she returned 45 minutes later to break her personal best in the 50m butterfly, the event in which she is already defending champion. Not even a mix-up over equipment or the fact her heated pants stopped working as she tried to keep warm poolside could curtail her blazing a trail in Scottish waters.
"It's been like a fairy tale for me really to do my best time in the freestyle," she said. "Two best times in an evening in fact, you can't ask for much more than that. It's an evening that's going to stay with me for a very long time."
The path to the Commonwealth Games, though, has not been without its problems. Her personal nadir came at London 2012. Tipped as a potential star, she struggled behind the scenes with a shoulder injury and left the capital devastated with two fifth places her best results.
Events in the Tollcross pool, where she had already won silver in the 4x100m freestyle, have certainly eased the pain. The 24-year-old is smaller than many of her rivals but her power in the water and ability to virtually skim over the surface are her greatest talents.
Arguably the one issue that was holding her back was mental rather than physical. A change of coach to the former swimmer James Gibson has also meant a change of mental approach working with Sarah Broadhead, one of the proteges of the celebrated sports psychiatrist Professor Steve Peters.
"I'm not a person who shies away from a race, I'm a person that gets over-excited and overtires so it's about reeling me back and making sure I get the balance right, and Sarah makes me calm and ready to race fast after a difficult Olympics."
Despite the new-found mental fortitude she still felt sick on the start line due to a mixture of nerves and adrenalin, which she used to good effect, not once getting sidetracked by the swimmers around her to leave the Campbell sisters to have to make do with silver and bronze.
The new golden boy of Scottish swimming Murdoch could not make it double gold in the 100m breaststroke, instead having to make do with bronze as Peaty produced the swim of his life to upstage world record-holder Cameron van der Burgh with a Commonwealth Games record of 58.94sec.
Van der Burgh, Peaty's idol, set a fearsome pace from the outset but his 19-year-old rival showed amazing maturity to pace his own race to perfection and slowly reel him in during the final quarter.
"I'm so emotional right now," he said. "I can't believe it. It's a dream. I've studied his race for a long time and watched. He's my idol and my rival now. I just gave my country my best and it paid off."
The undoubted international star of the pool, Chad le Clos, who has targeted medals in seven events in these Games, admitted he had feared he was in danger of missing his No 1 event, the 200m breaststroke, after twisting his ankle as he stepped off the bus at the athletes' village shortly after midnight.
Of course, he was being watched by his family, including his larger-than-life-father Bert, all bedecked in red T-shirts with le Clos' picture on it and the word "Unbelievable", Bert's trademark catchphrase when interviewed after his son's golden moment in London 2012.
There was a silver and bronze respectively for Thomas Hamer in the para-sport 200m freestyle S14 and Molly Renshaw in the 200m breaststroke.
Georgia Davies added to Wales' tally with silver in the 100m backstroke while Jack Thomas won bronze behind Hamer in his race.
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