Gillingham, the Olympic bronze medallist last year, won in 2min 12.49sec, a championship record, to defeat the man who had beaten him in the 100m on Tuesday, Hungary's Karoly Guttler. Only in the last few metres did the 26-year-old from Birmingham edge ahead and provide a victory that had been beyond the home swimmers the last time the championships were staged in this country in 1938.
In the shorter event Gillingham had been outclassed when Guttler produced the two fastest times in history in the heat and the final. 'I feel more in control in the 200m,' he had said then by way of consolation, but it appeared his hand had been wrenched off the tiller when his principal rival shot off his block.
At 50 metres Guttler was a second inside the world-record mark, a margin he maintained at the half-way point. Gillingham is the stylist of breaststroke, silky smooth through the water, but he looked languid and tired compared with the energetic thrashing of the man two feet ahead.
The temptation must have been to hurry his stroke but Gillingham refused to panic and slowly hauled Guttler in. 'I'd planned to go off fast and dictate the race,' he said, 'so it was a surprise to see Karoly ahead of me. I was going quickly so I knew he was setting a ridiculous pace. All I could do was keep my discipline and hope to overtake him in the last 50 metres.' The margin of victory was 0.77sec.
Normally the heats provide a clue to the evening finals but yesterday both men cloaked their form with slow times. Guttler went first, clocking 2:15.00, more than three seconds behind Gillingham's best time by a
European this year. On the basis that anything you can do I can do worse, Gillingham went marginally slower so both men had plenty in reserve.
Except that history was weighing on the reigning champion. 'When I was warming up all I could think about was that nobody had won this event three times,' Gillingham said. 'Perhaps I was expecting too much. My only consolation was that no one else had done the double before.
'Coming down the final length the noise was incredible. On every stroke it sounded as if the whole of Britain was cheering me on. I don't know if it was the crowd's reaction or if it was a tough race but I'm shaking.'
Before Gillingham put a gold lining on the evening, he was a fraction away from being upstaged by Paul Palmer. On this year's rankings the 18-year-old former European junior champion should have been nowhere near the men's 400m freestyle final but he qualified as third fastest and then was only 0.33sec away from winning it.
The final 100 metres saw him neck and neck with Finland's Antti Kasvio and it was only in the last few strokes that the Finn, also the winner of the 200m freestyle, stretched out to touch first. Palmer's 3:48.14 was a personal best by more than three seconds.
'A medal was on the cards,' Palmer, who was fourth in the 200m, said, 'but I was worried about some of the swimmers in the outside lanes. I hung on to Kasvio and didn't see anyone else. The silver will do for today.'
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