This was truly one of the golden nights in South African sporting history as Chad le Clos, Cameron van der Burgh and Tatjana Schoenmaker produced special performances in the pool, while Akani Simbine was crowned Commonwealth champion in the men’s 100m on the track, writes GARY LEMKE on Australia’s Gold Coast.
It was as if the planets were all aligned in favour of South Africa. In the space of an hour, Van der Burgh stunned world record holder Adam Peaty in the 50m breaststroke for his third straight Commonwealth Games title over that distance; Schoenmaker won her second gold of the Games and did it in style, breaking Penny Heyns’ 100m breaststroke record that had stood since 1999, while Chad le Clos completed a clean sweep of the butterfly titles, winning his third gold and becoming the most prolific swimming medallist in Games history. Then, kilometres down the road, Akani Simbine won the men’s 100m sprint on the track.
It felt as though Madiba was sprinkling his magic from the night skies all over the Gold Coast.
Just for good measure, Christian Sadie, the 20-year-old para-swimmer, picked up a silver as South Africa signed off the penultimate night in the pool with a total of 10 medals – six of them gold, to go with two silvers and two bronzes.
‘I don’t know where to start. Cameron was phenomenal, one of the best performances I’ve seen him do and obviously Tatjana’s a superstar,’ Le Clos, winning the 16th Commonwealth Games medal of his career, said. ‘I knew I had to win, and that there was pressure. I knew James [Guy] would come out guns blazing, but I kept my cool,’ he said, after a start to finish victory in a Games record 50.65.
‘I’ve had 13 races at these championships and I couldn’t have had a better week individually. I’m very happy and very proud of myself personally. I’m humbled. If I break the performances down, they were expected. I knew there was a lot of pressure, but it was a good win tonight.
‘I’ll be honest. Cameron’s win was very special. We’ve trained together for a year. What he’s gone through with Peaty over the last few years, for him to win that race tonight was unbelievable. And Tatjana won so easily again. For me to come back in 50.6 and swim pretty much my best time after 13 races … unbelievable. And that’s 16 Commonwealth medals now. And Akani Simbine, unbelievable.’
Le Clos was draped in a big South African flag that someone in the crowd had passed to him and the giant of the pool has come to the party this week, showing Australia, the Commonwealth and the world, just how special he is.
Van der Burgh had been the underdog against Peaty in the 50m breaststroke but stunned the world when he led from start to finish to touch first.
Afterwards, the 29-year-old was understandably elated, and a bit emotional. ‘To get the triple 50 breaststroke after it all started in 2010 in New Delhi is incredible. To finish my Commonwealth Games career on such a high and to do it against Adam is really special. We have a tough rivalry and to see my flag and my national anthem … when I look back it will be one of the highlights.
‘We knew these championships would not see a world record time, it was always a racer’s championship. I got one up on him … it’s not every day you beat the world record holder. I had a good dive and felt ahead the whole way.’
Schoenmaker herself still hadn’t felt the enormity of what she has achieved. She has visibly grown before our very eyes this week and took down Penny Heyns’ record of 1:06.52 that has stood since 1999 and replaced it with a 1:06.41. She has simply got faster and faster with every swim.
‘It hasn’t sunk in yet,’ she said afterwards. ‘I’ll probably get emotional when I’m about to go to bed. The 200m was my main one, this one I’m just happy it was half the distance. I never actually thought I’d medal in the 100. It’s amazing to break Penny’s record, which has been standing 20 years. I don’t feel any different, Chad and them, Cameron … they’re still the top guns,’ a humble Schoenmaker said.
The reality is that this is South Africa’s time. As Van der Burgh looked towards the final few laps of his career, Le Clos is at his peak and Schoenmaker is an irresistible rising force. Right now, it feels good to be South African.
Earlier, para-swimmer Sadie had become the fourth different South African swimmer to win a medal when he claimed the silver in the S7 50m freestyle. ‘I didn’t have a good underwater [rate] but the swim itself went great. I have been struggling to get under 30 seconds and am looking for more consistency so this will give me confidence. I can’t wait to get back to South Africa and work up to the Nationals.’
Also in a final was Martin Binedell who produced the quickest swim of his career in the morning, a 1:57.92, to lead the list of qualifiers into the evening final, where he was given the treasured lane four. In the final, he again produced a personal best, a 1:57.87, but this time it was only good enough for sixth in a race where Australians made it a 1-2-3 podium. But, for the South African, an improvement from being 22nd at last year’s World Championships to sixth in the Commonwealth Games and two PBs to his name. He’ll still be walking on air right now.
And Kate Beavon, despite tailing the field, can talk of the day she produced an 8:49.16 time in the final, which was exactly the same as she had recorded in reaching the final. All the while, Erin Gallagher continued her progress as a swimmer with a huge future after placing sixth in the freestyle final.
Elsewhere, Brad Tandy, who had finished sixth at the Rio Olympics, has one of the fastest starts in swimming. Again he got off the blocks and led all the way to win his semi-final in 21.92, slightly slower than the morning’s 21.78. ‘I felt it could be a little quicker but the main aim was to make the final. We’ll have a look at the footage and see where to go.’ Only Ben Proud, with a Games record 21.30, qualified with a faster time.
And with that, Tandy was off to get ready for the 50m breaststroke final which was less than 30 minutes later.
Photo of Cameron van der Burgh by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images