After all those barren Olympic evenings in the Aquatics Centre Great Britain won a gold medal on the very first night of Paralympic swimming. Jonathan Fox, a 21-year-old born in Plymouth, won the S7 100m backstroke in 1min 10.46sec, just outside the world record of 1min 09.86sec he set in the morning's heats. That is a little quicker than it takes him to solve a Rubik's Cube, something the ever so slightly eccentric Fox does obsessively to wind down between races.
With Hannah Russell winning one silver in the S12 400m freestyle and Nyree Kindred another in S6 100m backstroke, the Paralympic team had more success in the space of three hours than their Olympic companions did in eight days. There is no need to push the comparison any further than that. The Paralympians deserve to have the stage to themselves, after all.
But it was a novelty to hear the national anthem ringing out around the Aquatics Centre, belted out by a crowd that was conspicuously more patriotic than any that had gathered here during the Olympics. Fox loved every minute of it, pumping his fist to urge them on. "This comes once every four years," he said through a grin. "You just want to stop time for a second and feel the atmosphere." His extended family were all in the stands; aunts, uncles, cousins, his parents and brother. A party of 12 had made the trip up from the family home in Cornwall to watch him race.
Fox, who has cerebral palsy, had no idea that his was Britain's first swimming gold of the summer. He lives, trains and races in a bubble of his own. "I didn't know that was the first," he said. "I was so focused on my swim, it is tunnel vision from the moment you step into the call room till the moment you hit that wall." It was his second Paralympic medal, after the silver he won as a 17-year-old in this same event back in Beijing. Given his form and the fact that he is racing in three more events this week, he will probably add one or two more before the Games are over.
"I thought I was going to pip the world record again," Fox said. "But I am just really happy that I have got that gold medal, the final is all about getting that medal around your neck." He led at the 50m turn but said that with 25m to go his legs "blew up". In the lane outside Fox, the Ukrainian Yevhiney Bohodayko started to eat into the body length's lead that had seemed so secure moments earlier. "There is always that thing in the back of your mind," Fox said. "That guy in lane five coming back at you, sniffing his way back at you, and you are dying inside, you just want to finish it, so I stuck to it and hit the wall first." It was only then, he said, that he heard the roar of the crowd.
Russell's freestyle final was an even better race. She was neck and neck with Russia's Oxana Savchenko throughout the first 300m, never more than a quarter of a second behind. Savchenko pulled ahead at the final turn and went on to win by 0.72sec. Russell is only 16 and had not even expected to qualify for these Games. She was focused on Rio 2016. In the heats, though, she knocked three seconds off her personal best. She matched that in the final, setting a British record of 4min 37.88sec. She has had to fit her preparation around her GCSEs – she sat three of them while she was at the team training camp in Majorca. "I got my results a few weeks ago," she said. "An A*, three Bs and four Cs. Overall, along with training, it has been quite a struggle trying to balance it all, so to come out with those grades and this medal, I am so, so happy."
Russell is visually impaired, which means that she, and her competitors, do not know the result of the race until they are out of the pool. "In the last 50m the crowd were cheering so much I had an idea I must be close," she said. "So I wanted to keep my head down and kick as hard as I can. I was really confused when I finished, we all just congratulated each other, though we don't have a clue what we had done." When she got out, she found she had done better than she ever imagined was possible. "This is a dream come true for me."
Kindred is at the other end of her career. She is only 31 but this is her fourth Paralympics. She had broken the Paralympic record in the heats and did it again in the final. The only trouble was that China's Lu Dong, a double amputee, broke the world record in the same race. Kindred, who has cerebral palsy, was delighted with her silver, the 10th Paralympic medal of her career. Her husband Sascha is also a Paralympic swimmer and between them they now have a collection of 21 medals.
Kindred took 2011 off so she could have a child, Ella. "I came back and thought, 'I have to give London a go because it is my home Games. Who knows what could happen?' And I have trained hard and come away with a silver medal, which just shows that if you try, you can do anything." Her daughter was waiting for her by the side of the pool. "She was with my friend in a union flag dress looking all patriotic and ready to cheer on her dad later in the week." Lu's 1min 24.71sec was one of two world records on the night, along with the 2min 25.65sec set by New Zealand's Sophie Pascoe in the SM10 200m individual medley.
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