By Greg Stutchbury
GOLD COAST, Australia (Reuters) – Mack Horton gave Australia a golden start before their women’s 4x100m freestyle relay team smashed the world record as the hosts grabbed two titles on the first day of swimming at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games on Thursday.
Horton became the first Australian since Ian Thorpe in 2002 to win the men’s 400m freestyle and clinched the host nation’s first gold of the Games before the relay team ended the session in a world record time.
The Australian quartet of Shayna Jack, Emma McKeon and sisters Bronte and Cate Campbell were roared home by a fervent crowd to clock three minutes, 30.05 seconds and break their own record of 3:30.65 set at the Rio Olympics.
Canada finished second in 3:33.92 with England third almost five seconds further back.
“We weren’t expecting that at all tonight,” Bronte Campbell told reporters. “When we set the world record (at Rio) it was a really quick time and we weren’t expecting to get near it tonight. I don’t know how that happened.
“I think there is something to be said about a home-crowd advantage. We’ve never had that before and we can see what that does for us.”
The golden hue to the opening day helped to diminish memories of the team’s dismal performance at last year’s world championships in Budapest.
They won 10 medals, with just one gold to Emily Seebohm in the women’s 200m backstroke, to finish eighth on the table — their worst position since 1991 — and the Commonwealth Games has been seen as a step to regroup for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Canada’s Taylor Ruck, however, ended a potential Australian gold rush and temporarily sucked all of the frenzied expectation out of the venue when she held off a fast-finishing Ariarne Titmuss in the women’s 200m freestyle.
Titmuss had been tipped to become the first woman to win the 200-400-800 freestyle treble at the same Commonwealth Games since fellow Australian Karen Moras did it in 1970.
The 17-year-old Ruck went out hard and touched in a Commonwealth Games record time of 1:54.81 to pip Titmuss by a fingernail. Australia’s McKeon, who won the race in Glasgow four years ago, finished third.
“I saw Ariarne coming up and I thought she’d won,” Ruck said. “I was like, ‘omigosh’, and then I looked up at the board and I saw that I’d won.
“I think I’m still in shock.”
England’s James Wilby and Aimee Willmott, however, ensured that Australia would not bag all the spoils as they won the men’s 200m breaststroke and the women’s 400m individual medley in fingertip finishes.
Thomas Hamer also won the men’s S14 200m freestyle in world record time, while compatriot Eleanor Robinson won the women’s S7 50m butterfly in the para-swimming events to ensure England finished the day top of the table.
Wilby’s storming final few meters gave him the title ahead of Scotland’s defending champion Ross Murdoch and Australia’s Matt Wilson, while Willmott ended the reign of Hannah Miley in the 400m medley.
The 25-year-old Willmott hauled in the Scot, who had won the title at the last two Commonwealth Games, toward the end of the breaststroke and then held her off over the final freestyle leg, with Australia’s Blair Evans finishing fast to take bronze.
“I’ve raced against Hannah in every meet and I’ve been second every time,” Willmott told reporters.
“My parents were in the stand, and they’ve traveled all this way to support me and I just really, really wanted a gold medal.”
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)