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Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Commonwealth Games: ‘NI step into the future on wonderful Wednesday’

Bethany Firth delivered NI’s first ever gold medal in the Commonwealth pool
Hosts: Birmingham Dates: 28 July to 8 August
Coverage: Watch live on BBC TV with extra streams on BBC iPlayer, Red Button, BBC Sport website and BBC Sport mobile app; Listen on BBC Radio 5 Live and Sports Extra; live text and clips online.

Bethany Firth planned the wedding, but the honeymoon was left in the capable hands of husband Andrew.

On Tuesday the newlyweds jet off for six weeks in South East Asia, where what’s on the itinerary is as much a mystery to Firth as it is to you and I.

In fact she even used her post-race interviews at Sandwell Aquatics Centre to appeal for tips on things to do in Bali, Thailand and Vietnam.

It’s not that she is unbothered by the honeymoon, quite the opposite. It’s that she had a race coming up beforehand, and experience told her tunnel vision was required.

The medal cabinet doesn’t boast an embarrassment of gold medals from every major meet in Para-swimming by accident.

Much was expected of Firth on Wednesday night. Northern Ireland expected their first gold medal, the swimming world expected her to shine in an event for which she holds the world record.

Swim and deliver. From the moment Firth first came up for air about 10 metres into the race, it was a done deal.

The Seaforde woman swum with the confidence of someone who knows they belong at the very top of their sport.

Kate O'Connor
Kate O’Connor was second in the heptathlon after two magnificent days of competition

The inclusion of Firth’s event in the Games schedule certainly helped Northern Ireland break new ground in the pool, but their progress in swimming and elsewhere goes far beyond being able to call upon a homegrown superstar.

Northern Ireland’s swimming team leave Birmingham with three Commonwealth medals, three more than they won in every other previous edition of the Games combined.

At Alexander Stadium, Kate O’Connor stormed to silver in the heptathlon and might have gone close to winning it had Katarina Johnson-Thompson not found a brilliant personal best javelin in the penultimate event to limit the Northern Ireland athlete’s points total.

Two days before the most wonderful Wednesday, Chloe MacCombe confidently took silver in the Para-triathlon with twin Judith just missing out on the podium in fourth.

These are not sports in which Northern Ireland have historically thrived.

Boxing will always deliver success, it’s a sport that’s so engrained into the fabric of the place that its legacy and culture of success breeding success takes care of the next generation in a way that no other sport does.

Lawn Bowls and shooting, until it was removed from the Commonwealth programme, have too been fairly reliable sources of medals in Games gone by while most others failed to produce any podium finishes.

Carly McNaul
Carly McNaul was one of three NI boxers to secure at least a bronze medal with a quarter-final win on Wednesday

The success seen in Birmingham across typically unfruitful sports is a result, largely, of the increased funding for facilities and programmes on the island of Ireland that have allowed athletes to train full-time and with facilities that can at least match those of their competitors.

Not a secret recipe, but a logical return on investment.

There was no great line in the sand moment a la Great Britain after the 1996 Olympics, but moments like the opening of the Olympic-standard Sport Ireland Campus in 2006 are bearing fruit.

There is now a crop of young Northern Irish, and indeed Irish, talent who are completely at ease in the belief that they are equipped to achieve things in their sport that none of their compatriots ever have.

That’s why Kate O’Connor felt entirely comfortable saying that she was not coming to Birmingham just to settle for a top-five finish or a personal best, even though both of those things would on paper suggest progress.

It’s why Daniel Wiffen was able to knock six seconds off his own national record that he set at the World Championships in June, where he became the first Irish swimmer to break the 15 minute-mark in the 1500m.

Northern Ireland’s class of ’22 have guaranteed at least 11 medals and there’s a fair chance they will claim a few more by the end of the Games.

At the end of the competition it’s likely that once again boxing will top NI’s medals table, but that’s nothing to be worried about.

What matters is that this Games is providing some tangible evidence that Northern Ireland are making inroads in sports in which the elite standard appeared unattainable.

Source: BBC

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