The most exciting day of swimming so far at the Sol2023 Pacific Games saw two new Pacific Games records, a huge upset and more gold for countries not traditionally known for scooping multiple swimming medals at Honiara’s Aquatic Centre on Wednesday.
Samoa opened the night’s medal proceedings courtesy of Olivia Borg, who won gold in the women’s 50m freestyle with a time of 26.65 seconds. New Caledonia’s Malou Douillard (26.88) and Fiji’s Anahira McCutcheon (26.91) battled it out for silver and bronze with the New Caledonian eventually emerging second leaving the bronze for Fiji.
Speaking to the Pacific Games News Service, Borg said: “It just feels amazing to represent my culture and my nan died last year whilst I was at the Commonwealth Games so to get all of these medals, I’m definitely dedicating this to her.”
McCutcheon, who had to recover from missing out on a bronze medal on Tuesday in the 50m breaststroke told the Pacific Games News Service that she was both surprised and proud to reach the podium this time.
“I put it (the disqualification) behind me and mainly focused on my races like 50 back (50m backstroke) and my race today and what’s in the past is in the past. I’m really happy and proud.”
Fiji silenced the crowd in the men’s 50m freestyle, an unusual occurrence at the Aquatic Centre, in the biggest upset of the night claiming both the gold and silver medals, leaving New Caledonia, who won gold and silver in this event at Samoa 2019, in fifth and sixth place overall. Hansel McCaig of Fiji secured gold with a time of 23.22 seconds, his fellow countryman David Young (23.29) claimed silver and Samoa’s Hector Langkilde (23.37) joined in on the drama, snatching bronze from lane eight.
McCaig’s gold is his first individual gold at any Pacific Games and also Fiji’s first gold medal at Sol2023. The proud Fijian swimmer spoke said: “New Cal (New Caledonia) are traditionally the sprint champions so for us to dethrone them at this Games is a big achievement. The fact that we both (McCaig and Young) dethroned New Cal as well as Samoa taking the bronze and for it being an island sweep is an amazing feeling.
“As soon as we touched, the loudest people were the Fijians and I’m always thankful for them for always coming out to support us whether we win or not,” a delighted McCaig said about the Fijian supporters at swimming.
McCaig also made an emotional dedication of his medal to his grandmother saying: “This one goes out to my grandmother. She’s always been there for me, so she always means a lot to me.”
Langkilde said: “To be honest, I did not expect myself to get third especially starting in lane eight but I’m really happy with the results. It means everything, getting up and getting a medal. This is a good feeling.”
In the women’s 200m butterfly, it was no surprise that Lara Grangeon-De-Villele of New Caledonia, dominated again, claiming gold with an eight-second lead and a final time of 2 minutes and 15.18 seconds. Olivia Borg (2:23.21) from Samoa picked up silver in her first final with Grangeon-De-Villele and Tahiti’s Deotille Videau (2:23.48) finished with bronze.
The national anthem of Northern Mariana Islands played for the first time at swimming as Isaiah Aleksenko watched on proudly after convincingly winning gold in the men’s 200m butterfly with a time of 2 minutes and 5.86 seconds. Nael Roux (2:09.52) from Tahiti won silver and Baptiste Savignac (2:11.80) won bronze.
“I was so happy seeing my flag go up. It’s an honour to see and I hope I could do this in the future again and I’m very grateful for this opportunity,” Aleksenko proudly told the Pacific Games News Service.
“I’ve been wanting gold. I wanted gold in the 100 fly (100m butterfly), I couldn’t get so I’m very happy that I got it for 200 fly and that I get to represent my island. I’ve got the 50-fly coming up and I’m going to try for gold and if not I’m just going to try for the podium.”
In the 200m backstroke Pacific Games records were broken in both the women’s and the men’s races by New Caledonia’s Lara Grangeon-De-Villele and John-William Dabin. The previous Pacific Games record set by Lauren Sale in the women’s 200m backstroke was 2 minutes and 19.89 seconds at Samoa 2019. The previous Pacific Games record in the men’s 200m backstroke set in 1999 by Olivier Saminadin was 2 minutes and 8.31 seconds.
But in Honiara, Grangeon-De-Villele set a new Pacific Games record of 2 minutes and 19.62 seconds in the preliminary heats on her way to win gold. Her gold winning performance was nearly as impressive (2:19.71). Salani Sa’aga (2:28.93) of Samoa won silver and Videau (2:29.06) claimed bronze.
Sa’aga said: “It’s my first Games and I was genuinely surprised I got the second-place medal. It’s unreal. I didn’t expect that I was going to make it onto the Samoan Pacific Games team and it’s my first Games and I’m so grateful for this opportunity and to be here and winning the medal just consolidated the hard work that I put in for the past six months.”
The young Samoan also revealed that she had been inspired by Grangeon-De-Villele. “Lara’s (Grangeon-De-Villele) told me that she’s already been to three Olympic Games, London, Tokyo and Rio. To swim with her and just be in the same water with her, its honestly an inspiration and I hope to be like her one day.”
In the men’s 200m backstroke, 2 minutes and 6.83 seconds is the new Pacific Games record set by John-William Dabin of New Caledonia. Setting this new record secured gold for Dabin after an upsetting loss in the men’s 50m freestyle. Chrissander Cerda (2:08.75) also of New Caledonia finished with silver and Tahiti’s Rohutu Teahui (2:10.37) got bronze.
Dabin said: “When I missed out on the 50m freestyle, in my mind I kept thinking that the next event I must win a medal so I was serious, and it was more important for me that I must win. So finally, I am glad that I have received gold.
“I haven’t seen my record yet, but I am glad to hear that I have broken the Pacific Games record for this event.”
The women’s 800m freestyle saw Grangeon-De-Villele pick up her third gold medal of the night with a final time of 9 minutes and 10.24 seconds. Maiana Flament (9:22.21) also from New Caledonia and not new to the podium finished second, and Lili Paillisse (9:27.91) from Tahiti finished third.
This gold medal brought Grangeon-De-Villele’s total medal count at Sol2023 to seven golds.
“I am very happy because it is a good night. The weather is good, so I won these medals and I know my other teammates from other sports are also winning gold medals,” she said.
Grangeon-De-Villele has a day off on Thursday and will rejoin the action on Friday.
As is tradition, the night ended with the mixed 4 x 50m relay in which New Caledonia redeemed themselves, securing gold with a time of 1:51.62 ahead of Fiji (1:52.01), who made it to the podium for silver. Tahiti (1:52.30) finished with bronze.
At the end of day two, New Caledonia’s medal count at swimming increased to 30 (15 gold, nine silver, six bronze), Tahiti have 17 (one gold, six silver and 10 bronze), Fiji nine (one gold, five silver and three bronze) and Samoa six (two gold, three silver and one bronze). Cook Islands (two gold and one bronze) and Northern Mariana Islands (one gold and two bronze) have three medals each, while Federated States of Micronesia have two gold, and American Samoa (silver) and Papua New Guinea (bronze) have one medal each.
Day four of swimming will feature more action at the Aquatic Centre with the preliminary heats taking place from 9:30am-10:30am and the finals from 6:30pm.
By Melissa Velvel Fare, Roselyn Toliliu and Delisha Koime, Pacific Games News Service