SWIM Ireland’s Irish Winter Championships took place at the National Aquatic Centre last month.
The unique format replaced the familiar short-course championships. It offered athletes, bereft of competition since the McCullagh Invitational in February 2019, an opportunity to race at both short (SC) and long course (LC) over the three-day meet.
That in itself posed logistical problems in reformatting the pool twice daily. Great credit and thanks to the NAC staff who facilitated this, they too delighted to see competition return to the pool.
This event would ordinarily host in the region of 600 athletes, and would also attract a large number of international athletes. However, Covid restrictions mandated a dramatic reduction in numbers resulting in the competition only available to a select group of identified athletes on the elite and national squads.
The competition began on Thursday evening in LC format. The distance 800m abd 1,500m freestyle events opened the programme. Disappointingly, the reduced entry meant that both events had only one entry. Grace Hodgins, Trojan SC swam an impressive 9:21.16 over 800m.
Next up, Daniel Wiffen, Larne SC stood alone at the blocks, facing a lonely 30 lengths at 50m. Unfazed by the challenge, Wiffen became the star of the night as he set a new Irish Senior record when he stopped the clock on 15:19.04 shaving 0.94 seconds from Andrew Meegan’s record which had stood for seven years.
Speaking after his race, Wiffen commented: “I was trying to split a fast 800m time, but it felt very sore at the end. But I was happy enough”.
National Centre Limerick’s (NCL) Eoin Corby continued where he left off prior to lockdown when he set a new Irish Junior record in the 50m breaststroke. He lowered his own record to 27.76 when he won a closely contested final between Ireland’s top two breaststrokers.
National Centre Dublin’s (NCD) Darragh Greene, who has already pre-qualified for Tokyo 2020, was just five-hundredths of a second behind Corby on 27.81.
NCD’s Niamh Coyne won the women’s 50m breaststroke with 32.27. She went on to make it a treble in the breaststroke events over the LC and a double over SC.
Olympian Shane Ryan, NCD, who recently returned from a very successful International Swimming League campaign in Budapest, retained his 50m LC backstroke title, touching outside his best on 24.91. Larne’s Danielle Hill also retained her 50m backstroke title. She too was just outside her record, touching on 28.39 ahead of Kilkenny’s Maria Godden 29.35.
The swimmers from Ards’ laid down a marker on the opening night. Paddy Johnston held off a chasing NCD’s Rory McEvoy 26.61 in the 50m backstroke to claim the second spot, stopping the clock at 26.05, behind Shane Ryan.
He immediately returned to the start blocks for the 50m butterfly final, where he and club mate Michael Hewitt served up a classic. Little separated the two at the finish with Johnston taking his first victory of the championships 25.50 with Hewitt second on 25.65.
Ellie McKibbin led the way for the ladies of Ard’s when she won the ladies 50m butterfly 28.54 ahead of Julia Knox, Banbridge 29.95 and Cork’s Hannah O’Shea, Dolphin in third, 30.19 The competition changed to SC on Friday morning and the records kept falling. First up was Bangor’s Jack McMillan.
McMillan’s training schedule had been severely hit by the restrictions and ill health, but that was not evident when he took to the water. He broke his own 200m freestyle record stopping the clock on 1:42.74, which set him up nicely for the LC equivalent in the evening session.
Following his record-breaking swim, McMillan said: “I didn’t know what to expect so it was good to get a PB” and he hinted that he had a target for his LC final later that evening.
In the evening LC finals, McMillan destroyed the LC record which had stood for three years, resetting it to 1:47.19 and it quickly became apparent what his target was, as that time left him just .17 seconds away from the Olympic A qualification standard.
McMillan decided to have one further attempt at reaching the Olympic time and requested a 200m split time in his 400m race on the final evening. He really attacked that first 200m and reduced his record time to 1:47.10 leaving himself just .08 off the Olympic time.
The Winter Championships were not a FINA designated meet and so, had he achieved the time it would not have qualified him for the Games, but he is now well-positioned to achieve the Olympic standard at the Irish Open/Olympic Trials in April 2021.
Speaking after the race McMillan said ‘I just felt like I could give it another go because it was so close to that FINA A yesterday. I just gave it my best shot. Unfortunately, I was really close again, but it just sets me up well for next year in April time, for trials, for the real thing. It’s given me a real confidence boost.’ Back to day two, where Corby reset two of his own Irish Junior SC Records.
He dipped under the 59-second mark to touch on 58.91 at 100m breaststroke, ahead of Olympic qualifier Greene on 59.64. Cork’s Andrew Feenan was third on 1:02.01 with Paralympic hopeful, Sean O’Riordan in fifth, on 1:16.65. Corby returned to the pool and reset his 100m IM record to 54.76 with Feenan again in third on 1:00.49.
Amelia Kane was slightly outside her PB at 400m freestyle 4:17.34 but was the comfortable winner. Cork’s Hannah O’Shea claimed the third spot on 4:30.53.
Mallow native Cadan McCarty was another ‘solo’ swimmer at the 400m IM and stopped the clock on 4:20.07, marginally off his best. He posted 4:38.32 in the LC final.
The women’s 100m backstroke was a closely contested final with Larne’s Danielle Hill touching on 59.57 followed closely by Kilkenny’s Maria Godden on 1:00.81. Hill had another close final at 100m freestyle 55.17, with the top five all sub 57 seconds. Godden had to settle for third 56.52, with Victoria Catterson of Ards claiming second with a PB on 55.91.
Catterson reversed the placings that evening in the 100m LC final swimming another PB 56.31 to win ahead of the Irish record holder Hill on 57.03.
On the final morning, Catterson swam an impressive PB to dip under two minutes at 200m freestyle SC 1:59.29. Godden was second 2:01.24. Hannah O’Shea placed sixth 2:09.37. Catterson completed her meet taking the 200m LC freestyle title 2:04.30. Godden was second 2:06.07 and O’Shea improved her ranking to fifth with 2:13.03.
Another Olympic hopeful, Brendan Hyland NCD found himself among the record-breakers when he emerged victorious at 100m butterfly LC 52.58 ahead of his Olympic team-mate Shane Ryan on 52.98. Paddy Johnston had a very impressive PB to claim 3rd on 54.41.
Speaking after his race Hyland commented: "It’s been 10 months since any sort of competition for me, and then it’s 2019 summer since I did a long course, proper tapered meet, so I was nervous, but I’ve stuck the head down for a couple of months and I’m glad it’s paid off."
Amelia Kane added two further LC titles in the 200m Butterfly 2:21.05 and 400m Freestyle 4:28.80. Hannah O’Shea featured in both, placing third in the fly 4:28.96 and fourth in the free 4:49.21.
On the final day, Kane added the 400m IM SC and LC titles ahead of Julia Knox, Banbridge and O’Shea in third. O’Shea withdrew from the evening LC final.
Rising star, Ellie McKibbin, also from Ards, had a comfortable victory in the SC 100m butterfly final 1:02.60 ahead of club-mate Rebecca Reid 1:10.04. It was a much closer affair in the LC final but McKibbin held off to win on 1:03.49 ahead of Reid’s 1:03.52.
Following his record-breaking swim over 100m, Hyland returned on the final day for the 200m butterfly SC finals. Once again, he had a real battle on his hands with the competition on this occasion from another team-mate, Cillian Melly. Melly led for the first 175m but the seasoned Hyland had a super-fast final turn to move ahead and take the victory on 1:58.38 with Melly on 1:58.85.
Over the LC equivalent, Ards’ Paddy Johnston split the two NCD swimmers to claim second 2:01.44 behind Hyland 1:58.26 with Melly in third 2:02.10.
Swimming in her favourite event, Maria Godden had a comprehensive win in the 200m SC backstroke 2:12.48 ahead of Amelia Kane on 2:16.18. In the men’s equivalent, Paddy Johnston had a strong finish 53.41 to win ahead of Olympian Shane Ryan 53.95. Ryan claimed the LC title, with Johnston opting not to swim.
Eoin Corby had a fine swim in the final event over SC posting 2:01.49 at 100m IM ahead of team-mate Cadan McCarthy 2:04.39. He repeated this over LC posting a new Irish Junior record time of 2:04.61 with McCarthy on 2:06.62. Corby had broken the 200m LC breaststroke Junior record earlier in the session with 2:13.24 to place 2nd behind Darragh Greene. Corby set four new Irish Junior Records over the three-day meet.
Commenting at the end of the competition Corby said: “I started off the comp well. I got a nice junior record in the 50m breaststroke. I think I had probably one of my best training blocks coming up to this. It was definitely one of my hardest, and we came in tapered for this, so it’s good to see the results now."
National Performance Director Jon Rudd said: "Our Performance athletes have stepped up at this meet despite all of the difficulties, uncertainty and disruption that they have experienced in the last 10 months.
"We would have loved to have accommodated our usual contingent of athletes over these three days, but we also have to say that we are delighted to be able to run something for this discrete number of identified athletes as we progress into the Olympic year.
"To have five senior and four junior national records broken, not only short course but long course too at this meet is a real testament to the resilience and steel of some of these athletes, and their coaches, and we can enter 2021 with a new confidence and conviction that Irish swimming continues to make the kind of strides we both want and need."