Siobhan Marie-O’Connor didn’t spend too long celebrating her silver medal in the 200m individual medley. She stopped because she wanted to watch her four team-mates Stephen Milne, Duncan Scott, Dan Wallace, and James Guy win Great Britain another in the 4x200m freestyle relay.
For the second time this week, the swimming team won as many medals in the space of 15 minutes as they did in the entire eight days of competition in 2012. Already, the British swimmers have twice as many medals between them as they did in London. Their turnaround has become one of the more remarkable British achievements of these Olympics.
The fact that O’Connor paid such close attention to that relay swim tells you something about how they’ve done it. “I’ve been a member of the team for a while now,” O’Connor said. “And this is the most gelled it has been, we all get on so well and are really supporting each other.” O’Connor’s was a superb swim. Her time of 2min 6.88sec didn’t just beat the Olympic record set by Katinka Hosszú in the heats, it smashed it by more than half a second. The only problem was that Hosszú, one lane over, went even quicker again. She touched in 2min 6.58sec, having led from start to finish, butterfly to freestyle.
O’Connor was always half a a length away, which, she said, was exactly where she wanted to be. “In the past I have sometimes gone out too hard because I have tried to stick with Katinka,” she explained. She didn’t feel she could beat Hosszú, whose invincible form has attracted some serious scrutiny in the US press. It was Hosszú’s third gold medal of these Games, after her victories in the 100m backstroke and the 400m medley. O’Connor was just pleased to have pushed her so close. “It’s an absolutely amazing feeling,” she said. “I’m over the moon.”
As dominant as Hosszú was, her lead over O’Connor paled in comparison to the one the US quartet of Conor Dwyer, Townley Haas, Ryan Lochte, Michael Phelps held over the relay field. Phelps had a three second lead heading into the last leg, and he must have appreciated every last little bit of it since he’d only just finished a long lap of honour after his victory ceremony for the 200m butterfly. By the time Dwyer was done with the first leg, it was clear everyone else was swimming for second place. Great Britain were in fifth at that point, and a long way back behind Australia, Japan, and Russia. But Scott pulled them up to fourth, Wallace got them up to third, and then Guy led them to second.
Guy and O’Connor are both 20. They’ve both spoken about the changes Bill Furniss has made since he took over as head coach at the beginning of 2013, the main one being that he made it so hard for them to make the Olympic team. Furniss cut the qualifying times in each event so that they were around the same as he expected it would take to reach a final here in Rio. But a coach can only work with what he’s got, and the best explanation his team’s improvement may just be the simplest one, which is that Adam Peaty, who is 21, O’Connor, and Guy, have all come through at the same time.
Unlike the other two, O’Connor was part of the team at London 2012. She was only 16, and she was so nervous that she didn’t get through the heats. But the experience was invaluable, and by the time the Glasgow Commonwealth Games came around she, like Peaty, was more than ready. She won six medals, a gold, four silvers and a bronze, which equaled the record for a female swimmer. Underwhelming as those Games sometimes seemed, they were hugely important for the development of the young members of this Olympic team.
Duncan Scott is another of them. He broke the British record in the heats of 100m freestyle, and qualified as the seventh-fastest for the final. His team-mate Andrew Willis is a little older, at 25, but he made it through to a final too, in the 200m breaststroke. He set a personal best of 2min 07.73sec, good enough to qualify second behind Japan’s Ilya Watanabe, who broke the Olympic record. Willis finished eighth at London 2012, and looks bound to better this time around. But for a couple of conspicuous exceptions, the swimmers blew it back in 2012. This time around, they’ve been carrying the GB team. As O’Connor said, “we’re on a roll, I just hope we can carry it on”.
This article was written by Andy Bull at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 10th August 2016 06.05 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010