AUSTRALIAN SWIMMING has been waiting 30 years for a female sprinter like Sarah Ryan.
The Australian Institute of Sport sprinter became only the second Australian woman to break 55 seconds for the 100m freestyle, when she crashed through the barrier to win her third successive national title at the Chandler Aquatic Centre in Brisbane last night.
Ryan’s time of 54.94sec launched Australia’s female sprinters into territory that only retired national record-holder Susie O’Neill (54.79sec) has trod before. But the multi-talented O’Neill could not find a place in her packed program for this event, which makes Ryan the first genuinely world class Australian in this event since Shane Gould in the 1970s.
And the 25-year-old world championships finalist needed to swim fast to stay ahead of the new generation of teenagers who are threatening to revolutionise women’s sprinting in this country as they emerge in a pack from Shannon Rollason’s Chandler club.
In her home pool, 18-year-old Jodie Henry made a breakthrough of her own, setting a personal best time of 55.33sec, which ranks her No.2 in the Commonwealth and just outside the world’s top 10.
Her tiny 15-year-old training partner Alice Mills, who weighs only 47kg, also set a personal best time of 56.03sec to claim fourth and secure her place in the Commonwealth Games team as a member of the 4x100m freestyle relay.
In an event dominated by mature women in their mid- to late-20s, the progress of the two teenagers is remarkable.
The revival in the female sprint ranks is vital to Australia’s hopes of maintaining our position as the world’s No.1 swimming nation through to the 2004 Olympic Games.
A delighted Ryan said she had had no thought of setting a sub-55sec time, which puts her in the world’s top five.
“I can’t believe it,” Ryan said. “I didn’t feel that good in my warm-up. I was very negative about the whole swim today, but now I am on the team I will be a different person. I will rise to the occasion.”
Australia’s bionic butterfly Petria Thomas seems certain to emulate O’Neill’s 1998 feat of swimming eight events at the Commonwealth Games, after finishing third (55.98sec), her first time under 56sec, in the ground-breaking final.
Thomas’s likely program for Manchester now includes the 100m and 200m freestyle, 50m, 100m and 200m butterfly and three relays and she could also equal O’Neill’s 1998 Games tally of six gold medals.
World champion Geoff Huegill fell an agonisingly 0.14sec short of breaking his own world record in the 50m butterfly final.
Perennial placegetter Adam Pine (24.30sec) finished second from Brett Hawke (24.48sec), while 17-year-old Richard Gosper, the son of International Olympic Committee vice-president Kevan Gosper, was a notable sixth.
After near-misses in the past two years, Sydney breaststroker Jim Piper finally broke into the Australian team by dominating the men’s 100m final to win his first national title in 1:01.87.
Olympic 200m butterfly medallist Justin Norris upset the breaststroke specialists to snatch second place in a personal best (1:02.45) from national 200m record-holder Regan Harrison (1:02.54).
World No.3-ranked Leisel Jones moved a step closer to a sweep in the women’s breaststroke, winning the 200m in 2:26.68 from fellow 16-year-old Kelli Waite (2:28.96). If Jones wins the 100m final tomorrow, she will be the first woman in 10 years to complete the treble.
South African-born Ray Hass roared to the top of the Commonwealth rankings in the 200m backstroke, setting a personal best of 1:58.59 to win the national title, while Dyana Calub returned from a knee reconstruction to win the women’s 100m backstroke (1:02.18).