Australia’s Paralympics got under way in stunning fashion on the opening day of competition in Tokyo, with the first two gold medals on offer at these Games won inside a remarkable 15 minutes at the velodrome in Izu, before the swimmers added another three.
Paige Greco, who set a world record in qualifying for the women’s C3 individual 3000m pursuit final, then bettered her own benchmark against China’s Wang Xiaomei to claim the nation’s first medal.
Barely a quarter of an hour later, teammate Emily Petricola, 41, made it a double with victory in the C4 classification, having also broken the world record to reach the gold medal final.
So dominant was Petricola’s victory over rival and silver medallist Shawn Morelli, she lapped the American on her way to securing victory well before completing the 3,000m.
Petricola, who was diagnosed with MS at the age of 27, paid tribute to two-time Olympic rower Matt Ryan and Shane Kelly, the five-time Olympic cyclist, in an emotional post-race interview for the pair’s encouragement and support throughout her career.
“Words can’t describe how grateful I am to Matt Ryan and Shane Kelly for what they did for me early on in the piece,” she told Channel Seven. “They’ve changed my life and they saved my life. I was in such a dark place when Matt suggested this.”
The Australians’ world records were among eight new benchmarks set on the opening day of cycling, and the two gold medals propelled the team to the top of the nascent medal table.
Greco, who has cerebral palsy, is making her Paralympic debut in Tokyo but she is used to pocketing gold – her first Paralympic medal comes after she won three gold medals on the 2019 UCI Para-cycling Road World Cup circuit. She is also reigning world champion in the women’s time trial C3.
“Sorry,” she told Channel Seven through tears. “I’m just so happy. Can’t believe we did it. It was a good race. Yeah. I still can’t believe it. I can’t thank the team at AusCycling [enough], my coach, their support is amazing. My family and friends, wouldn’t be here without them.”
Compatriot Meg Lemon lost her C4 pursuit bronze medal ride-off to Canadian Shawn Keely.
Later, Will Martin broke the Paralympic record and Lakeisha Patterson held off a fierce challenge, before Rowan Crothers added a third and Ben Popham a fourth gold medal on a hugely successful opening night of swimming finals.
Martin and Patterson won the first two swimming gold medals at the Games, taking out the S9 400m freestyle events at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Martin stunned his rivals in the 400m freestyle, going out fast in the finals taking more than seven seconds off his heat time.
The 20-year-old Games debutant from Queensland won in a Games record time of four minutes 10.25 seconds, beating Ugo Didier of France by 1.08s. Sixteen-year-old Australian Alexander Tuckfield won the bronze and compatriot Brenden Hall, the world record holder, was a surprise fourth.
Patterson also took the early lead in her 400 final as six-time Australian gold medallist Ellie Cole dropped off the pace. It came down to Patterson and Hungarian Zsofia Konkoly, who briefly took the lead on the last lap. But Patterson rallied to touch the wall first in 4:36.68s, just .08 of a second ahead of Konkoly.
Crothers charged home in the men’s 50m freestyle S10 category five hundredths of a second outside the world record. Maksym Krypak and Phelipe Melo Rodrigues were on his shoulder the whole way but the Ukrainian settled for silver and the Brazilian for bronze.
Popham won the last event of the night, bursting into tears when his blistering finish gave him the S8 100m freestyle gold. “Australia is having another mining boom – it’s a bit of a gold rush and I’m loving it,” he told Channel Seven.
Ben Hance won bronze in the S14 100m butterfly, while Valeriia Shabalina’s world record denied Australian pair Paige Leonhardt and Ruby Storm in their S14 100m butterfly final. The Russian clocked 1:03.59 to beat Leonhardt by 1.89 seconds and Storm was 2.91 seconds off the pace for the bronze.
But not everything went to plan for Australia on day one – the Steelers’ shock loss to Denmark put an early dent in their quest for a third-straight wheelchair rugby gold medal.