Bennell back to Best at Hampshire Masters Championships 

A Masters County Championships post the pandemonium of a domestic European event was always set to be an interesting affair. Athletes timing their peak performances to precision to square up against the best of the continent lead to inevitable questions…would many be on form a month later? Would their focus change? Would many, dare I say it, even be bothered? I suppose you could say it was a little bit of all three.

Returning once again to Portsmouth’s Mountbatten Centre, the overall turn out for the 2016 Hampshire Masters was slightly up on previous years, but quite notable was the more even spread of competitors – with the major players of Basingstoke, Winchester and, yes, even Southampton taking a hit (an unfortunate clash with Father’s Day not assisting!) Still, with Blue Ribbon relay events and a Top Club Trophy up for grabs, it was evident that point-earning tactics were being put into force. Basingstoke Bluefins, as defending champions of the County title, had their acme-line swimmers lining up for every event in the programme, whereas a resurgent Fareham Nomads squad made the best use of in-form John Molyneaux and World-record Holder Jo Corban to swell their podium positions. However, Southampton still had weight on its side, with an emerging talent in younger divisions standing alongside refined veterans of the sport.

Liam Herbert (18-24yrs) was one such newcomer to the Reds, with a backstroke pedigree honed in Swindon training alongside fellow Southampton Master frontrunner Chris Jones. Although a little way of pinnacle shape, some slick performances in the 50m (00.28.78) and 100m (01.01.60) Backstroke got the medal haul rolling for the Sotonians with Bronze and Silver respectively. Rob Langan (25-29yrs) certainly rose to the occasion in London last month, producing several lifetime Long-Course bests. Although a bit jaded come June, the former Salisbury Stringray managed to secure Gold in both the 25m F/C (00.15.73) and 25m Back (00.15.73). Completing the 25m set in the division was Miro Sidor (25-29yrs), as he took advantage of the limited field to claim top spot in the 25m Fly (00.16.05) and 25m Breast (00.19.56).

From there on in, precious Gold on the Men’s side was hard to come by. Victor Estella-Perez (30-34yrs), competing in his second County Championships produced polished performances in the 100m Fly (01.05.30) and 100m Back (01.07.68), as did coach James MacTavish (30-34yrs) in the non-favoured 100m Breast (01.18.96) and 25m Back (00.15.48), but both were outshone by a Top-Man title hungry Ollie Espinasse of Basingstoke, seemingly indefatigable as he steam-rolled over each and every event. Only Chris Osman (30-34yrs) put an end to his Midas touch in the 25m (00.15.13) and 50m (00.33.21) Breaststroke.

The age group up however, was an opposite affair, as Martin Bennell (35-39yrs) took command of his quintet of races. A near-lifetime best in the 100m Breaststroke (01.07.15) and 100m Fly (01.00.89) got the 39 year-old off to an inconceivable start, before once again lowering County records in the 50m Fly (00.27.11) and 50m Breaststroke (00.30.21). Perhaps the only dash of bitter in an otherwise sweet Sunday was missing the 100m IM (01.02.62) record by half a second! Still five more golds on the rostrum was certainly welcomed!

Kevin Greenhough (35-39yrs) brought home a silver for his efforts in the 100m F/C (01.08.19), whereas in the higher age-divisions, Duncan Lip (40-44yrs) took the last podium place with strong performances in the 25m Back (00.19.53) and 50m Fly (00.36.87), and parental newcomer Marcus Barton (45-49yrs) come through in good form on 50m Fly (00.32.08) and 50m Breaststroke (00.37.62) to take Silver and Bronze respectively.

Over to the Ladies, and the only performer in a position to mirror Mr Bennell’s achievements came from the now Masters veteran Caroline Ball (25-29yrs). Once again building on success from Euros, Ball commenced with a season’s best in the 50m Back (00.31.91) to snatch her first Gold of the championships. From there, four more titles followed, with upstanding efforts in the 100m Breast (01.19.95), 50m Fly (00.31.35), 50m Breast (00.37.54) and 100IM (01.09.77) – even giving the renown Katy Sexton a run for her money across the sprint distances!

Kay Shafford (25-29yrs) of the same division joined the party late to pick up her only medal of the event…albeit a Gold in the 25m Fly (00.15.99) whereas Laura Kerrigan (30-34yrs) and Cathy Willcocks (35-39yrs) did battle in tough age groups to claim some metal – Kerrigan fighting to season’s bests in the 200m F/C (02.40.08) and 100m F/C (01.13.86) for Silvers, and Willcocks looking tidy in the 50m Back (00.36.61) and 100m F/C (01.10.54) for Bronzes.

Amanda Rush (45-49yrs) and Sarah Aldridge (45-49yrs) made up half of Southampton’s British Record breaking Mixed Medley Relay team in the Europeans, and were always firm hopefuls for medals – as usual, they didn’t disappoint! Rush touched home clear in her favoured 25m Back (00.16.85) for the title, but had to battle against Fareham’s Jo Corban in the 50m Back (00.35.73), sadly in this instance, settling for silver. Aldridge on the other hand, got the better of the multiple World Masters Record Holder, claiming gold in 50m F/C (00.29.68), with a County record to boot, as well as 50m Fly (00.35.00) and 25m Fly (00.15.95) and 25m Breast (00.19.04). A final flurry in the 25m F/C (00.14.42) took the 45 year-old to level pegging with Ball and Bennell on the gold tally.

Again, moving through the divisions, Natasha Bye-brooks (45-49yrs) committed herself to the 200m F/C (02.48.95) to nab Silver, whereas Louise Kathro (55-59yrs) made the most of her recent open water stamina to work through seven races, taking home four County titles in the process – 25m Back (00.25.26), 100m F/C (01.23.39), 100m IM (01.46.70) and 25m Fly (00.21.70). But, perhaps the surprise of the afternoon came from the welcome return of Tina Parkin (50-54yrs), post a near two-year absence, the former British relay Record Holder dominated the 25m events to walk away with a quartet of Golds – 25m Back (00.18.45) and 25m Breast (00.21.07) perhaps being the stand-out wins.

By the late stages of the first session, it did become obvious that the Top Club title was once again heading to North Hampshire for a record fifth successive time…but, all was still to play for in the Top.3 as Fareham, Southampton and a surprise showing from Havant and Waterlooville began a three-way game of cat-and-mouse to finish on the overall podium. And so came Southampton’s ‘ace in the hole’… relays! The 72yrs+ division was set to be a bruising encounter, as the team of Herbert/Ball/Perez/Shafford scrambled to Bronze in the 4 x 25m Medley Relay (00.58.66), and the newly formed quartet of Barton/Parkin/Lip/Kathro went one better in the tough 200yrs+ division (01.10.05). That said, most know the real business end is the middle division of 120yrs….as the Reds look to claim back the title from the Bluefins they so narrowly lost in 2015. With a bit of doubling up from Ball, the Mixed Medley team of Langan/Bennell/Ball/Aldridge swept their rivals aside to take Gold by two clear seconds, and only half-a-second done on the County record set by their Basingstoke rivals. In the 4x 50 F/C however, it was more of a case of Red vs Red as Fareham Nomads looked to upset the party. With Osman stepping in for Langan, Southampton set the bar at a near sub-50 second (00.50.30) time in heat one…an anxious wait followed as the Nomads stormed off with Molyneaux and Corban making up the numbers, but as the tenths of seconds ticked by, the final touch was not enough to demote the Sotonians – our second relay title of the afternoon!

One could argue (and believe me, on Facebook, we jovially did!) that Fareham did get the last laugh, as their overall points tally eclipsed Southampton’s by a mere score of 10, although it was swiftly added that CSSC did finish the day with 14 more medals than their South Coast counterparts! A question mark over the Hampshire Masters positional rankings system perhaps?

In summation though, Hampshire Masters is always the event of fun and friendship, and in total juxtaposition to the more ruthless prestige of Europeans or even Nationals. A total medal haul of 84, combined with 5 County records from a lower-than-average turnout from Southampton Masters was quite some achievement, and although a sacrifice of the bridesmaid Club position for this year, rest assured, 2017 will have us back at full force!

Full results from the competition are available to view of the Hampshire Swimming website.

Medal Tally:

GOLD : 33
BRONZE : 28 
TOTAL: 84 

James MacTavish
CSSC Masters Coach