Dominant defence of relay titles as Southampton Masters gather gold at Nationals 

2016 has provided many memorable moments for Masters – a European Championship year on home soil, christened by Olympians, perhaps being the highlight – but for every exceptional occasion there has been faithful familiarity. A competition calendar welcoming the Continents’ finest was always going to be capped with the domestic engagement for National pride, as the Short Course British Masters Championships welcomed its 25th Anniversary at Ponds Forge, Sheffield.

Indeed, over the years this competition has provided arguably Southampton’s finest performances – fingernail title touches, lifetime personal bests, and of course, British, European and World Records. However, the decades have also brought some much-needed exposure to this core element of the sport, and what was seen as tantalising, low-hanging fruit for many athletes has now become an arena where only the fittest and finest claim glory!

The Southampton Team

The weekend saw former International level swimmers, nearing the twilight of their professional careers forge a new name on the Masters scene. Teddington SC’s Georgie Heyn proving that talent doesn’t stop once outside the British Olympic Curriculum, clocking times across 100m and 200m Breaststroke that would have ranked within the Top.16 at Rio this year. This was now the new standard of Masters swimming, and Southampton had to respond.

Fortunately, we had a few former-elite athletes of our own to call upon. Chris Jones (35-39yrs) has made an indelible mark in Masters since returning to Southampton three years ago, and despite mercurial training, continues to hold firm against his peers. His favoured 100m (01.02.95) and 200m (02.17.46) Breaststroke distance titles fell like late autumn leaves this year, performing comfortably ahead of his new age-division rivals. The 35-year-old did however come up against a fiercer opponent in the form of Chesterfield’s Ben Harkin, a man racking up British Records faster than the certificates could be printed! The 50m Breaststroke (00.29.01) slipped from Jones’s grasp in the final 5 meters, leaving the Scottish Commonwealth swimmer with a sterling Silver. Amends were made however in the less favourable 200m IM (02.13.88) as he once again, ascended to the top of the podium.

What swimming gives with one hand it can take away with another. Martin Bennell (35-39yrs) is a veteran of the sport, and bears breaststroke battle scars from several intense encounters at Nationals. With Jones on form, the 39-year-old had to depart the age division with no metal over the breaststroke distances, but did capitalise on a brave expedition into the world of 200m Butterfly (02.23.41), only to miss out on Gold by 3 seconds.

Elsewhere, the younger divisions began to provide some much-needed new blood to the Reds. Rob Langan (25-29yrs) switched allegiance from Salisbury to Southampton earlier in the year, and brought with him polished backstroke skills to claim Silver in the 200m (02.26.30). Kay Howells (nee Shafford) of the same age division also made her Short Course Nationals debut after appearances at many regional events for Southampton, again playing to strengths on the 100m Butterfly (01.17.58) and 100m IM (01.18.53) to notch up Top 20 finishes.

Laura Kerrigan (30-34yrs), whilst also managing social events for the weekend, completed the full short to middle distance FC spectrum with a Personal Best time in the 50m FC (00.34.19) and a Top 10 finish in the 400m FC (04.49.75). Master of Ceremonies James MacTavish (30-34yrs) completed his final year the in lower 30yrs division with his standard quartet of short Butterfly and FC distances, with Top.20 finishes in the 50m Butterfly (00.29.84) and 100m FC (00.58.60).

Moving upward, Duncan Lip (40-44yrs) covered the other end of the FC programme with more Personal Best times in the 400m (05.50.77) and 800m (12.32.01) FC, both earning him Top.10 placing. Whereas Sarah Aldridge (45-49yrs) continued her impressive run of form in the 50m FC (00.29.47) and 50m Butterfly (00.34.16) to push her agonisingly close to medal contention in what is becoming an extremely tough age category!

A handful of individual medals is certainly nothing to shy away from, but to make a statement, you need to have a true team mentality! The trio of Jones, Bennell, and Aldridge called upon the services of Amanda Rush (45-49yrs) for one night only to complete their British Record-breaking quartet in the Mixed 4 x 50 Medley Relay (160yrs). Looking to defend their title for a third consecutive term, the team pulled out all the stops to hold off strong competition from Romford Town and the mighty Otter SC to clinch Gold once again (01.58.80) – a welcome relief! Less expected however was a repeat performance in the 4 x 50 FC, as Masters stalwart and household name David Warren of Otter SC chased down Aldridge all the way on the last 50m, but to no avail, as Southampton walked away with yet another Mixed Relay title (01.48.07) by 0.5 second!

Southampton's Mixed 160 years Relay

Further success came in the Mixed 4 x 100 FC (Langan / Howells / Aldridge / MacTavish) and 4 x 200 FC (Bennell / MacTavish / Kerrigan / Howells) relays, having to settle for Silver in both behind super-charged Teddington and Exmouth teams. Perhaps the greatest podium triumph however came from the Mens 4 x 50 Medley (Langan / Jones / Bennell / MacTavish), as a testosterone-packed field saw the rank outsides from the South Coast go stroke-to-stroke with GB Police, Loughborough, Brighton Dolphins and Teddington to sneak Bronze behind the latter two (01.53.36)….the Coach having to whirl his little arms around like a washing machine to keep the position ahead of sub 24 second FC swimmers!

To take home five National Titles amongst this level of ability was once again an exceptional performance from Southampton Masters. Whilst this was not a time of record breaking for the team - tactics and sheer hard work, combined with a commitment to Club and Colours proved to be a winning formula. Whereas other Masters Clubs often endorse an insular, ‘individual-comes-first’ mentality, the chance to be part of something more will always be the statement our Masters mantra will promote – and this is not lost on other teams across the Country.

Well done to all! Looking forward to 2017 and seeing some new faces from Southampton’s up-and-coming age groupers!

Medal Tally

GOLD : 5
TOTAL : 11

Full results from the competition are available to view on the British Swimming website.

James MacTavish
CSSC Masters Coach