Tully Kearney and Reece Dunn led the way for ParalympicsGB on the first day in the pool in Tokyo, winning silver medals in the women’s 200m freestyle S5 and men’s 100m butterfly S14 respectively, after the 18-year-old Toni Shaw had taken bronze in the women’s 400m freestyle S9.
Both Kearney and Dunn were the fastest qualifiers for their finals and Kearney, the winner of three gold medals at the 2019 world championships, went down to an agonising defeat after leading for all but the final few yards of her first Paralympic final.
The 24-year-old quickly built a significant lead after a static start and turned at 100m in 1min 16.36sec – 0.29sec inside the world record for the S5 100m. She held a lead of 2.19sec over China’s Li Zhang – the S5 champion at 50m, 100m and 200m in Rio – at 300m and was still swimming at world-record pace inside the final 25m.
Her huge early effort started to tell in the final 15m, however, as Zhang began to eat into Kearney’s advantage and the 2017 world champion touched 0.12sec in front.
Kearney was born with cerebral palsy and developed generalised dystonia, a neurological movement disorder, in her teens.
She was forced to withdraw from the Rio Paralympics in 2016 because of a significant progression of her condition and installed a 13ft x 6ft pool in her garden at the start of the coronavirus pandemic – “no waves, still water, with a Bunjee attached to a fence post” – to ensure she could continue training towards her goal of Paralympic competition.
“There was a question mark over whether I’d ever get to a Paralympic Games and the fact that I’ve been able to race and come away with a medal is crazy,” Kearney said.
“I thought after Rio, the Paralympics wouldn’t be possible, I wouldn’t be able to swim any more, so this is obviously a massive deal and it’s all down to the amazing support staff, the amazing team. I just swam.
“I’ve not had that much training, I’ve been dealing with injuries and things. I was nervous my fitness wouldn’t be good enough to swim 200 so to go that close was pretty impressive and I’ve got to be pleased with that.”
Dunn, the world record holder for the men’s 100m butterfly S14, earned ParalympicsGB’s first silver medal in the pool, finishing a third of a second behind Gabriel Bandeira of Brazil.
The 25-year-old from Plymouth, competing at the Games for the first time, set a Paralympic record of 55.99sec in his heat and reached the turn just 0.01sec behind Bandeira in Wednesday’s final, with both swimmers a fifth of a second behind Lawrence Sapp of the US. A faster turn by Bandeira gave him a narrow advantage which he held throughout the final 50m, winning the gold by 0.36sec and taking more than a second off Dunn’s record from earlier in the day with a time of 54.76sec.
“Obviously I’m happy about it,” Dunn said. “I’m a little disappointed in my finish, I lost it there, but still happy nonetheless. I knew it was going a tough race coming in, it was going to go down to the last five metres or so and he obviously beat me to it.”
Shaw, who celebrated her 18th birthday three weeks ago, had earlier won Great Britain’s first swimming medal of the Games in the second of day’s finals, taking bronze in the women’s 400m freestyle S9.
Shaw turned in second at the halfway stage behind Australia’s Lakeisha Patterson but was back in third at 300m as Zsofia Konkoly, who was fastest in qualifying, steadily closed the gap on the leader. Konkoly could not claw back her deficit in time, however, and she was touched off by 0.08sec in one of the day’s closest finishes.
Ellie Robinson had been expected to go into the final of the women’s 50m freestyle S6 with a serious chance of a medal but pulled out of the event before the morning’s heats to concentrate instead on the 50m butterfly S6, in which she won gold as a 15-year-old in Rio de Janeiro five years ago.
That left Team GB with a total of seven qualifiers for the first day’s finals. Louise Fiddes and Jessica-Jane Applegate finished fifth and sixth respectively behind the Russian Paralympic Committee’s Valeriia Shabalina in the women’s 100m butterfly S14, while Zara Mulooly finished seventh in the women’s 50m freestyle S10. Suzanna Hext, another British swimmer making her Paralympic debut, finished fourth in the 200m freestyle S5.
“To be honest, I’m really happy that it’s so competitive,” Fiddes said after her final. “It just kind of proves that the Paralympic movement is really taking a step forwards and even though I didn’t do a good time, I’m just glad that the Games are happening after everything that’s gone on.”