Australia only won one gold medal on Thursday in Glasgow. It went to para-athlete Angie Ballard in the T54 1500m at Hampden Park - and it had a postscript. Ballard waited out on the track to watch the next race, in which her friend of two decades, Kurt Fearnley, was competing.
Unbeknown to Ballard, while Fearnley was sitting on the starting line, he asked an official who had won the women’s race. The official told him it was Diane Roy of Canada. Fearnley went ahead and pushed bravely in his event before England’s Olympic champion David Weir exploded away from him in the back straight of the final lap. Fearnley, who has won Olympic, World and Commonwealth gold medals at distances from 800m to the marathon, was initially devastated after his second place.
"You convince yourself that you’re strong enough, you’ve done the work," he said in a flat tone. "Over the next six or twelve months, I’ll convince myself again that I will be the reason that he doesn’t win gold at Rio. That’s what you do. It starts again tomorrow."
Then he was told that he had been misinformed about Ballard. She had won. On learning this, Fearnley erupted with purest joy.
"Who won gold? I don’t know anything. Ballard! She did not! Holy crap! Angie won! F---!
"I don’t know what to say. I’ve known Ange since I was 11. We were playing in a junior camp in Narrabeen throwing balls at each other’s heads. I’m just over the moon…. That is the best. If there’s ever a good news story about effort and uncompromising drive to do what she does, it’s Angie Ballard. Awesome! I feel so happy now!"
And so Fearnley pushed off, to collect his silver that felt, due to the achievement of his friend, suddenly a lot more like gold.
Earlier, As the rain poured down on Glasgow on Thursday, Ballard sat down with her coach to write two lists. One was how they rated her opponents in that night’s final in the dry. The other was how they rated them in the wet.
There were significant differences. "You can discount some of them once it starts to rain," said Ballard, 32, who, as a Sydney University psychology graduate, had a firm grip on mind games.
"I’ve made the effort over the years to get good in the rain. Some people choose not to train when it’s wet, but I do it so I can be good in both."
Among those she did not have at the top of her ‘wet’ list was Roy, the 43-year-old Canadian who controversially had to hand back a 5000m gold medal at the Beijing Paralympics after being awarded it; there was a protest following a crash during her race, and in the re-race she came second by 0.01sec.
After the first lap of Thursday’s Commonwealth Games final, Ballard led, but soon the Canadian veteran swept past her. Sticking to the inside lane, Ballard was boxed in and trying not to get anxious. While Roy was only having to cope with rainwater off the track, her wheels were acting as a pair of hoses into Ballard’s face. "I felt like I was snorkelling, getting wet the whole time," Ballard said.
As a sprinter – she has won multiple major championships medals in the 100m, 200m, 400m and 800m – Ballard had one factor in her favour. "Because of the wet," she said, "the pace wasn’t that hard. It was more technically challenging. Some of these girls are more distance athletes and 1500m is short for them. I’m a sprinter; 1500m is the furthest I go. So I could conserve some energy in the race and come home strong."
While she sat in behind Roy, the field got strung out as they struggled with the technical challenge, opening the gap for Ballard to hook to the outside and come around Roy as they exited the final turn. "If you’ve got the speed in wheelchair racing and you’re smart enough – which I’m working on, a little bit – you can come home fast," Ballard said.
She did come home fast, and she won her gold medal commandingly. "It’s a different event to the Paralympics and World Championships,’ she said, ‘but a privilege to be in the Australian team in the Commonwealth Games – very cool!"