SOL23: Old and new champions crowned on first night of swimming

Swimming drew large crowds at Honiara’s new Aquatic Centre. Photos: Pacific Games News Service.

The stands were packed and the atmosphere electric as swimmers from across the Pacific met for the first day of swimming at the Sol2023 Pacific Games on Monday at Honiara’s new Aquatic Centre.

The day began with the preliminary heats in the morning and ended with New Caledonia dominating the finals in the evening, picking up five gold medals, four silver and three bronze across men and women’s events.

New Caledonia’s Lara Grangeon-De-Villele won two of their five gold medals of the day, with her first of the night and the first gold medal of swimming at Sol2023 coming in the women’s 400m freestyle, where she dominated and finished with a winning time of 4 minutes 24.85 seconds. Maiana Flament, also from New Caledonia, finished in second place with a time of 4:34.30 and Tahiti’s Lili Paillisse came in third with a time of 4:42.12.

Grangeon-De-Villele said their team objective is to represent New Caledonia well and they are happy to be here at Sol2023 doing that.

“The competition is hard, but it promotes us to be become the best and it is our objective to come here, represent New Caledonia and win this Pacific Games. Winning the gold medal is an objective that remains the same for us and it is a motivation that gives life to everyone to be the same,” she said.

However, some of the biggest wins of the day were claimed by countries who have not reached the podium in swimming before, or by swimmers that are Pacific Games debutants.

Tasi Limtiaco from the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) scooped the country’s first ever Pacific Games medal in swimming, winning gold in the men’s 200m breaststroke with a time of 2:23.98, almost two seconds ahead of the silver medallist, Alexandre Gane from New Caledonia (2:25.53). Roux Nael from Tahiti picked up bronze (2:29.10).

Limtiaco, who was also making his Pacific Games debut, said that winning gold was his goal and he wants to elevate FSM in swimming.

“This is our first ever swimming medal and that’s what I came here to do. It was my goal and I’m really excited to accomplish that. I just want to take FSM to another level and being on the podium tonight really helped with that.”

Samoa’s Olivia Borg stunned the New Caledonians in the Women’s 100m butterfly, claiming gold with a time of 1:01.54 in her first Pacific Games, only 39 milliseconds ahead of New Caledonia’s Lillie Freulon (1:01.93) who settled for silver. Malou Douillard (1:03.13) from New Caledonia also made the podium, claiming bronze.

“This is my first Pacific Games so to come out of my first event with a gold is something to remember for a long time,” Borg told the Pacific Games News Service.

“I came into the competition honestly to have fun, and winning the gold medal is beyond what I thought, which makes it even more worth it. It was also nice to have all the Samoans here from different sports who were supporting, I honestly love it because it’s nice to have your culture behind you supporting you and cheering you on.”

Sixteen-year-old Kelera Madunasuoko picked up Fiji’s first medal of Sol2023 after finishing in second place behind Grangeon-De-Villele (2:38.61) of New Caledonia with a time of 2:41.98 in the women’s 200m breaststroke. Manon Baldovini finished third in 2:44.11.

Whilst the 200m breaststroke win was Grangeon-De-Villele’s second gold medal on day one, the pride of being Fiji’s first medallist at Sol2023 was a special moment for the Fijian teenager in her Pacific Games debut.

“I am really honoured and happy with my performance. Getting Fiji’s first medal too, I’m happy and honoured to always represent my country. This is my first time representing Fiji at the Pacific Games and I’m really happy just to be here because all the hard work and sacrifices really paid off,” Madunasuoko said.

In the men’s events, Ethan Dumesnil from New Caledonia also has two Pacific Games gold medals to his name at the end of day one.

The first he secured in the men’s 100m butterfly, where he swam the winning time of 54.82, followed by New Caledonian teammate Thibault Mary with a time of 55.29, with Northern Mariana Islands’ Isaiah Aleksenko in third (55.38).

Cook Islands’ Wesley Roberts (3:58.41) walked away with gold in the men’s 400m freestyle, while Nael Roux (3:58.81) from Tahiti made the podium with silver and John-William Dabin (3:58.86) from New Caledonia got bronze.

Day one of swimming ended with the 4x100m freestyle relays which New Caledonia dominated both the men and women and Tahiti, Samoa and Fiji also making it onto the podium.

In the women’s event, New Caledonia secured gold in 4:01.15, Tahiti silver with a time of 4:09.58, and Fiji picked up their second swimming and Pacific Games medal with a time of 4:10.74.

In the men’s relay, New Caledonia again dominated with the winning time of 3:26.84. Samoa picked up silver, their second medal in swimming with a time of 3:33.84 and Tahiti claimed third place with bronze and a final time of 3:33.96.

Winning medals was not the only highlight of the competing athletes’ day as there was a lot to be proud of individually and as a team.

Solomon Islands’ Nico Solodi, who is making his Pacific Games debut, pointed out that gaining new experiences at the Games is also important for him.

“I am very proud to be part of the Solomon Islands swimming team,” he said. “It is my first time doing any kind of international meet which is very exciting, so it’s good to get some new learning experiences going.”

At the end of day one, New Caledonia have 12 swimming medals (five gold, four silver and three bronze), Tahiti have five (two silver and three bronze), Samoa two (one gold and one silver) and Fiji two (one silver and one bronze). Cook Islands (gold), Federated States of Micronesia (gold) and Northen Mariana Islands (bronze) have one medal each.

Day two of swimming on Tuesday will feature more action at the Aquatic Centre with the preliminary heats set to take place from 9:30am to 10:30am and finals in the evening from 6:30pm.

By Melissa Velvel Fare, Delisha Koime and Roselyn Toliliu, Pacific Games News Service