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The jewel in the 2018 Swim League crown is the Annual City versus Country clash. This year saw the event totally stacked with former Olympians, Commonwealth Games medallists, Pan Pac medallists, National Champions, NSW State Champions, literally the who’s who of New South Wales swimming. The absolute cream of the crop.

In-front of a packed house at the home of Swim League – Coughlan’s Swim Centre at Warners Bay on Saturday the 1st of September, we were privileged to witness the greatest swim racing event in the region’s history. Never before have we had the opportunity to see the calibre of these athletes in this area and we were left in doubt that we wanting to see more.

The atmosphere was electric even as the super stars of the pool warmed up. Like a force of nature on pool deck, you could feel the positive energy getting ready to explode. The noise inside the Centre reached fever pitch as the athletes were called from their prospective teams to take their places behind Lane 4 for City and Lane 5 for Country for the opening event. One could see the nervous excitement turn to steely resolve on these superb young athletes faces, as this was about to get real. The opening race was to be an 8 x 50 Mixed Backstroke Relay.

With their respective team caps and racing goggles in position, a hush came over the crowd as the starter assumed control. A clean start and a crescendo of noise broke forth from both sides of the pool urging their teammates to rise for the occasion.

Whilst the lead changed several times during the course of the thrilling race, it was Country eventually emerging victorious with Dual Olympian Tom Fraser Holmes finishing what his team started by holding off a very fast finishing Josh Wilkie, allowing Country to take the early lead with the full eight points on offer.

Attention then turned to the first of the individual races with the 50 metre Butterfly for Women. Fresh from breaking the NSW State record the week before, Country’s pocket rocket Emily Jones took it out hard and came home even faster with a blistering swim to add three points to the Country teams tally. City swimmers Lauren McDougall and Alicia Walker got their team on the board by taking second and third places respectively.

The big boys then got to get their flex on in the same event in what would be the fastest event on the program. In scenes reminiscent of Ian Thorpe’s memorable 2004 Olympic trials 400 freestyle false start however, Country’s gun swimmer Thomas Fraser Holmes inexplicably rolled off the blocks before the starting gun to the gasps of the crowd and cacophony of noise from their City opposition. Swim League rules allow one false start however, providing it was not a deliberate attempt to gain advantage and his place in the race was restored by race officials.

As the athletes resumed their positions on the blocks, Fraser Holmes turned first at the 25 metre mark, as he tried to stamp his authority over the rest of the field, however rippling man mountain Nicholas Rispoli from the City team responded in the second lap, to blitz the field with a lightning effort that almost set off the fire alarms in the process. Seriously, if you blinked you could have missed this race such was the pure and unadulterated speed that was on display. Whilst Rispoli was on fire, he was backed up superbly by team mates Andrew Hemsworth and Edward Marks, making it a full clean sweep for the City team. This City trifecta narrowed Country’s lead to just two points.

The Coach of the City team could have missed a golden opportunity here by not playing the Power Play card to double his points, but as all good Coaches will tell you “he knew what he was doing” and had his eyes set on another race further into the program to play his trump card.

Race four returned to the Women, doubling the distance to 100 metres and changing the stroke to Freestyle. With four out of the top five fastest women in New South Wales from the recent State Championships in this hot field, it was always going to be a close finish. The City Coach Shane Shepherd sensing a great opportunity played his Power Play card and what a decision this proved to be.

Alicia Walker from the City team powered home in a very impressive performance, with team mate Clare Robertson taking second. A definitive third place proved too difficult for the Judges to decide upon and a re-race was called for between City’s Lauren McDougall and Country’s Josie Gilham.

Unfortunately for Country’s Josie Gilham, she proved too eager to get back into the water after taking off from the blocks a fraction of a second before the starting gun sounded. Despite powering home to touch first, a disqualification was called gifting yet another trifecta to the City team. Combined with the Power Play double points, this lifted the City team to be in-front for the first time in the match. The scoreboard read 21 points to 11 as the City team began to believe this would be their day, emboldened by their strong efforts so far.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Returning from a very successful Pan Pacific Championships, Country’s Matt Wilson turned on an absolute clinic in the Men’s 100 metre Breastroke streeting the field, with team mate Tomas Elliott surging home to make it a much needed Country quinella. City’s Andrew Newling prevented a Country trifecta, by pushing himself to limit with a great effort to claim a valuable third place.

The teams then paired up their Women competitors for a 2 x 100 metre Brace Relay with the stroke chosen to be Individual Medley. This is an event rarely seen on the racing circuit, but here at Swim League, we lead from the front, mix it up and keep it real, by doing things differently.

An amazing race saw the Country pairing of Alex Rees and Caitlin Montgomery battle it out with City’s pairing of Kori McMaster & Hayley Blatchford each giving their absolute all only to touch the wall at the same time. Country’s pairing of Ashleigh Oberekar and Emily Nobbs claimed third, but a re-race was called for to determine the ultimate winner.

Sixty seconds can be a long time, but in Swim League sixty seconds is all you have got to get out of the pool, control your breathing, compose your thoughts and be ready to race again. Not to be denied this time the City team of McMaster & Blatchford proved their endurance to claim the all important three points extending their lead 25 – 19.

The Men’s 2 x 100 metre Brace Relay saw Backstroke as the event and the Country team saw an opportunity to claw back some much needed points. Extremely powerful backstroker’s Bradley Woodward and Shaye Booth combined together for a masterclass in how to get it done streaking away for a valuable first place. They were ably supported for a Country 1 – 2 finish by local sprint king Tristan Hollard teaming up with the ultra-experienced Thomas Fraser Holmes. City pairing Myles Bailey and the energetic Josh Wilkie broke the Country dominance claiming third place. This brought the scores closer again with City still leading 26 – 24.

The summit of Mount Everest and beyond was the next obstacle for the Women competitors to reach for, with the hardest event on the program up next. A dreaded combination race consisting of 100 Backstroke to start, finishing with a 100 Butterfly. A brutal race to swim, a gripping event to watch. Both teams hurled their female champions into the ring and the race took this epic contest to dizzying new heights.

City’s Charli Brown and Country’s Emily Jones left it all in the pool, as neither wanted to let this opportunity to slip for ultimate endurance bragging rights. An unbelievable final lap by Charli Brown saw her overtake a gallant Emily Jones, to claim an epic victory. The crowd stood as one to applaud what they had just witnessed. No doubt a rivalry that will continue well into future. Alicia Walker from the City team fought through the pain barrier for a well-deserved third place. This was a massive effort by Alicia who claimed her third podium for the day. These extra points allowed City to skip out to a four point lead 30 – 26.

Country Coach Sam Frame is widely known in Swim League circles as the Ice Man. He wasn’t fazed by the scoreline as he casually played the Country Power Play card for the next event – the 200 Men’s Breastroke. In doing, so Sam unleashed three superstars of Country NSW Breastroke in Matt Wilson, Tomas Elliott and Nathan Delutiis. They didn’t let their Coach down setting up a crushing 1, 2, 3 finish to claim all maximum 12 points on offer and swung the scoreboard back into Country’s favour 38 – 30.

The final individual race on the program was again in the Backstroke format but only two laps this time. A fast and furious 50. Swimming like their lives depended upon it, Country’s Tristan Hollard swam a near perfect race to out touch his highly fancied team mate Bradley Woodward. Lewis Blackburn from the City team stormed home for an impressive third place, however this 1, 2 Country finish took the game away from the City team 43 – 31 with a total of only 8 points left available in the next two relay races.

Playing for pride now, the City team really showed the quality of the depth in their squads. Firstly their Women’s 4 x 50 Breastroke relay team consisting of Hayley Rowlands, Hannah Higgins, Hayley Blatchford and Lauren McDougall showing a clean pair of heels to claim victory in a very powerful display to claim victory.

Meanwhile, the City Men’s 4 x 50 Fly relay team consisting of Nicholas Rispoli, Edward Marks, Andrew Hemsworth & Shaun Champion, proved they were not to be outdone with a glorious display to take the last race of the program.

With these additional points it still left the City team agonisingly short of the Country team’s total. Despite six wins each, it came down to the all important eight points that Country claimed in the opening relay that proved too much to overcome. Final score Country 43 def City 39.

The Coaches of the Country Team Sam Frame and Mitch Falvey both knew they had a strong line up with Australian representatives Tom Fraser Holmes, Matt Wilson and Brad Woodward, but were very impressed with how the team as a whole were able to come together and make sure all points were raced hard for.

Meanwhile City Coach Shane Shepherd said that he was very pleased with how his team came together with what was a very tough program for them, saying had there been more Freestyle in the program it may well have been a different story, but congratulated the Country side on a well put together Team.

This sets up a mouth-watering return clash in Sydney next year as the City team vowed sweet revenge in their home pool. The Country Team, however were buoyed by this success and were full of confidence wanting to prove this was no fluke by taking the points away from home. As they hoisted the impressive NSW City V Country Cup high, the smiles proved how much this meant to the Country team.

A brilliant event, great crowd support, fantastic competition, great sportsmanship. The superlatives could go on and on. Swimming is back in a big way and this was just the beginning.

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