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Parksville's Nicholas Bennett swims to gold at Commonwealth Games

The Island teen took the gold medal in the men’s 200-metre freestyle Para-14 final on Wednesday.
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Canada's Nicholas Bennett gestures after winning the Men's 200m Freestyle S14 final at the Sandwell Aquatics Centre on day six of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. (Peter Byrne/PA via AP)

BIRMINGHAM, England — Swimmer Nicholas Bennett of Parksville marveled at being on top of the podium Wednesday at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

“Seeing the Canadian flag wave higher than the others warms the heart, to be honest,” he said.

Bennett, 18, continued establishing himself as a rising star internationally as well as in Canada, by furiously churning to the gold medal in the men’s 200-metre freestyle Para-14 final.

“This is ecstasy. I’ve not fully comprehended it, yet,” said the Islander, who led from starting gun to finishing wall amid the deafening din of a capacity crowd of 6,000.

“It began hurting at the 100-metre mark but it didn’t really matter at that point and I hunkered down.”

Bennett sent a shout out to his swimming mates from the Ravensong Aquatic Club in Qualicum Beach: “So many people have supported me back home and that means the world to me.”

The Commonwealth Games are the first major multi-sport Games to fully integrate Para sports into the main program with the medals counting equally in the table, and Island athletes have made this ground-breaking moment their own. Bennett’s was the second Para medal won by Islanders in these Games following the bronze medal by Jessica Tuomela and guide Emma Skaug, both of Victoria, in the women’s Para triathlon event.

“I wish they would do this more often at Games. I believe in integration. Equality should be valued,” said Bennett, who is on the autism spectrum.

“The Para and able-bodied Canadian athletes have joined to together perfectly here at these Games and bonded together in and out of competition.”

The Commonwealth Games gold follows the two silver medals Bennett won in June at the world Para swimming championships in Portugal.

“This is paving the way to Paris 2024 [Paralympics],” he said.

Bennett touched in one minute, 54.97 seconds with Australians Benjamin Hance and Jack Ireland taking silver and bronze in 1:55.50 and 1:56.15, respectively. They spoiled the home pool party for heavily favoured world-record holder and defending world and Tokyo Paralympics champion Reece Dunn of England, who faded to fifth place.

Asked if this was a passing of the torch, Bennett replied: “We have to see what happens.”

Bennett is grateful for his start in the sport in Qualicum Beach under coach Mike Thompson but is now coached by sister Haley Bennett, a former swimmer.

“It’s great to have someone you truly care about coach you, and who in turn, truly cares about you,” he said.

“There is still a brother-sister dynamic between us, but in the pool, it is swimmer-coach.”

AT THE GAMES: Canada (2-2) narrowly missed qualifying for the women’s field-hockey semifinals by giving heavily-favoured India (3-1) all it could handle in a 3-2 loss Wednesday to close group play.

This one was for Paris in two years, said the Canadian team, which includes Island players Maddie Secco, Anna Mollenhauer and Lexi De Armond of Victoria and Sara Goodman from Duncan.

“We are disappointed in not getting to the semifinals but we pushed a world power and that was not a fluke,” said St. Michaels University grad Mollenhauer, daughter of two-time Olympian Nancy Mollenhauer.

The emerging young Canadian team is looking to qualify Canada for the Olympics at Paris for the first time since a previous generation of Island players got Canada to Barcelona in 1992.

“I am absolutely convinced we can play with any top-ranked team in the world,” said Secco, an Oak Bay High alumna.

“We are hungry and building to 2024.”

More than 50 Island or Island-based athletes are competing for Canad in the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games, which began July 28 and run to Monday.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com