Jessica Stenson’s smile was as bright as the Commonwealth Games gold medal she won on Saturday despite the grueling nature of the Birmingham marathon course.
The 34-year-old, who claimed one of Australia’s five gold medals on Saturday, broke the hearts of her rivals in a pacesetting run for the biggest triumph of her career.
Madison de Rozario continued her dominance of wheelchair racing, Katja Dedekind posted the first world record of these games, the women’s freestylers recorded a massive relay win and Australia’s women’s rugby sevens team posted a big win over New Zealand amid another busy day in Birmingham.
But the prominence of Stenson’s triumph, seized with great courage through the heart of Birmingham, is another defining moment in Australia’s proud marathon history.
After shaking Namibia’s defending champion Helalia Johannes and then Kenyan Margaret Muriuku with about 5km to run, Stenson strode purposefully uphill to Victoria Square.
Inspiring her was the memory of her idol Kerryn McCann, the 2006 Melbourne gold medalist who tragically died from cancer two years after her heroic final flourish at the MCG.
“I thought about Kerryn’s closing kilometers in that battle against the Kenyan woman as she entered the MCG,” she said. “All of that history really turns into strength that we can use to try and continue that history. I so badly wanted to do Australia and my support team proud today.”
Running 2:27.31 to win by 29 seconds, Stenson is the first woman to claim a medal in three Commonwealth Games marathons after bronze efforts in Glasgow and on the Gold Coast.
Within sight of the finish, Stenson had enough time to say “thank you” to supporters who had earlier cheered de Rozario to victory in the women’s T53/54 wheelchair marathon.
Stenson, who became the sixth Australian woman to win the marathon in the past 10 editions, was greeted at the finish line by her two-year-old son Billy.
“Your perspective shifts. I am doing this because I can. It is a privilege,” she said. “I feel fulfilled anyway and everything here is just a bonus. It sort of takes the pressure off. It is a bonus.”
Her triumph is one of resilience. She has bounced back from the near misses and is better than ever. Not even a recent bout of Covid-19 could deny her a career-defining moment.
Stenson said the enforced rest may have benefited her, for she felt strong throughout a marathon in which compatriots Eloise Wellings and Sinead Diver finished fourth and fifth.
As expected, de Rozario was a class above the field, winning by more than three minutes when clocking a time of 1:56.
But the triple Commonwealth Games gold medalist said it was one of her toughest races. She hit the wall at the 27km mark, describing the twisting, hilly course as complicated and difficult.
De Rozario also succeeded despite the damage her wheelchair sustained on the way to Birmingham, with some swift homemade adjustments required before the marathon.
Electrician Liam Adams also ran a bold marathon, setting a fast pace throughout the first half of the race before finishing not far behind the bronze medalist in fourth position.
“Hopefully all the weekend warriors, anyone who was working a nine-to-five who’s battling with the work-running type of lifestyle, can look to that and find some inspiration,” he said.
Dedekind, a 20-year-old who is blind in her right eye and has limited vision in her left eye, set a new world mark of 26.56 seconds when easily winning the 50m freestyle S13.
“Oh wow, that’s icing on the cake,” she said.[It is] my first long-course world record and to do it at the Commonwealth Games, where it is the first vision competition for para athletes to be invited [to] is pretty exciting.”
A three-time Paralympic bronze medallist, she won the same event at the recent world championships and is aiming to improve further with a view to the Paris Paralympics.
Emma McKeon, who now has 10 Commonwealth Games gold medals, anchored Australia to victory by almost six seconds in the 4x100m freestyle relay.
Kyle Chalmers led home Australia in the male equivalent to close out the night in the pool. The men’s 4x100m relay gold was Australia’s 13th gold medal, which is six in front of second-placed New Zealand.
Women’s rugby sevens representative Maddison Levi scored a hat-trick in Australia’s 17-12 defeat of the Kiwis in the semi-final. She was understandably thrilled to set up a gold medal playoff against Fiji, who defeated the Australians in a group game.
“Getting over our neighbors is pretty exciting and to seal the deal with that last try was fantastic,” she said.
Australia’s artistic gymnastic team produced a fine performance to finish second behind England, pushing the host nation all the way in an excellent performance. Georgia Godwin placed third in the all round results behind English gymnasts Alice Kinsella and Ondine Achampong.
Australians who finished on the podium on Saturday included Maeve Plouffe, a silver medalist in the 3,000m individual pursuit and McKeon, who was edged out in the 100m butterfly by Canadian Maggie Macneil, while Brendon Smith finished second in the 400m individual medley.
Elijah Winnington (200m freestyle), Chelsea Hodges (50m breaststroke), Jacob Templeton (S13 50m freestyle), Brianna Throssell (100m butterfly) and Bradley Woodward (100m backstroke) claimed bronze medals.
Elsewhere, the Hockeyroos defeated Kenya 8-0 to start their campaign to reclaim the gold medal after a defeat on the Gold Coast four years ago, with captain Kaitlin Nobbs scoring a hat-trick. The Australians reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in Spain earlier in July and Nobbs believes their form has been noted by rivals.
Australia also enjoyed a debut success in the men’s 3×3 basketball, a newly introduced sport for this edition of the games, when defeating Trinidad and Tobago 21-6.