In every sport competition, there is always that special moment that goes into history. That victory that was not expected. That defeat that was also not on the programme. Those tears, that anger, that minute of glory where everything goes perfect, or those long seconds where the worst of the nightmares becomes true. That’s the beauty of sport. Those are the instants that make the difference!
Yesterday, at the Hamad Aquatic Centre, in Doha, during the initial day of the fifth leg of the FINA/airweave Swimming World Cup in the Qatari capital, it was around 20h15 in the evening, when the starting signal was given for the men’s 400m individual medley race. Four minutes, six seconds and 72 hundredths of seconds later, Maksym Shemberev touches the pad for the gold. At 24, he obtains the first gold ever for his country, Azerbaijan, in a World Cup event. He leaves the winner of the Hong Kong leg, Australia’s Ayrton Sweeney, with the silver, and allows experienced Gergely Gyurta (HUN) to only earn bronze.
Born in September 1993, the first international records concerning Shemberev date back from 2010, when at the Moscow leg of the World Cup he was sixth at both the 1500m free and 400m IM finals. At the 2011 FINA World Junior Swimming Championships, he wins the 400m IM in a new Championships record, and gets two bronze medals, in the 200m IM and 200m breast. At the London 2012 Games, his best result is a 15th place in the 400m IM, while the 2013 FINA World Championships in Barcelona were also modest – 20th in his pet event. And since then, no more news until yesterday’s win in Doha.
Shemberev’s achievement is an excellent reminder that the FINA Swimming World Cup has been, over the years, a competition where many countries, not used to shine so high at the FINA World Championships, could produce their heroes. While benefitting from wider exposure (and support) after their achievements, some of them could also be seen in the top positions at Olympic and World competitions.
Digging in the archives of the World Cup’s list of gold medallists, we can observe many examples of this kind of première.
Among men, many will recall the sole Argentinean winner in the competition, Jose Meolans – however, he did it on 12 occasions! From Algeria, for example, sprinter Salim Iles was a one-time gold medallist, precisely 20 years ago, in Imperia (ITA). In 1990, Cuba had its moment of glory, when Pedro Hernandez was the best in the 100m breast in Paris (FRA). Ten years later, Indonesia shone in the Hong Kong meet, when Wisnu Wardhana and Felix Sutanto won the 50m fly and 50m back, respectively. Israel had its sole winner – Yoav Bruck – in the 50m free, back in 1996, in Malmo. Also in the Swedish city, but one year later, Jose Couto made Portugal proud of his 200m breast triumph. His teammate Diogo Madeira completes the list of winners for the Iberian nation, with his 200m fly achievement in Sheffield 1994.
In the list of countries with only one gold medallist, a special mention is due to Tunisia and Trinidad and Tobago. The North African country had in Ous Mellouli his greatest star, with 30 triumphs in the history of the World Cup. Mellouli was also a top athlete at both the Olympics and FINA World Championships. He is still today the first and only swimmer ever to have won the Games’ gold in the pool (1500m free, in Beijing 2008) and in marathon swimming (10km, London 2012). For Trinidad and Tobago, the hero is George Bovell – 13 wins at the World Cup – but one of the best swimmers in history in the 100m IM, a distance in which he was World Record holder.
In the women’s field, Carolina Henao brought the only gold for Colombia after triumphing in the 200m back (Belo Horizonte, Brazil, 2008), while Chilean Kristel Kobrich shone in the 800m free in Berlin 2010. Egypt has in Rania Elwani a six-time gold medallist – after the conclusion of her successful career (she represented her country at the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics), she became IOC member in 2004. Chinese Taipei has its sole winners in the 1997 Hong Kong leg, with Shutzu Hsieh shining in the 200m fly and Chi Chan Lin touching first in the 800m free.
Modest at World Cup level (just one victory in the 200m IM, in Sydney 2006), Kirsty Coventry (ZIM) went on having a brilliant career that included seven Olympic medals (among them, the gold in the 200m back, at both the 2004 and 2008 Games), plus eight additional podium presences in the FINA World Championships.
Finally, Jamaica can only count on one single asset so far in the history of the World Cup. But what a talented one! Alia Atkinson continues to enchant us with her performances and after the first day in Doha, she now accumulates 49 gold medals in the competition. Still with no Olympic awards, she earned silver in the 50m breast and bronze in the 100m breast, both at the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan (RUS, 2015).