It was, according to Craig Hunter, beyond all expectations. England’s all-conquering performance at the Commonwealth Youth Games on the Isle of Man was described by the team’s Chef de Mission today as “an absolutely outstanding performance”.
England’s 78-strong team of teenagers who made the short trip across the Irish Sea head home today having won an astonishing 37 gold medals in six sports over three hectic days to finish eight golds clear at top of the table, knocking Australia off their perch for the first time.
“We believed we could be second and knew we had an opportunity to give the Australians a good run for their money,” said Hunter. “But it was better than our wildest dreams to win by that margin.
“It demonstrates that junior sport in this country is in the ascendancy and that bodes well for the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and on to the 2016 Olympics and beyond.”
For England, it was by far the most successful of the four editions of these Games held so far, and the team will travel home heavier by the weight of 77 medals, more than any other nation. Having matched the Australians at the first Commonwealth Youth Games in Edinburgh, England finished second in Bendigo in 2004 and third in Pune, India, four years ago.
For Hunter the challenge on the Isle of Man, with “near-home advantage” and the inspiration of England’s strong showing at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi last year fresh in the mind, was to aim for the top.
“Our challenge to the team was to try and beat Australia and clearly we’ve exceeded that,” he said. “Beating Australia is always a fantastic outcome but the manner in which we did it, with every sport contributing to the medal count in a great way was especially pleasing.”
Not only did England finish first overall but their athletes were the most successful in four of the seven sports – athletics, boxing, gymnastics and rugby – were second best in two, and even took on the ever-strong Asian nations on the badminton court.
In athletics, England won twice as many golds as the next most successful nation, South Africa, taking 12 in all and 19 medals, while all seven of Martin Webb’s young boxers won medals and five battled their way to the top of the podium.
England’s gymnasts were similarly supreme, winning eight of the 14 gold medals on offer, 18 medals in total, as all six claimed their share of individual glory, while Ben Ryan’s talented rugby squad provided the crowning moment when England defeated the feared South Africans to win the 7s.
"It was really inspirational to see the rugby 7s contribute in that way,” said Hunter. “You could see they wanted to do their bit for the team and didn’t want to let anyone down.
“I think that great team environment here has really helped us. Each night the medallists have returned to the team hotel to acclaim and respect from the other athletes – it’s the best spirit I’ve ever seen.”
In fact, England finished no lower than third in any sport. In cycling, they were second by just one medal, matching a much-admired Australian squad with five gold medals apiece from the three events and just one fewer silver. England’s women were utterly dominant, winning all five gold medals on offer including all three individual races.
In swimming, traditionally Australia’s strongest sport, England came second ahead of New Zealand thanks to six gold medals and nine silvers, a significant haul from a team composed of swimmers already race-weary from the recent world junior championships.
Even in badminton, England’s young players showed they can live with the best in the world, taking a silver and bronze in the men’s doubles and singles. Only the dominant Asian nations, Malaysia and India, did better, taking all five gold medals between them.
Among England’s new sporting stars are Hannah Barnes, who pedalled to two individual and two team titles to finish the Games as England’s most successful champion, closely followed by her team-mate Lucy Garner, who added victory in the road race to her two team golds.
Gymnast Dominick Cunningham also enjoyed the kind of success he could hardly have dreamed about, winning both team and individual all around titles, the latter by a big margin, before picking up another gold medal for a brave high bar routine which brought the three-day men’s programme to a thrilling conclusion.
All three women gymnasts leave the Isle of Man as double gold medallists, having won a brilliant team gold on Friday and one individual apparatus title each yesterday.
Harriet Owen goes home with two cycling team golds, while all four of the triumphant women’s 4x100m relay quartet also won individual events making Sophie Papp, Dina Asher-Smith, Yasmin Miller and Jazmin Sawyers double CYG champions in track and field.
England had double champions in the pool too as Sophie Smith and Phoebe Lenderyou yesterday added a relay gold to their individual titles.
Almost as important as the numbers, however, was the manner of England’s performances. Whenever and wherever England athletes were presented with a significant challenge they met it full on.
Australia were expected to dominate the cycling but they were matched pedal for pedal by an England team prepared for a week beforehand on the island’s rolling roads. The Aussies had high hopes in gymnastics too, but England’s men and women swung, bounded, flipped and landed better than the rest.
When England’s young badminton players met the mighty Malaysians they all-but gave as good as they got, and leave knowing they can live with the best. And when English fighters lost just two of their 22 bouts in the ring those boxers fought themselves to a standstill in pursuit of victory.
“The highlights have come across every single sport,” said Hunter. “It’s been about winning every time an athlete has stepped out to compete.
“It just shows if we can get young athletes to believe passionately in what they do and create a sense of being one team across seven sports it’s a winning formula. And it will take them on to bigger and better things.”
England’s final medal tally: 37 Gold; 24 Silver; 16 Bronze; Total 77