'Friendly Games' encapsulated as islands combine to give rare relay experience
Displayed upon the Island Games swimming event scoreboard during the relay heats yesterday morning, was the name of an unfamiliar jurisdiction.
Above the expected names such as Orkney, Gotland and Menorca was the message ‘Mixed team’ and the three-diamonds flag of the International Island Games Association was showing next to it.
As the teams approached the starting blocks, it became clear from their swim caps that these were competitors from both the Isle of Wight and St Helena.
So how had this apparent anomaly come about?
‘Their coach approached us and asked if we had two spare boys that could go with their two spare males,’ said Isle of Wight swimming coach Val Gard, ‘just to give them the experience of a relay team. I had two who were really up for it.’
Those two were Harry Poynter and Rossen Martin, who had not been selected – from a large and competitive squad – for the Isle of Wight’s own 4x50m freestyle relay team, which they subsequently went up against.
For St Helena, an island in the South Atlantic Ocean fully 2,000km from the nearest continental landmass, the impetus to seek out partners to make up a team was the desire to give their tiny squad an opportunity they will rarely be afforded.
‘They don’t normally get a chance to compete in a relay,’ said coach Christine Caswell.
‘We have only brought three swimmers – one female and two male – and this is our only competition that we are able to compete in because we’re so isolated.’
That female swimmer, Vivienne Ponsford, has officially been entered in seven events during the week but an eighth – which does not appear on the Guernsey 2023 website – saw her team up with three swimmers from the Falkland Islands for a sort of South Atlantic composite quartet.
With William Caswell and Stefan Thomas joining their Isle of Wight counterparts, this meant the whole St Helena team, all of whom are making their Games debuts, got to experience the thrill of a relay event – the type of swimming race that undoubtedly raises the most decibels in an already raucous Beau Sejour pool arena.
‘It’s the hype,’ said Christine, ‘it’s a fun thing, you know what I mean? Everyone looks forward to swimming in a relay, so they really wanted the experience.’
For the Isle of Wight, Val was clear that the act of providing a hundred metres’ worth of swimming talent paid dividends.
‘They just swum brilliantly – amazing swims,’ she said.
‘The St Helena guys were really good and the team just gelled. It’s lovely for the team friendship side of things across the Island Games as well – it’s really good for the future.’
Lead referee Margaret Salmon said the idea had first come about during the previous Island Games in Gibraltar four years ago.
‘Officially, the teams have to be registered eight weeks in advance,’ she said, ‘so these are unofficial performances, but it gives swimmers a chance to be involved who would otherwise miss out. It’s the friendly thing to do.’
Regardless of the time registered, no mixed team can advance from a heat, let alone receive a medal. One can only imagine the chaos that might ensue if a hybrid team denied a properly-registered island team.
But this type of late accommodation, to which all team coaches were agreed, has distinctly enhanced the first Games experience of several young swimmers who may never forget their first relay showdown,
And it has shown again that there is more to the ‘friendly games’ than winning a bit of metal.