Ellie Cole walked onto the pool deck for the Women’s 100m Freestyle S9 Final with an added purpose.
He seemed slower than usual, more deliberate, as he looked around the packed arena at the Sandwell Aquatic Center.
You could see his mind racing, thinking about the last time before he retired.
And when Australia’s most decorated Paralympian hit the wall in fifth place, it all started to come to light.
“As I walked away from the pool and looked behind me one last time, I think that’s when it really hit me,” said an emotional Cole.
“It’s really special to be a Paralympic athlete, I don’t think I can really put into words how much the Paralympic movement has completely changed my life.
“I was thinking back to when I was a little girl and I felt like it was yesterday when I had a floater on my back.
“So much has happened since then, and I owe everything I am to the Paralympic movement and knowing that it’s over, I guess I have to find something else to do.”
While Cole failed to get a medal in his last race, that hardly matters.
He came to Birmingham to say goodbye to his sport, to his friends, to an important part of his life, and he has done it his way.
“I just fell in love with everything it was to be a Paralympic athlete, which is why I went to four Games, I would go to many more if my body would let me,” she said.
“Now I get to sit back and watch the Aussies dominate for the next five days, and I’m the biggest swimming fan in the world and I get pool tickets, so that’s great.”
The beginners club
Sam Short is sure to get Cole excited in the stands for days to come.
In his first international final, the 18-year-old was part of an Australian trifecta in the men’s 400m freestyle.
World champion Elijah Winnington won gold, Short silver and Mack Horton bronze.
“I already want to do it again, so I’m over the moon,” Short said.
“I was excited to run with the big dog and I was next to the former Olympic champion. [Horton] I was in the race with the world champion [Winnington], Europeans that I have never raced in before in my life. So I was excited the whole time.”
The teenager was brimming with energy after receiving his medal and is savoring his experience at the Commonwealth Games.
“I love it, it’s given me a new reason to keep training. I’ve never been in a village setting before, this is all new to me, this whole media thing, like it’s all new,” he said.
“And I just want to do it over and over and over again.”
Mollie O’Callaghan, 17, was just as upbeat after her gold in the mixed 4x100m freestyle relay, and silver behind training partner Ariarne Titmus in the women’s 200m freestyle.
O’Callaghan tore through the water in the closing stages and came within inches of upstaging one of Australia’s biggest names.
“I just focused on myself, I felt like in this competition I had a lot less pressure to perform,” she said.
“I thought this race was more fun than anything else, but I had to work on my strengths and it worked out really well.”
Meanwhile, Titmus knew there would be no easy medals at these Games considering the talent chasing her at home during training.
“I knew going into this she would be there,” Titmus said.
“She is young, she is a fighter, she is hungry. That was me, and I still am.
“But he’s done really well, so it’s exciting to have a little bit of a battle, it makes it fun.”
Madi Wilson won bronze at the event and was happy to see her teammates shine.
“I’m so proud of these girls, I’ve seen them make the team as babies, especially Mollie,” she said.
“She was so little last year and she’s still so baby, we’re chasing her all the time, but just to see her absolutely crush the last 50 then, it’s amazing.”
The gold rush begins
It’s not often that gold medalists get relegated to postscript, and that’s not a slight on them.
Australian fans have been spoiled by the Dolphins’ seemingly endless waves of success, and winning five of seven golds on opening night was quite the statement.
Winnington was at world-record pace for half of the 400-mile freestyle before crashing, but he’s happy to keep chasing.
“My mental coach and I always say, you know, it’s pretty hard to be hunted,” he said.
“But having that world record there means I’m still the chaser, so I have something to chase. I may be number one, but I’m always striving to get better.”
Timothy Hodge won the men’s 100m backstroke S9, while Zac Stubblety-Cook won the 200m breaststroke.
William Yang, Kyle Chalmers, O’Callaghan and Emma McKeon finished the night with victory in the 4×100 mixed relay.