GLASGOW — Ryan Cochrane said before the Commonwealth Games it would be difficult to repeat his double-gold performance of four years ago.
The Canadian swimmer is already halfway there.
Cochrane powered past Australia’s David McKeon on the final lap Thursday to win the men’s 400-metre freestyle for Canada’s first gold medal on the first day of competition at the Games.
The 25-year-old from Victoria broke his own Canadian record set at the 2008 Beijing Olympics by catching McKeon with just 25 metres to go.
“I could tell I was reeling him in, but you also don’t know where everyone is in the pool,” said Cochrane. “You have to pick your battles of where you look. There were some many great guys in that final that I was just happy to touch first.”
Cochrane won with a time of three minutes 43.46 seconds for the fastest time so far in 2014, but said it wasn’t his plan to allow McKeon — who wound up 0.63 seconds back — to get so far ahead.
The Australian jumped out to a big lead that he still held with 100 metres to go before Cochrane put things into overdrive.
“I went out hard, and he went out a little harder,” said Cochrane. “What worked for me was that it was hard but it was smooth. In the past I’ve got excited and it hasn’t really helped me, where this time I worked on my strengths and I think that really carried me through the entire race.”
Canada also picked up a bronze medal in the pool on Thursday with Montreal’s Victoria Poon, Alyson Ackman and Sandrine Mainville and Toronto’s Michelle Williams finishing third in the women’s 4×100-metre freestyle.
Canada won four total medals after Kirsten Sweetland — who grew up with Cochrane in Victoria — opened the day with a silver in triathlon and the Canadian women won gold in the rhythmic gymnastics team event. Canada stood fourth in the medal standings while England took the early lead with 17 total medals, including six gold.
A two-time Olympic medallist, Cochrane won gold in both the 400- and 1,500-metre freestyle at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi and is off to a great start in Scotland.
“It’s stressful swimming first day, almost first event, but it’s exciting to get a race done and see how that sets you up from the rest of the meet,” said Cochrane. “This was by far going to be the harder race, not to say the 1,500 will be easy, because it never is.
“Those guys (in the 400 metres) have gone fast time and time again so I’m happy I could do it when it counts.”
Cochrane added he’s hoping the performance will be a springboard as he prepares for next summer’s Pan American Games in Toronto, and what will almost surely be his final Olympics in 2016.
“I think getting the results here are fantastic and getting the podium and hearing our anthem is what we dream of,” said Cochrane. “But also going best time and working off that … when I hadn’t got a best time year after year that was a bit difficult.
“I can build off that the next few years.”
Cochrane has been trying out new training methods this year and said he finally saw the results he was hoping for on a big stage.
“You always have to focus year after year on what your strengths are,” he said. “I think that race was something that, start to finish, was definitely one where I focused on what I do well instead of what other people do well.
“A lot of time I touch the wall and I’m happy with the result, but I can think of five things that I did wrong. You’re always focusing on the next event. This time I was just so ecstatic to go best time and it was a swim I was really proud of.”
Later Thursday, Australia set a world record with a time of 3:30.98 in the women’s 4×100-metre freestyle, followed by England (3:35.72) and Canada (3:40.00).
Poon said the Canadian swimmers were inspired by Cochrane’s performance.
“For sure it’s a positive motivation for us,” said Poon. “He won in the last 25 metres — I mean, come on.
“It’s just amazing to see him race and he gives us a really good vibe.”
England’s James Guy (3:44.58) was third behind Cochrane in a raucous Tollcross International Swimming Centre that cheered on Scotland’s first two gold medals on home soil.
Hannah Miley won the women’s 400-metre individual medley with a time of 4:31.76, powering away in the final 50 metres to set a Commonwealth Games record ahead of England’s Aimee Willmott (4:33.01) and Australia’s Keryn McMaster (4:36.35).
Ross Murdoch (2:07.30) and Michael Jamieson (2:08.40) then gave Scotland a 1-2 finish in the men’s 200-metre backstroke, with England’s Andrew Willis (2:09.87) taking the bronze.
Cochrane said the atmosphere was electric for all the athletes, not just the hosts.
“For 5,000 people it felt like 20,000 people. They’re just really excited,” he said. “The most important thing as an athlete is you can focus you own race (but) that excitement factor is something on top of what you can do and I really felt it tonight.”
Gymnast Maria Kitkarska of Montreal also felt the power of the crowd as she helped her team, which also included Annabelle Kovacs of Vancouver and Patricia Bezzoubenko of Thornhill, Ont., to gold.
“We never competed in such a full house and the cheering was amazing and pumping us up for our routines,” she said.
Ottawa native Erika Seltenreich-Hodgson was the top Canadian in the women’s 400-metre individual medley behind Miley, followed by Vancouver’s Emily Overholt in fifth and Marni Oldershaw of Oakville, Ont., in sixth.
Toronto’s Brittany MacLean finished fifth in the women’s 200-metre freestyle, while Samantha Cheverton of Pointe-Claire, Que., was seventh.
MacLean was pleased with her race, but was thrilled for Cochrane.
“Oh my gosh that was so exciting,” said the 20-year-old. “He’s just as good a teammate as he is in the water. He really has been a leader on this team.”
Oakville’s Tera van Beilan finished second in her semifinal of the women’s 50-metre breaststroke to advance, Katerine Savard and Audrey Lacroix of Pont-Rouge, Que., qualified for the women’s 100-metre butterfly final and Calgary’s Russell Wood made the final of the men’s 100-metre backstroke.
Cochrane, meanwhile, is set to compete in the 200-metre freestyle on Friday before he defends his 1,500-metre title on Tuesday.
“The 200 will be exciting. It will be a splash and dash,” he said. “It’s (a short distance) for me, but I’ll take what I learned tonight and hopefully I will be that much faster in the morning.”