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2023’s Local sporting achievements (1): Team Malta make history with record-breaking performance at GSSE

Claire Azzopardi won three gold medals at the 2023 Malta GSSE in track and field events. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Top medals standings for the first time ever

The 2023 Games of the Small States of Europe (GSSE) held in Malta rank among the biggest sporting achievements not only for this year but in the history of Maltese sport. In fact, Team Malta managed to win a record haul of 97 medals, of which 38 were gold to finish at the top of the medals’ standings for the first time ever since the Games’ inception in 1985. Valhmor Camilleri looks back at Team Malta’s achievements during this year’s biennial Games…

The expectations were high for Team Malta at the 2023 GSSE, particularly after the government’s unprecedented financial support for the athletes’ technical preparation for the Games.

In fact, in the run-up to the biennial Games, the Maltese Olympic Committee, who were responsible for the athletes’ preparation in the ten disciplines held, benefited from a record grant of €4.9 million.

These funds enabled the ten participating federations to provide their athletes with much-needed funds to not only attend a number of training camps abroad but more importantly the opportunity to compete in high-profile international events.

Such investment reaped the desired dividends as Team Malta achieved the unthinkable when placing first in the medals’ standings ahead of bigger countries such as Cyprus, Luxembourg and Iceland.

Never in the history of the Games has our country managed to beat all the other small European countries, with our previous best result being a fourth place in three editions – 1993, 2003 and 2011.

ATHLETICS

Malta’s track and field selection enjoyed a stellar participation at the 2023 GSSE as our selection topped the medals’ standings of the discipline with 15 gold medals, seven silver and 10 bronze for a total of 32 medals.

Gina McNamara and Claire Azzopardi became the first Maltese athletes to win three gold medals in track and field in the same edition of these Games.

McNamara, who was making her debut in the Games, won the gold medal in the 800m, 1,500m and the 5,000m.

Claire Azzopardi, on the other hand, secured the gold medal in the long jump and the triple jump before wrapping up her participation when teaming up with Charlotte Wingfield, Janet Richard and Carla Scicluna to take the gold medal in the 4x100m.

Graham Pellegrini also stood out in these Games when taking a historic gold medal in the men’s 200m before then teaming up with Luke Bezzina, Gaetano Di Franco and Beppe Grillo to take the win in the 4x100m relay.

Jordan Gusman and Lisa Marie Bezzina maintained Malta’s domination in the long distances as Gusman made it back-to-back 5,000m and 10,000m gold medal double in back-to-back editions, while Bezzina retained her title in the 10K race.

Janet Richard was another star performer when striking gold in the 400m and the relay while Peppijna Dalli won Malta’s first-ever title at the Games in the women’s pole vault.

Armani James and Jared Micallef were two other debutants in Team Malta who brought home the gold medal after topping the triple jump and the 800m respectively.

JUDO

Malta’s judokas also produced a healthy tally of medals at the 2023 GSSE to compensate for previous disappointments in recent editions. In fact, Team Malta finished the Games with one gold medal, one silver and two bronze medals.

Katryna Esposito further underlined her status as Malta’s top judoka when she secured the gold medal in the women’s -48kg category in some style and won her first GSSE title in her career.

James Zahra produced an eye-catching display in the men’s -60kg category as the Maltese judoka produced a resilient display that earned him the silver medal.

Isaac Bezzina (men’s -100kg) and Valerian Ogbaidze (men’s-90kg) placed third in their categories.

SAILING

Sailing has always been one of Malta’s strongest disciplines at the GSSE and the Maltese sailors again delivered at the 2023 GSSE when bringing home no less than 13 medals.

In the Optimist class, Malta completed a memorable double in both the men’s and women’s categories. In fact, Timmy Vassallo topped the men’s event ahead of team-mate Jonas Micallef while Emily Fenech placed first in the women’s class ahead of Aleksandra Nagrudnaia.

Katrina Micallef was the other gold medal winner for Malta when topping the women’s ILCA 4 while Jake Mallia came close to making it a home double when taking silver in the men’s event.

Lacey Aquilina also took the silver medal in the women’s ILCA 6.

SHOOTING

Malta further underlined its status as one of the top nations in shooting events when securing no less than three gold medals at the Games.

Without a doubt, Malta’s biggest success at the Games was the team’s performance in the Skeet which traditionally has always been dominated by Cypriot shooters.

But this time around Team Malta took centre stage with Clive Farrugia winning his first ever gold medal of the Games. Farrugia finished ahead of team-mate Marcello Attard who produced a stunning recovery to place second.

In the men’s double trap, there was another tense duo between the home shooters with Matthew Grech winning his first-ever title at the biennial Games when placing ahead of the more-experienced William Chetcuti.

In target shooting, Eleonor Bezzina underlined her status as a major force in this discipline when she took gold in the women’s 10m Air Pistol. For Bezzina, this was her third gold medal at a GSSE.

SQUASH

Team Malta kept its stranglehold in the squash competitions with another dominant performance at the 2023 GSSE, bringing home seven of the eight gold medals at stake in this year’s edition.

Colette Sultana was the face of the squash selection as she brought home three gold medals. In fact, Colette beat her young sister Lijana Sultana in the women’s singles final before teaming up with her sister to take gold in the women’s doubles against teammates Amke Fisher and Johanna Rizzo.

Colette Sultana then teamed up with Niall Engerer to bag the mixed doubles title after defeating her siblings Lijana and Kijan Sultana in the final.

Kijan Sultana finished with two gold medals around his neck when teaming up with his mentor Brad Hindle Deguara to win the men’s doubles at the expense of Niall Engerer and Daniel Zammit Lewis.

The other gold medal for Malta came in the Team event which was formed by Kijan Sultana, Hindle Deguara, Engerer, Zammit Lewis, Kresten Hougaard, Julian Scerri and Duncan Stahl.

SWIMMING

The 2023 GSSE will remain marked in the history of Maltese swimming as Team Malta produced their best-ever performance in the Games.

Prior to this edition, Malta had only won one gold medal at GSSE, through Angela Galea at the 2005 Games in Andorra.

However, Malta finally ended that 18-year wait with some style.

During this year’s Games, Team Malta have reached unprecedented heights with swimmers winning a record tally of 17 medals in the pool – four gold, six silver and seven bronze.

Georgia Bohl, making her first appearance for Malta at these Games, made it a golden double at the Tal-Qroqq pool when she topped the women’s 50 metres as well as the 100m breaststroke races.

Kyle Micallef established himself as the fastest swimmer at the Games when winning the 50m freestyle race before teaming up with Matthew Galea, Raoul Stafrace and Rudi Spiteri to win a first-ever relay title for Malta in the men’s 4x100m free.

Other remarkable results include Sarah Demicoli’s second placing in the women’s 200m fly and the 4x200m free relay along with Francesca Falzon Young, Mya Azzopardi and Sasha Gatt.

Gatt finished with four medals after bagging two silver medals in the 800m and 1,500 races and third place in the 400m free.

BASKETBALL

The men’s basketball team came close to winning their first-ever gold medal in a GSSE after losing the final against Luxembourg in front of a packed Ta’ Qali Pavilion.

Alan Walls’ team eliminated gold-medal holders Montenegro in the semi-finals but could not finish the job as they were beaten by Luxembourg 78-69 in the final and settled for second place.

The women’s selection, under the charge of Angela Adamoli, missed out on a place on the podium when placing fourth in the women’s tournament.

The 2023 Games saw the debut of the 3×3 format and Malta came close to a podium placing in the women’s competition but had to settle for fourth place after losing a nail-biting bronze medal play-off against Cyprus 15-14.

TENNIS

The Malta Tennis selection was among the protagonists for their country in these Games after securing five medals, of which three were gold.

Matija Pecotic was the star of the show when he became Malta’s first-ever gold medallist in the singles event after defeating Monaco’s Lucas Catarina 6-2 6-1 in the final.

Pecotic then teamed up with Matthew Asciak to land the doubles title when they had the better of Cypriots Sergis Kyratzis and Eleftherios Neos 6-1 6-4 in the final.

Elaine Genovese and Francesca Curmi won the women’s doubles after they beat Luxembourg duo Eleonora Molinaro and Marie Weckerie 6-3 6-3 in the final.

Curmi also reached the women’s singles finals but was beaten by Victoria Jimenez, of Andorra 6-2 6-4.

Table Tennis

The Malta table tennis selection produced one of the greatest performances in a GSSE after securing three gold medals at the Games.

Renata Strbikova and Camella Iacob took gold in the women’s doubles and then were joined by Anthea Cutajar to secure the title in the team competition.

Strbikova came close to a third gold medal but had to settle for silver in the women’s singles.

In the men’s tournament, Felix Wetzel won the men’s singles title and then teamed up with Dmitrij Prokopcov, Gabriel Grixti and Daniel Bajada to win gold in the team competition.

Wetzel and Prokopcov won Malta’s other medal in this discipline after taking silver in the men’s doubles.

RUGBY SEVENS

Rugby Sevens debuted at the 2023 GSSE, and the men’s and women’s selections made the country proud with a gutsy performance at the Tony Bezzina Stadium.

The men’s selection recovered from a slow start as they beat Monaco 24-7 and then crushed San Marino 40-0 in their last match to place second overall.

The women’s team came agonisingly close to securing a historic gold medal when they faced Andorra in a crucial final match in the tournament. However, the Maltese came up short as they lost 29-12 and had to settle for a silver medal.

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