Rebecca Adlington has always been the golden girl, so it came as no surprise when she produced an inspired performance yesterday to rescue Britain's otherwise disappointing showing at the World Championships here. Straining every sinew in a thrilling race, Adlington produced a blistering final length to overhaul the defending champion,Lotte Friis, and add the world 800m freestyle title to her Olympic crown.
It was Adlington's second medal of the competition, following her silver in the 400m freestyle on the first night, and Britain's third in total, Ellen Gandy having taken silver in the 200m butterfly. The double Olympic champion was the fastest qualifier into last night's final, having achieved a time in Friday's heat that only she had bettered this year.
As expected, the race became a private battle between Adlington and Friis, the Dane who won the title in Rome two years ago, when the Briton was distraught after finishing out of the medals. The pair went stroke for stroke for almost the entire race, the biggest gap between the two being the 0.65sec lead Friis established with 100m to go.
However, the Briton responded and a final length of 28.91sec saw her overhaul Friis and take the title in 8min 17.51sec, 0.69sec ahead of the Dane. The United States' former world champion Kate Ziegler was third.
Immediately after the race, Adlington, 22, said: "I don't know what to say, I'm so happy. Obviously, it's absolutely amazing. We've always raced against each other and it's always been one does it one year and one does it the next year, but I hope to God it's me next year [at the London Olympics]."
Her gold medal followed a gutsy display last Sunday, when she followed up a poor heat by swimming from lane one to take the 400m freestyle silver.
Yesterday, swimming in lane four, Adlington was the race favourite, and the Nova Centurion athlete is clearly one who can rise to the occasion. She said: "I definitely think I'm the kind of person that can handle pressure. I have pretty much learned to cope with that now, I think I've had to after the Olympics. I want to do well, I want to succeed, I don't put all the hard work in and get up early in the morning just to come and not make it happen. A lot of people do that sometimes."
Another swimmer to show Olympic form on returning to China was the American Michael Phelps, who registered a comfortable win in the 100m butterfly that gave him a 25th world title. Phelps followed his usual strategy to win his third gold of the championship: touching third at the turn and pulling ahead in the second lap, to finish in 50.71sec.
"It's definitely more comfortable having this than having a hundredth win," Phelps said, referring to his win by a hundredth of a second over Milorad Cavic at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yesterday, Konrad Czerniak of Poland took the silver in 51.15sec and another American, Tyler McGill, took bronze in 51.26sec.
Cavic, who is regaining his form following back surgery, did not advance from the morning heats on Friday, while the American Ryan Lochte, who beat Phelps for goldin the 200m freestyle and 200m individual medley, was not entered.
The American teenager Missy Franklin continued to impress. The 16-year-old won the first major individual gold of her career in the 200m backstroke, then came back an hour later and swam the anchor leg as the United States took gold in the 4x100m medley relay. The British team finished sixth.
Franklin has three golds and five medals in all, having also set up the Americans' victory in the 4x200m freestyle relay two days ago, when she swam faster than Federica Pellegrini did in winning the 200m.
"I totally made sure I came in here and left everything in the pool, and I did," Franklin said, flashing a wide smile. "I'm thrilled."
Rebecca Soni set up the relay win with a solid breaststroke leg; she also has three golds. It was the first time the Americans had won this relayat the worlds since 1998 in Perth, Australia.
British hopes today will be centred on Liam Tancock in the 50m backstroke and Fran Halsall in the 50m freestyle. Tancock, the defending champion, won his semi-final in 24.62sec to qualify fastest.