Swimming: Emotional Spofforth seals spot

Former world champion set fair for Olympics after leaving rivals and heartbreak behind her

The London Aquatics Centre

The long arm of Gemma Spofforth earned her a place in a second Olympic Games last night. It might have been the last 100 metres backstroke of her career had she fallen short in the British trials but instead it began the process of exorcising some of the demons that made 2011 such a desperate year for the Florida-based swimmer.

Less than a quarter of a second separated the first three finishers, with Spofforth taking it on the touch ahead of Georgia Davies by two-hundredths of a second. Davies also qualified for the Games – after last night the total of British swimmers who will be returning to east London for individual events in July stands at 15 – at the expense of Spofforth's friend Lizzie Simmonds, who had finished seventh in last year's World Championships.

Spofforth broke the world record at the 2009 World Championships – at the height of the controversy surrounding polyurethane suits – but last year she failed even to make the final. The year also saw the death of her father's partner, four years after her mother had died of cancer, and ended with Spofforth breaking her nose and a toe in a cycling accident.

"There were a lot of times when I wondered if I was going to be able to do it," said the 24-year-old. "At Christmas I was wondering if I had the strength to do it – so to come back and do it in the Olympic pool is amazing. It's been five years of ups and downs. I've had to have a lot of strength to get through all that adversity. If I hadn't qualified that would have been it in the 100m. The end of my [100m] career."

Spofforth's father spent £11,000 on tickets and flights to watch his daughter in Beijing – he says he feels sick every time he watches her compete in a major event. After last night he can prepare for another bout of nausea, albeit one that will come at much less cost.

Like Spofforth, Liam Tancock's major achievements have come at World Championships rather than Olympics. His Games-time problem is that his specialist event is the 50m backstroke – he is a double world champion – and it is not an Olympic event. He finished sixth in the 100m back at the last World Championships and sixth in Beijing.

Last night he comfortably took his place in his second Games and in so doing recorded the fastest time, 53.16sec, in the world this year. It was also quicker than his time in the final in Shanghai last year. "I'm pleased with that," Tancock said. "My aim was to qualify and then go even faster in the Games. That's what I've done in the past."

Robbie Renwick led the men's 200m free from start to finish to complete a double success. The 23-year-old Scot won the 400m on Saturday and last night was again the sole Olympic qualifier from his race. Caitlin McClatchey, Tancock's partner, qualified fastest for tonight's 200m free final. "All good," summed up her other half.

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