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Swimming: Fran Halsall feels the pain again in Spain

Britain's medal drought continues as the sprinter finishes fourth at the World Championships

The wait continues at these World Championships. After a trying week searching for a medal in the pool, attention turned to a rejuventated Fran Halsall last night to finally deliver Britain's first here.

However, the Liverpudlian sprinter could only finish fourth in the 50 metres butterfly, leaving the British team staring down the barrel of returning home without any World Championship medals for the first time since 1994.

One place shy of the medals at the Worlds had been a painful experience for Halsall – she also finished fourth in the 50m and 100m freestyle in Shanghai two years ago – and so it was again at the indoor Palau Sant Jordi.

Yet a medal was there for the taking – none of the main contenders had won World Championship honours in this event. Halsall looked up to the challenge after setting a British record 25.69sec in the heats on Friday.

That had put her third-fastest in the opening final last night, with the in-form Dane Jeanette Ottesen Gray looking ominous for gold. Like Halsall, she had primed herself just for the 50m sprints here.

Where tenths of a second are so crucial, Halsall was second-last off the blocks and once the middle lanes had surfaced, she already looked in trouble. She made a late surge, but touched 0.10sec outside her best and finished nearly half a second behind winner Ottesen Gray.

"It was right on my best and it is a horrible place to come," said an upbeat Halsall. "But you've got to accept that sometimes you won't be No 1."

The race perhaps summed up Britain's meet this week. While Britain have suffered, Denmark have thrived under new coach Nick Juba. The 60-year-old Briton was interviewed for British Swimming's head coach position before Bill Furniss filled the role.

Denmark swiftly poached Juba in May and the four female athletes who have competed this week have been a revelation. They include double silver medallist Lotte Friis and Rikke Pedersen, who set Denmark's first world record for 57 years in her 200m breaststroke semi-final.

Halsall, under the guidance of her new sprint coach James Gibson, who won Britain's first World Championship medal in the same pool here a decade ago, came back for the 50m freestyle semis an hour after her butterfly final.

The 23-year-old qualified in that dreaded fourth spot and will not only have to contend with Ottesen Gray once more, but also in-form Australian Cate Campbell – dubbed "Caviar Cate" in some quarters after the Australian racehorse – who qualified fastest in 24.19sec.

Halsall has been a breath of fresh air this week with her bubbly smile, as her compatriots have either failed to make finals or fallen desperately short.

Jazz Carlin did both. A medal contender here, the Welsh swimmer came fourth in the 400m before missing the 800m and 1500m finals by one berth. Just to compound Britain's misery last night, Rebecca Adlington looked on as Katie Ledecky, the 16-year-old American sensation, then broke her 800m world record from the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

After winning 1,500m gold following a thrilling race with Friis, the duo locked horns again before Ledecky, the Olympic champion, surged clear to edge past Adlington's previous mark of 8min 14.10sec by just 0.24sec. Cue hysteria.

There could be one crumb of comfort for Britain. Hannah Miley will be one of the last shots of a medal today. The Scot was a contender for Team GB's first Olympic medal last summer when her 400m individual medley was raced on the opening day of the Games. Twelve months on from her fifth place in London, Miley has admitted she might miss out again here.

It means that Britain will likely fall well short of their three to five-medal target, set by UK Sport. Unless Halsall, Miley or the two 4x100 freestyle relay teams can somehow garner medals, then Furniss has much to ponder when he announces changes to the national set-up this autumn.