Now 26, and with a world and three European titles behind her, she came to Barcelona widely regarded by many as unlikely to take a medal because of losses in the recent major events. But, with not one of Britain's judo team getting anywhere near the podium in four days, she produced her old gritty determination that almost took her all the way.
But she probably will not be going to Spain for her holidays. In Barcelona, she lost the final against Miriam Blasco of Spain. In Atlanta, it was another Spaniard, Isabel Fernandez, who frustrated her attempts to take the bronze. They knew each other only too well - Fairbrother had beaten Fernandez in the final of the European Championships in Birmingham last year.
This time, the younger fighter - Fernandez is 24 and on the up - had that extra attacking power. They exchanged light attacks for the four minutes, both incurring penalties for non-combativity; but midway through the contest Fairbrother was given a chui (five penalty points) for a further period of non-combativity. It was the only score separating them at the end.
Yet Fairbrother can be relatively pleased with her performance - as she said afterwards. "I came here to get the gold, and there is a very thin line between getting a gold and getting nothing. But I was encouraged because I got back to the way I was."
This was seen in her early rounds. She faced Raoudhi Chaari of Tunisia, and strangled her to win outright. Then she took a good decision from Beata Kurchazewska of Poland - a fighter she had never beaten, but lost the third round against the powerful world champion, Driulis Gonzalez of Cuba, who went on to win the gold.
In the repechage, Fairbrother continued to show that she is still a top contender. Margalit Baton of France was thrown three times for sound scores, and she swept past Zulfiya Garipova of Russia with a secure decision.
But, on this occasion, Fernandez was beyond her reach. "I am not blaming the judges for the penalties - that is the way the cookie crumbles," she said.
A journalist by profession, Fairbrother now has to decide whether to retire or to continue. "For me there is only one goal - Sydney or retire." She paused for a moment before deciding: "Sydney!"
Fairbrother's fifth place may help to dispel the doldrums in Britain's judo team. Medalless, and with just two days to go, despite its reputation for producing the goods at the Olympics, her display will boost the featherweights fighting today - Julian Davies and Sharon Rendle.
The men's team, in particular, has had a very poor Olympics. Not one has won more than one fight - yesterday Danny Kingston beat Sergei Kolesnikov but then lost to James Pedro.
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