James Lawton: It wasn't gold this time but Adlington showed all the virtues of a champion

She has the ability to go to the limit every day. It is possibly in her DNA

The Aquatics Centre

Our Becky, the sporting superstar it has always been a little easier to think of in such familiar terms, couldn't break Britain's gold fever, at least not at the first time of asking here last night, but she surely made the country feel a whole lot better about itself.

Also, after two days of fruitless pursuit of that top place on the podium, she also gave reason to believe that if her spirit of resistance, her sheer physical and moral courage at a point that might easily have been one of a cruel breaking, could be distributed just a little more widely at this critical point, there will be no reason for even a whisper of national self-reproach.

Rebecca Adlington of Nottinghamshire produced a bronze to go along with the silver won so bravely by her Yorkshire countrywoman in the cycling road race but, if some saw this as a pale reprise of her stunning gold in Beijing four years ago, they perhaps have an imperfect grasp of the pressure of the years and the expectations she carried to her work yesterday.

In the morning they seemed, frankly, to be overwhelming, a cruel twist of destiny at the end of her reign as a fully paid up heroine.

She qualified for the finals by the finest margin, taking the last place, and her reward was lane eight, the one of doom from which even the great Michael Phelps failed to glean a medal 24 hours earlier.

That foreboding seemed entirely justified at the halfway point of the 400 metres freestyle final. Camille Muffat of France and the American Allison Schmitt were driving through the centre of the pool with withering strength; Muffat's compatriot Coralie Balmy also appeared to retain an interest in some kind of medal. And what of Adlington, the happy, laughing young queen of Beijing?

She was in sixth place and her fans must have been fearful of an even longer fall from the Olympic pinnacle. But then Adlington didn't learn any milky indifference to the possibility of sporting humiliation on all those chilly times when the dawn broke over Nottingham public baths.

She didn't acquire the habit of quitting in the face of unpromising circumstances and last night she produced a performance which justified the highest of the praise bestowed by her long-time coach Bill Furniss, who, aware of mounting scepticism about her chances, declared: "She has an amazing stroke length, she's got the capacity to a keep a line and the most amazing feel for the water."

This wasn't to mention the absolute refusal to accept defeat that she displayed in one of her most difficult competitive moments, but then on another occasion Furniss did say: "She has the ability to go to the limit every day. It is possibly in her DNA."

Unquestionably, much of it last night was to be found in her heart.

As she peeled off three of her rivals and finished the last length of the Olympic pool in something that could be described as one long, defiant charge, it was easy to remember that this was the race she wasn't supposed to win in the spectacular Water Cube of Beijing. It was written down as the property of Italy's Federica Pellegrini, the world and Olympic record holder, but no one showed the statement to Adlington.

The Italian star, who last night was one of those overhauled by Adlington as she slid back to fifth place, faltered in Beijing and her place in Olympic history was swept away. It was not Adlington's event, everyone said so, but it was her opportunity to make something of all that work and pain.

Now it is the most inviting speculation that when she comes to the 800 metres final on Friday night – the race for which she always had a better pedigree here and in China – she will be hugely encouraged by the force of last night's comeback and its rescuing of another Olympic medal.

She certainly has reason to believe that she has built, in terms of understanding of her world and her competitive nature, on the events that in 2008 so profoundly changed her life and the way she looked at herself.

Some of the change was painful, not least in the first rush of celebrity that came with the best performance by a British swimmer in 100 years, but if sometimes she was buffeted by the pressure of fame, no one questioned her essential nature. She saw one of her local Mansfield hostelries change its name to the Adlington Arms; then, when the glory of 2008 began to ebb, change it back.

Fortunately, Buckingham Palace didn't call for the return of her OBE and if she did complain recently about the random cruelty inflicted by some Twitter warriors, including the excruciatingly tasteless comedian Frankie Boyle, she also had reason to be grateful for the fact that she had grown strong at some injured places.

"I'm in a totally different position now than before I went to Beijing. I have grown as an athlete, grown as a person. In Beijing I was just bobbing along under the radar. This time it is so different."

These were prophetic words, it was evident enough, when she made her fifth turn last night and contemplated the choice between fighting back for some of that status and pride she gained in Beijing – or the less demanding one of watching Muffat and Schmitt stroke their way into the distance. She said, as they tend to do around Nottinghamshire, to bloody hell with that – and then she worked her extraordinary length of stroke into a coherent, bronze-winning rhythm.

It wasn't the triumph the nation – and not least the watching organising committee leader, Lord Coe – craved but it was a performance of inspiring passion and grit.

You could see it as a statement that the gold will be panned soon enough and that one of the nuggets might yet be collected by the star of Beijing who last night was ready to settle for a spell of the purest fight for survival.

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