James Lawton: Surge of youth means the tide has turned on proud Adlington

The huge sadness was that there was nothing she could do as Ledecky won

The Aquatics Centre

Rebecca Adlington had to settle for being a heroine cast in bronze last night — and she had to do it early because there was no question that the years had moved on when 15-year-old American high schoolgirl Katie Ledecky first began to twist the knife.

It was somewhat anti-climactic on a day of rising British confidence all across the Olympic front that the operation began in the first 50-metre leg of the 800m freestyle final that was the second part of Adlington's golden double in Beijing.

That was four years ago, who can forget, but the cruellest truth was that long before the end of last night's race they might have been whole decades.

Adlington's glory had become her trial as early as the heats for the 400m from which she rescued the first of two bronze medals at the start of the week – and last night one of her worst fears was confirmed soon enough. She came into the pool with the bearing of an anxious job-seeker, rushing to an appointment about which she was not wholly confident.

The happy smiling girl of Beijing was an old memory indeed, even before Ledecky began to swim as if she did not have a care in the world. Adlington confessed that just scraping through from the heat for her first final had unnerved her – and pushed her into a more draining qualification for last night's race than she might have planned in other, more serene circumstances.

She said: "In the heats I just went for it after the scrape in the 400 metres heats – even if it meant that I had to give more than I should have done."

The huge sadness last night was that there was really not a lot the game 23-year-old from Nottinghamshire could do as Ledecky made her contribution to the surge of youth that has been best countered by the enduring super Olympian Michael Phelps, who gathered in his 17th golden medal.

At 27, Phelps may be four years older than Britain's star of Beijing but he has survived the onslaught of a new generation more successfully, perhaps, because he is probably the greatest swimmer the world has seen. Adlington has never made such claims for herself and last night it was probably just as well.

When Ledecky, who came in here with the fastest time this year after Adlington, made it to the podium she looked every inch a schoolgirl travelling into unknown territory – but how brilliantly she had conquered the important part of the evening.

She joined the circle of her 17-year-old compatriot Missy Franklin, who collected her third gold medal of these Olympics, and the ultimately sensational, and controversial, Chinese phenomenon Ye Shiwen.

Ledecky came close to a world record as she squeezed, leg after draining leg, the life out of Adlington and her old Danish rival Lotte Friis. In the end Friis was burned away and the silver medal went to Spain's Mireia Belmonte Garcia.

Adlington took her bronze, you had to suspect, with a heavy heart because when she came out of the pool she seemed to be defending a crime rather than celebrating another Olympic medal – another confirmation of her status as the greatest British swimmer of recent decades.

You wouldn't quite have thought this when she declared: "I am proud to get a bronze, there is nothing to be embarrassed about. I hate it when people say it is losing.

"Because when you say that you have not done any sport. Swimming is one of the hardest sports to get a medal. Hopefully, the public will be proud of me getting that bronze medal."

Hopefully, indeed, because the record of Adlington is one of a resolution to draw from herself every piece of talent at her disposal – and that surely was the great redemption, again, of her latest performance. It was plain that she could not live with the withering pace of the youngster from Maryland and each time the American lifted the pressure a notch, there was a sense that the Adlington story at this level might be slipping from the record.

But if she was beaten, no one was able to explain the situation too precisely.

The consequences were plain enough as the American night of achievement unfolded around her. She would battle on in her time- honoured way as her conqueror sped into the distance.

When her victory was complete, Ledecky declared: "Michael's and Missy's races really got me pumped. I really wanted to see what I could do to represent the US."

Meanwhile, Adlington was hoping that her similar efforts on behalf of her country might receive a degree of recognition, saying: "I do not know if the expectations got the better of me but I gave it all I had and I hope the people at home see that I'm proud to be on the podium."

There was a touch of desperation in that entreaty. Two golds, two bronzes, it doesn't sound so bad at whatever speed you say it.

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