Emotional ride for Beijing's golden girls

Pendleton gets her gold – but Adlington sees a new, young champion take her title

And so Queen Vicky reigns again. A day after she suffered the torment of disqualification, Victoria Pendleton last night regained her position at the pinnacle of world cycling with a gold medal in the women's keirin.

In her farewell Olympics, the famously tearful 31-year-old poster girl of the British team destroyed the rest of the field with one and a half laps to go, rocketing from the middle of the pack to lead at a blistering pace for the last 500 metres and secure Britain's eighth gold of London 2012.

Ecstasy for Pendleton was counter-balanced if not by agony, then by bittersweet success for Rebecca Adlington, who took bronze as she surrendered her Olympic 800m freestyle crown to a 15-year-old American prodigy, Katie Ledecky, in a ferociously-paced final in the Aquatics Centre.

Adlington, who also took bronze in the 400m freestyle earlier in the week, said the weight of expectation on her had affected her performance. She said: "That was so painful – it gets more painful the older I get. The pressure, the expectations and everything going into this meet was difficult."

But victory for Pendleton over her Australian arch-rival Anna Meares in front of a near-delirious crowd in the packed Olympic Park velodrome made up for the disappointment on Thursday, when she was relegated from the women's sprint event along with her team-mate Jessica Varnish.

"I can barely believe it right now," she said afterwards. "I really wanted to show what I could do and it worked out well. The crowd has been fantastic; they really helped me today."

Congratulating her, fellow Team GB cyclist and Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins said: "Vicky rises to the occasion. She pulls it out when she needs to."

The result was all the sweeter for an unashamedly partisan home crowd because it was at the expense of Meares, who took bronze.

Speaking before the race, Pendleton sought to play down the extent of her rivalry with the Australian, whom she famously accused earlier this year of being a rider who "pushes the rules".

Expressing her "huge respect" for Meares, the Briton denied there was bad blood between the pair. She told a press conference: "I think the whole rivalry thing between Anna Meares and myself has been sensationalised to make it sound worse than it really is."

Adlington, who rose spectacularly from obscurity in the national conscience to Britain's golden girl of the 2008 Beijing games with her two first-place swims, was roared along in a packed Aquatics Centre to shouts of "Becky, Becky" in the endurance event.

But the teenager Ledecky set a blistering pace, swimming at world record pace for all but the last 40m and consigning her opponents to a battle for silver and bronze.

The Briton, who came home behind the Spaniard Mireia Belmonte, was reduced to tears as she received her medal. She said: "I'm not happy with that time, I've beaten it all year, but everything seemed to catch up with me here. But a bronze medal is nothing to be embarrassed about – I hate when people say that that's losing. Swimming is so, so difficult and I hope people are proud of me for getting that bronze."

While the swimmer was watched by London mayor Boris Johnson and his guests, Rupert Murdoch and his wife Wendi Deng, the velodrome was even more crowded.

Among those watching Pendleton were the former prime minister Tony Blair, Prince Edward, the Chancellor George Osborne and Stella McCartney.Pendleton, who won her first competitive race at the age of nine and will leave the sport in the next fortnight, has admitted she finds the weight of expectation on her slender shoulders difficult to bear. She said: "I compete in a sport on an individual basis but I have never done it for me. I was always cycling for my dad. Then the coaches got bigger and my results got better.

"Suddenly the responsibility grows and I'm doing it for somebody else, I'm doing it for a programme; I'm doing it for the country; I'm doing it for, like, everybody."

Team GB's new heroes: Meet the medal-winners

Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins

Case closed? Victory at long last for the expert in psychotic killers

By the standards of mere mortals, winning three silver medals in successive Olympics would be an immense feat. But Katherine Grainger does not judge herself like that. Ever since she secured her first silver in the double sculls at the Sydney Games in 2000, the 36-year-old rower has been painfully honest about her quest for what she called the "Holy Grail" – Olympic gold.

That odyssey came to a euphoric close at 12.16pm yesterday on Dorney Lake when she and her partner Anna Watkins powered to first place in the double sculls. With characteristic modesty, she said: "This is the people's medal, they have wanted this almost as much as me. It is for everyone, all the people who have helped me, and for my family and friends and even going back to my university days."

Born in Glasgow, she took up rowing at Edinburgh University in 1993 and found an immediate affinity with the sport. She rises at 6am for a punishing schedule that demands lots of calories, ranging from a 9.30am break for scrambled eggs, beans and toast to a dinner that belies her sinuous physique.

But her formidable routine does not get in the way of her other day job, a PhD investigating how the legal system deals with deranged killers. "It is fascinating and takes me out of my comfort zone," she said. "As Olympic athletes, we are at the extreme end of anyone who plays in sport. The people I am looking at are at the very extreme end of violent crime."

Her colleague Watkins, who took up rowing at Cambridge University, is studying for a PhD in mathematics. According to Grainger, their different academic disciplines complement each other. She said: "Anna understands the mechanics of the boat and the biomechanics of what we do. She will analyse and study the numbers and bring out things I would never have thought of."Watkins, who grew up in Leek, Staffordshire, took up the sport to get fit.

So what will the gilded pair do now, having fulfilled their 12-year quest for gold? Yesterday, Grainger's mother, Liz, had a tongue-in-cheek answer: "Get on with life."

Alan Campbell

The man who tried every sport – until he found the one he was made for

Alan Campbell almost collapsed as he emerged from the race in which he collected Britain's first medal in 88 years in the single sculls when he finished third against a fast-closing Swedish opponent.

The 29-year-old Ulsterman is so committed to his sport he trains on Christmas morning in the belief it is a sacrifice his opponents will not make. "I'm really pleased it is another medal for Britain," he said. "It was disappointing to come away from the last Olympics with nothing. I'm proud and I'm pleased for the crowd. They really lifted me."

The former Army cadet was, according to his mother, something of a dark horse when it came to recognition of his sporting prowess.She said: "In primary school he didn't show any sporting potential. What he did show was tremendous enthusiasm for sport and tremendous determination to get into sport. He tried lots of different sports but had no success in any of them. Then, when he was 13, on my suggestion, he went down to the river and tried rowing. And he's never looked back."

Campbell is one of several Team GB stalwarts who proved their worth on Ulster's river Bann. He and his brothers, Richard and Peter Chambers, who won silver this week in the lightweight men's four, are all from Coleraine.

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