London 2012: Simmonds leads gold rush for GB's medal winners

Seventeen-year-old swimmer beats her US rival and smashes world record

Ellie Simmonds, widely considered the face of the Paralympic Games, started her 2012 campaign with a contribution to yesterday's ParalympicsGB gold rush, smashing the world record in the process.

The swimmer, who became a sensation in Beijing when she won two gold medals at the age of 13, successfully defended one of the two titles she won four years ago by winning the S6 400m freestyle race.

Her record-breaking swim saw one of many world records obliterated at this Paralympic Games, already looking like the most competitive in the history of disability sport.

Ireland's Jason Smyth last night proved that he was still the fastest Paralympian on the planet, running the T13 100m in a record-breaking 10.46 seconds. In the Velodrome, Great Britain's Sarah Storey also set a world record to take her second medal of the Games in the C4-5 500m time trial. In the Olympic Stadium, Richard Whitehead smashed his own world record in the T42 men's 200m, claiming gold in a time of 24.38 seconds, shaving six-tenths of a second off the time of 24.93 seconds he had set at the European Championships in the Netherlands in June.

The dressage rider Natasha Baker also broke records, taking gold in her Paralympic debut in the grade II individual equestrian event, with a score of 76.857 per cent.

The third day of the Games saw a slew of medals for Great Britain, as the home nation leapt briefly to second in the medal table. But a tally of five golds, five silvers and six bronzes was not enough to hold back the Australian team, which took a rash of awards to take second place.

Even this failed to diminish the euphoria after Simmonds finished first in a time of five minutes 19.17 seconds to claim one of three medals for ParalympicsGB.

Last night at the Aquatics Centre, she shaved a massive five seconds off the previous world record of 5:24.46, set by the American swimmer Victoria Arlen in June.

The 17-year-old from the US was viewed as Simmonds's biggest rival before the race and so it proved to be. Arlen finished what turned out to be a nail-biting encounter in second place with a time of 5:20.18. It was the American who touched first at 200m, enjoying a slight lead over the home favourite, and she continued to hold a slight advantage at the 300m mark. But Simmonds fought back over the next 50m to take the lead after 350m, and stretched her advantage over the final 50m.

"I'm so pleased to touch and get a world record and a five second personal best," said Simmonds. "I knew it was going to be so tough leading into it with Victoria being on form and I knew I had to give it my everything and give it my all. That last 50 hurt, it just killed me." She described the event as "one of the toughest races of my life so far".

There had been some doubt whether Arlen would be able to swim against the 17-year-old Briton yesterday, as earlier in the week the American had been ruled ineligible to compete as her impairment was not deemed severe enough. After the US Paralympic Committee made a protest, the appeal was upheld.

Simmonds, who was born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, had comfortably qualified for last night's final in the morning, in her first appearance of the Games, beating her own Paralympic record with a new time of 5:24.64 in the first heat.

Her quest for London 2012 gold was one of the British public's most awaited events of the Paralympics. The remarkable swimmer, from Walsall, captured the hearts of the public at Beijing, and before the Games was voted the athlete the public is most excited to see. Her achievements in 2008 were the start of a string of firsts, as she became the youngest winner of the BBC's Young Sports Personality of the Year that year and then the youngest recipient of an MBE at 14.

She began swimming at the age of five and started competing against non-disabled children at the age of eight. At 10, she was talent spotted at a disability event, later working her way through to be selected as the youngest member of a senior British swimming squad for the 2006 IPC World Championships at 12.

Simmonds's gold followed success for Matthew Whorwood, who claimed bronze for ParalympicsGB in the S6 400m freestyle. The 22-year-old won with a time of 5:11.59 behind Ireland's Darragh McDonald and Sweden's Anders Olsson.

Claire Cashmore added to the medal haul with silver in the SB8 100m breaststroke with a time of 1:20.39. She finished behind the Russian Olesya Vladykina, who broke her own world record with a time of 1:17.17.

Swansea-based Simmonds will be back in action at the Aquatics Centre tomorrow in the SM6 200m individual medley. On Tuesday, she will swim in the S6 50m freestyle, and on Saturday try to defend the S6 100m freestyle title she won in Beijing.

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