She marched on, her red British kit-bag bouncing on her back, one earpiece in listening to Eminem, the other dangling so she could savour for one last time the waves of support rumbling towards her from the stands of the Aquatics Centre. But Ellie Simmonds was unable to deliver one more gold medal in her final swim of the Paralympics, forced instead to settle for 100m freestyle silver, one and a half seconds adrift of her new rival in the pool, the American Victoria Arlen.
It was the American's first Paralympic gold medal and arrived via a world record – Simmonds herself touched in a personal best time. It leaves Simmonds with what she described as the full set, two gold, a silver and a bronze as well as having broken four world records of her own. It is a more than satisfactory return by any standards; aged 17 she has four Paralympic gold medals to her name.
The competition, eight races in eight days, has taken its toll. There was pressure and expectation, as there would be for any defending champion. Ahead of the Games she claimed to be enjoying it, giggling about the 60ft billboard from which her likeness surveys the Olympic Park. But there have been hints she was finding it tough. "I'm running on adrenalin really," she said.
For the last six years Simmonds has clambered out of the Wales National pool in Swansea at Saturday lunch time, the last of her nine weekly two-hour training sessions, and begun the 160-mile journey home. Or rather to the family home. Simmonds lives in Wales with her mother, Val. In Walsall her father, Steve, lives with her brother and three sisters and every weekend Simmonds returns for a morsel of family life. Then it is back to her second home; Monday morning it all begins again, swimming and in between studying for three A-levels.
That sums up Simmonds. She is a schoolgirl on the one hand, on the other an experienced professional sportswoman; the two sit snugly side by side and she appears to have little problem in exchanging one for the other. She is also a curious mix of emotions. Like Rebecca Adlington, she is a bundle of nerves ahead of a race, utterly nerveless in the water and then, the moment she slaps the board to stop the clock, a bundle of emotion. Last night there were no tears and she was unusually calm afterwards, as if there was an element of relief it is all over.
Arlen controlled the race to end her first Games on a high, leading from the start – where she has the advantage over Simmonds – and then holding off the Briton's riposte. The styles are contrasting, Arlen glides, Simmonds attacks the water, and their stories are different too.
Arlen only returned to the pool last year and the pair had never raced before last Saturday. Over the summer Simmonds was restricted to curious glances over the Atlantic as this fellow 17-year-old came out of nowhere to snatch away her world records in the 400m and the 100m.
The two share a passion for swimming. With Simmonds it has always been there, for Arlen it had to be rediscovered. Six years ago Arlen was diagnosed with a neurological disorder, Transverse Myelitis, which inflames the spinal cord. The effect was to leave her in a vegetative state for two years.
"It was really touch and go, my parents were told several times I would not live, and if I did I would be a vegetable, but I was determined to live," said Arlen. "I just wanted to talk again, to eat again, to use my arms again. It is 18 months since I first moved in the water, I was put in a lifejacket and could barely use my arms, and now I am here. It makes us all cry when we think about what's happened. I came close to losing my life so whatever happened here is a blessing to complete the journey."
When she recovered she no longer had the use of her legs and the desire to swim had gone. She was afraid to get back in the water. But she did and the results have been spectacular. There was one more obstacle for her to overcome before taking on Simmonds. On her arrival in London, the International Paralympic Committee decided she was not eligible to swim in the S6 class, threatening to end her Games before they had even begun. The US team appealed and the decision was reversed, although she remains under observation and may yet find herself re-assigned come Rio 2016.
If she is it would disappoint Simmonds. "It's going to be a great rivalry, hopefully she'll go for Rio and I'll go for Rio," said Simmonds. "She is pushing me to the best of my abilities."
There was a further bronze for Britain last night, from Harriet Lee in the SB9 100m breaststroke.Reuse content