After 10 kilometres and nearly two hours of brutal swimming it came down to a margin of less than half a second that separated Keri-Anne Payne from a coveted place on the Olympic podium. Instead, as the medals were presented on the banks of the Serpentine she was behind the stands, crying in the arms of her fiancé.
It came down to one wrong decision, one poor feed. That was the difference between adding an Olympic medal to her world title. She sought to portray fourth as a respectable enough finish, perhaps trying to console herself. To some fourth might be respectable – and that is an issue British swimming needs to mull over in the weeks to come given the paucity of the team's overall performance – but to someone who won the world championships just last year it could only come accompanied by a crushing weight of weary disappointment.
Open-water swimming is a tough, gruelling event, a physical battle with your own limits and the competitors' flailing arms and legs that always ends, be it in success or failure, with severe stomach ache, pounding heads and aching legs and shoulders. The swimmers shivered as they hauled themselves out of the water, eyes glazed and ringed with goggle markings, particular battle scars for this collection of sporting extremists.
Payne held it together as she worked her way down the rows of TV crews but when she reached Steve Parry, the former British bronze medallist who had driven her to early morning training day after day in Stockport, the tears came. And then as the unfamiliar strains of Himnusz, Hungary's national anthem, carried across from the ceremony for Eva Risztov, the gold medallist, there was David Carry, who Payne will marry in Aberdeen next month.
"I'm not really a fighter, I'm more of a lover, I guess and I just struggled in the pack," said Payne, her composure restored. "There were quite a lot of yellow cards handed out and I got hit quite a few times in the face. I tried to deal with it as best I could but it probably took a lot more energy out of me than I would have expected. It seemed to be a pretty tough race, a pretty violent race right from the start."
Carry and the rest of the British team, including bridesmaid-to-be Rebecca Adlington, had packed into the grandstand alongside the east bank of the Serpentine. After Britain's disappointment in the pool, this was a sport and a team that needed a lift – not least for the financial implications that will follow a failure to meet their medal target. That here was a whisper of another gold medal in the offing was apparent by the appearance of the Prime Minister, perhaps keen to get straight back on the Olympic bandwagon after a chastening day of no British medals.
David Cameron sat between Carry and freestyle swimmer Simon Burnett, in awkward-looking silence. It was as if a group of school leavers had been joined at their end-of-term party by their geography teacher. Carry could be excused for having other things on his mind (even if it wasn't running the country). Payne is a front runner and as the race unfolded it became apparent the rest of the field had no intention of letting her run the race. Instead it was Risztov, a relative novice in the event, who set the pace. Where last week Adlington was out-Adlingtoned, Payne was out-Payned and how it hurt.
Where 15-year-old Katie Ledecky had left the field for dead in the women's 800m free, Risztov, better known as a pool swimmer, was doing something similarly unexpected. Only this time rather than out of the blue, this was out of the grey, murky waters of Hyde Park's boating lake.
This was the 26-year-old Risztov's fourth event of the Games, having swum the 400m, 800m the 100m freestyle relay in the pool. She started her Olympic career in Athens eight years ago, but soon after quit the sport entirely for three years, when supposedly in her prime as a swimmer. She missed Beijing, yet this has been some Olympic return, especially given it was only her seventh open-water swim.
Her inexperience did not disarm her from knowing what she wanted to do; stop Payne establishing clear water. Martina Grimaldi, the Neapolitan policewoman, and Risztov barred each attempt by Payne to break clear. It was water-born kettling, and the Briton struggled when she was stuck in the pack.
"There seemed to be quite a lot of fighting," said Payne, above. "I've never really been in a pack before so maybe it's like that all the time. For me it felt a little bit violent. It took a lot of energy out of me – a lot more than I would have liked. I like to lead because I don't have to worry about all the fighting."
It took its toll. When Payne won the world championship last year it was by leading from the off, exactly what Risztov was doing to her. Payne struggled with the unaccustomed combat of running with the pack and on the third lap she made the mistake that cost her.
Swimmers are not allowed contact with anyone on the shore so coaches push out rods with a cup holder on the end from which the swimmer plucks a bottle, rolls on her back for a couple of seconds while still moving to swallow the contents and then returns to the steady rhythm of freestyle. It is a melee of arms and legs and Payne got herself in the wrong position.
"After that I got hit a few times and was disorientated and had no idea where I was going," she said. The lead pack had edged away by the time she righted herself and it used up much needed energy reserves to drag them back. By the time they entered the final kilometre, Payne was clinging on to the lead group and when Risztov produced a ferocious final surge she could not match it. Haley Anderson did and the American raced Risztov for gold. She came up 0.4sec short and behind them by three seconds Payne desperately tried to close the marginal gap on Grimaldi. The Italian hung on, the difference another 0.6sec. For the Briton, it was a painful margin.Reuse content