Canberra Times

Aussie relay team lands our first London gold with stunning victory

When the cauldron was lit by seven anonymous young athletes, the themes of co-operation and generational change for these Olympics were forged. Appropriately, both would play a part in Australia's first gold medal of these games, a stunning, yet somehow endearingly relaxed victory by the women's 4x100m freestyle relay team.

The spirit of co-operation between Alicia Coutts, Cate Campbell, Brittany Elmslie and Melanie Schlanger is partly the consequence of their shared Queensland heritage. The three older members of the team, Coutts, Campbell and Schlanger, grew up competing, and feeding off each other's talent.

''We are like family,'' said Coutts. ''Like you said, we have grown up together. I haven't raced Britt so much because she is so young. But the other girls I have been racing for a long time. Yes, it's like a little Queensland family.''

If the maroon blood was already thicker than the chlorinated water, the bond between four smiling assassins was sealed in the marshalling area before the race. With the Dutch heavily favoured, and the US also tough to beat, the Australians had been told by their coaches to enjoy the moment.

So, rather than fret and stress before being called to the blocks, the four hung out like any group of exuberant young women. ''We just talked rubbish, mostly,'' said Schlanger.

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The generational change came with Elmslie's addition, at the expense of storied veteran Libby Trickett. The 18 year-old was told after the morning heat that she, rather than the local legend and personal inspiration Trickett, would swim the final. Elmslie seized her chance with the boldness of youth, rather than a heavy heart.

''Libby is such a great athlete,'' said Elmslie. ''She will always have earnt the respect of Australia, because she has done so well in the past. But I just did my own thing in the heat, and the coaches made the end decision. I'm just happy I did Australia proud.''

Swimming relays are, at once, team and individual events. The performance of one swimmer can profoundly affect the others. A slow start by the Dutchwoman Inge Dekker, particularly, put pressure on her teammates that not even a withering finish by that commentator's nightmare, Ranomi Kromowidjojo, could overcome.

For Australia, the individual burden fell on the anchor Schlanger.

Standing on the blocks, Schlanger was both aware of the opportunity she had been given with the team's slender lead, but also desperate not to be caught up in the moment.

''To be honest, I wasn't thinking about controlling that first fifty,'' said Schlanger. ''You can go out and get carried away and spin the wheels a bit hard and die in the last lap. For me, I was just trying to control the first fifty and the second fifty is my weapon. I trusted myself to be able to come home quite strong in the last 15 and it worked out.''

You can go out and get carried away and spin the wheels a bit hard and die in the last lap. For me, I was just trying to control the first fifty and the second fifty is my weapon

If ''Alfie'' Schlanger's - to pay tribute to her maroon roots - finish was heroic, this was every bit a team performance. Coutts made a good start, Campbell solidified Australia's place, Elmslie headed the Americans and Schlanger brought it home.

There were screams at the finish and moist eyes at the medal ceremony.

But, mostly, just flashing smiles. ''Our coaches said relays are fun, make sure you go out and enjoy yourself,'' said Campbell, a bronze medallist in the same event in Beijing. ''And what better way to enjoy yourself than with an Olympic gold medal?''

The relay victory ameliorated some of the disappointment of Stephanie Rice's sixth place in the 400m individual medley. A performance that was, given Rice's injury concerns, both anticipated and shattering. So much so that even Rice could only guess how she would respond in the 200m individual medley.

At her best, Rice bubbles. At the Melbourne Commonwealth Games she giggled her way to gold. In Beijing, her grin was mistaken for the entrance to Luna Park. Rekindling the raw enthusiasm that fuels her best performances, she acknowledged, would be a tough task.

The consolation is that Rice's training schedule has been tailored to the shorter event, which is more forgiving of her sore right shoulder.

The key to what is now unlikely resurrection is a softer swim in the heats than she had when barely qualifying for the 400m.

On the same night as the queen of the Beijing lost one of her crowns, the King toppled from his throne, with Michael Phelps beaten in the 400m individual medley by his teammate Ryan Lochtie.

How did defeat sit with a man whose idea of failure had been the two bronze medals, won in Athens, that sit beside his 14 gold? Phelps did not think long. ''It's a crapper.''

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