Quade Coopers girlfriend is back on the boil
Australia’s Stephanie Rice returns to China verging on her best form for the Shanghai world championships, three chequered years after her glittering highs at the Beijing Olympics.
Rice was acclaimed as the pin-up girl of Australian swimming when she captured three gold medals, all in world record time, at the 2008 Summer Games.
Her individual medley wins, and her lead-off swim in the women’s 4x200m freestyle relay triumph, which ended the United States’ unbeaten run of three Olympic titles, placed her in illustrious company in Australian sport.
Rice joined athlete Betty Cuthbert and swimmers Shane Gould and Ian Thorpe in equalling the record haul for an Australian at a single Olympics.
But Rice’s career was then beset by injury and illness, and the intervening years have been a struggle for the one-time golden girl, who stays in the public gaze through her high-profile relationship with Wallaby ace Quade Cooper.
At last month’s Santa Clara International swim meet in California there were signs she was on the way back with a commanding victory in the 400m individual medley, an event in which her 4:29.45 in Beijing remains history’s fastest.
It was Rice’s first international win since shoulder surgery which forced her to miss the New Delhi Commonwealth Games last October.
Rice, 23, clocked the fourth-fastest time in the world this year (4:36.52), putting her within range of world leader Mireia Belmonte of Spain (4:34.91).
A jubilant Rice said: “I’m really happy to do my best time since surgery and to do it untapered.”
Beforehand Rice spent three weeks at an altitude training camp in Mexico and shed another 2 kilos (four pounds) in weight, but regained vital self-confidence.
Her time was only 0.7sec outside the standard she set at the same stage before the Beijing Olympics. Rice’s coach Michael Bohl believes Rice has regained the competitive edge that made her invincible in Beijing.
“Stephanie has put some really good work in at altitude,” Bohl said.
“She's looking very strong, she’s doing great things in training and she’s stronger than a few years ago.”
The Santa Clara meet was an important milestone for Rice, who admitted to a crisis of confidence precipitated by her shoulder injury.
Around this time last year she could no longer swim through the pain caused by inflammation in her right shoulder.
Rice even broke down in tears when talking to an Australian television crew about her shoulder problems at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Irvine, California, last August.
Australian head coach Leigh Nugent describes Rice as integral to the national team ahead of next year’s London Olympics.
“She’s the spearhead of our women’s team, if not the whole team,” Nugent said.
But a successful rehabilitation has Rice back in the swim and Shanghai will be an important marker as she builds up for the defence of her Olympic medley crowns in London.
Rice has yet to win a gold medal at the world championships, having taken silver and bronze in her medley events at the 2007 Melbourne and 2009 Rome meets.