Rice steams into title contention for London
Adelaide: One-time underwear model and tabloid darling, Stephanie Rice has rarely wanted for the glare of the spotlight but she reminded the world of her quality in the pool at Australia`s national swimming trials.
The Brisbane-born 23-year-old came into the Adelaide meeting nursing a nagging shoulder injury and dealing with a rare crisis of confidence about defending her Olympic 200 and 400 individual medley (IM) titles at the London Games.
Within four days of competition, however, Rice had booked both berths in London, swimming through the pain to post times that might dent the confidence of her rivals.
"I`m older now and I`m a different athlete," she said after her 400IM triumph at the South Australia Aquatic and Leisure Centre.
"I think I`m a lot more confident than I was when I was 18 and obviously it`s been really tough mental preparation as well just to get my head around surgeries and inconsistent training."
Rice`s time of four minutes, 33.45 seconds to clinch the 400 title on the opening day on Thursday was just four seconds shy of her world record set in Beijing and also the year`s second fastest behind Hannah Miley`s swim at the British Championships.
Her 200IM title swim of 2:09.38 on Sunday was even more of a statement, as she edged world silver medallist Alicia Coutts to set her best time since posting 2.07.03 in a now-banned suit at the Rome world championships in 2009.
"The girl`s got a heart as big as Texas," said Australia`s head coach Leigh Nugent. "And again, (she) loves winning. She thrives on the big occasion."
Rice hit the headlines as a 19-year-old when she set world records at the 2008 national trials in the leadup to Beijing, while her relationship with freestyle swimmer and then-fellow world record holder Eamon Sullivan ensured she was a fixture in gossip magazines.
Revelling in the spotlight, Rice stripped down for photo-shoots with Sullivan and appeared in men`s magazines before breaking up with the Australian shortly before Beijing.
Rice`s triple Olympic triumph in Beijing, where she also won a 4x200 freestyle relay gold, cemented her status as Australia`s "golden girl" and saw her carry the country`s flag at the closing ceremony.
An appearance in a reality television show followed, while a relationship with Australia rugby flyhalf Quade Cooper ensured she was rarely missing from the society pages for long.
While colourful, the four years in the pool between the Games have largely been an exercise in frustration for brunette Rice, who was beaten for 200IM gold at the swimsuit-tainted 2009 world championships by American Ariana Kukors.
Her troublesome shoulder ruled her out of the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and her halo slipped after posting a homophobic slur on Twitter directed at South Africa`s rugby team following their loss to Australia in a test match that year.
The resulting uproar cost her an endorsement deal with a luxury car manufacturer and led her to make a tearful public apology.
On the comeback trail from injury at last year`s world championships, Rice had to settle for bronze in the 400IM behind American Elizabeth Beisel and Briton Miley, and finished out of the medals in the 200IM.
Rice needed cortisone injections to settle her shoulder injury before swimming at state championships in February and the swimmer was likely to have to just grit her teeth and bear the pain right through to London, her coach Michael Bohl said.
"We`re just trying to get her through the Olympics I suppose but the big problem is she`s got a hole in her tendon and to get that fixed up properly she`d have to have pretty major surgery," he said.
"So it`s something I guess in the future she`s going to have to do if she wants to fix it up."
Rice has already said she was unlikely to put herself through the preparations for a third Olympics after London and recently signed with a prominent entertainment agent in Australia with an eye on her career outside the pool.
With her confidence back to sky-high levels, however, Rice has talked of going out with a bang at London, where she feels she could get close to her world-beating best, provided her injury demons remain manageable.
"I think people have written me off the past few years and it`s nice to be able to just finally let the swimming do the talking," she said.
"I`ve got things I can improve on definitely ... If I can get a good block (of training) in, I know I can improve on the times that I`ve done here."