The drought is over. Rebecca Adlington, of Nottingham, became the first British woman to win an Olympic crown in the pool since 1960 when she claimed victory in the 400m freestyle at the Water Cube here in Beijing. The gold medal was Adlington's in 4mins 03.22sec, 0.07sec ahead of Katie Hoff, off the USA, with Britain teammate Joanne Jackson third only 0.23sec further back. In their wake in what for the British pair was a brilliantly tactical effort, the reigning Olympic champion and world champion Laure Manaudou, of France, and the current world record holder, Federica Pellegrini.
The last woman to win a gold medal in the pool for Britain was Anita Lonsbrough in 1960. As two Union Flags rose to the rafters for the first time since Sarah Hardcastle and June Croft took silver and bronze at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles in the very same event, champions old and new could not hide their emotions. From the media stands, Lonsbrough stood tall for the national anthem, her lip trembling, the tears trickling down her cheek just as they had 48 years ago at the Foro Italico pool in Rome after she claimed gold in the 200m breaststroke. Since then, silver has been the best of British women and since 1984 only two British women have managed to make it to an individual final in Olympic waters.
Lonsbrough said: "I'm absolutely delighted. It's been too long coming." Adlington is only 19 but she was very aware of where her success fit in the gulf of British swimming history. "Yes, 1960! It hasn't sunk in yet." looked forward to catching up with the 1960 champion to share notes after the tour of warm-down pool, doping control, lunch and rest in readiness for Wednesday, when the new Olympic champion will attempt to back up by racing towards a second medal and possible gold, in her better event, the 800m freestyle. No British woman has ever won more than one gold medal.
In her current form, Adlington, coached by Bill Furniss at Nova Centurion in Nottingham, is a rival to fear. Over eight lengths today she and Jackson, coached by Dave McNulty at Loughborough, swam a brilliantly tactical race, hanging on to the shoulders of their key opponents as they paced side by side in lanes 5 and 6. Adlington turned last at 50m, sixth at 100m, last a length later, then turning sixth and seventh at the next two walls and fifth with 100m to go. At the last turn, Jackson was second and Adlington fourth but Hoff held a clear lead 1.06sec over Jackson and 1.46sec over Adlington. With the field practically in a line back from Hoff, a medal was a chance. Gold was surely a stroke too far. Adlington thought otherwise. Stroke by stroke, she clawed her way through Hoff's wake, drawing level with Jackson with 15 metres to go. At that point, Adlington seemed to be lifted by a heavenly hand, the surge visible as she sprinted for the wall. It would untrue to say that she drew level with Hoff: the only time she led at any point in the race was when her hand flicked into the touch pad 0.07sec ahead of the Americans. Hoff's last 50m split was 30.71. Adlington's was a blistering 29.18. She had taken 1.53sec off the American over 50m. The mighty US team was deflated, stunned, amazed. They were not alone.
Hoff had been billed as the "female Phelps" at these Games, a swimmer capable of winning seven medals, many of them gold. In the 400m, the title favourites had been the current and past world record holders, Pellegrini and Manaudou. The Frenchwoman, troubled by her affair with Italian swimmer Luca Marin, who is now Pellegrini's partner, faded to last and was well out of the race. Pellegrini played into the hands of the British pair: instead of racing as she did in heats, when she turned more than 2 metres ahead of Adlington and held on to keep her British rival at bay, the Italian held back in the final and, as the faster 200m swimmer, hoped to sprint home at the end. It was massive mistake. Adlington gets better as she goes on, while Jackson's 400m was on course for something special after a season in which she has moved up to being a world-class 200m swimmer.
A thrilled Adlington said: "We are both so happy to have two British girls on the podium. I don't think either of us expected it and especially a gold and a bronze, it's absolutely amazing." Asked about 1960 and all that, she added: "It hasn't sunk in yet. I'm just over the moon."
Jackson, 21 and from Northampton, added: "I didn't really know what to expect this morning because it was a hard swim last night to get into the final. For two British girls to get on the podium is amazing and I am so happy for both of us. It's great for British swimming."
The race was watched from afar by former Bitain performance director Bill Sweetenham, who said he had raced every stroke of the race with the Brits. "I can't tell you how happy or how proud I am for the whole team, not just the women's 400 freestyle. I am sure the best is yet to come."
Victory came on the day that it was revealed Adlington's parents had lost £1,100 in a scam after buying tickets online for the 800m final, although they have now secured genuine tickets and will fly to the Chinese capital in time for Thursday's 800m. Adlington had set all worries about morning finals and the pressure of a high world-ranking aside to focus on the final. She said: "It was a lot harder this morning. We just tried to ignore the times and race the final. I don't think either of us are natural sprinters, we don't do the 100m free so we are naturally suited to the back half of the race. We didn't panic when we were a little bit behind. I didn't see anyone past Katie, I didn't know what was going on. I couldn't see what there was on the other side of the pool, I saw Katie and just tried to catch her."