After leading from start until 400m from the finish line of the 10km marathon swim, British training partners Keri-Anne Payne and Cassandra Patten claimed silver and bronze behind eight-time world champion Larisa Ilchenko, of Russia.
Ilchenko did what she had done so many times before: she swam at the feet of the leaders throughout the race before making her move with 750m remaining. Sean Kelly, head coach to the British pair and their personal mentor at Stockport, complained that Patten had had her feet pulled on in the closing 200m of the race. "I'm not very happy about that, but that's what happened," said Kelly.
Ilchenko took the lead with 400m to go and sprint on to a 1 hour 59.27 minutes victory. That her 1.5sec ahead of Payne, with Patten a further 1.8sec adrift. South African Natalie du Toit, the first amputee to qualify for the Olympic Games, finished 16th. With 250 metres to go, the medal contenders were whittled down to just four, with Germany's Angela Maurer joining Payne, Patten and Ilchenko at the front.
It was Maurer who pulled on Patten's feet and slowed her down. Second to Ilchenko at the world championships in 2007 and again in May this year, Patten lost her momentum and had to start her sprint from a sitting start.
At the end of the race, Patten, the first swimmer ever to qualify for Olympic pool and open water events, did not get to savour the moment she took bronze: "I had a word with her [Maurer]. It just wasn't on. I asked her why she did it and she said she hadn't seen me. I don't want to start an inter-country (sic) war but it really wasn't on and she knew it."
Kelly was delighted that both his charges had made the podium but said with a smile "we should have won". The winning attitude of the British team is everywhere at these Games, the overall team medal tally having now reached 35, with 16 golds at the helm of 10 silvers and nine bronzes.
Payne was thrilled. Toying with her silver medal after the race, wide smile on her face, she said: "We didn't really have a tactic. It just worked out that we were able to swim together, help each other and stay out of trouble. There was nothing we could do when she [Ilchenko] broke. I just stuck my head down and gave it all I had."
Patten's mother Zandra and father Tony, were on hand to watch the race with their younger daughter Lucy, 19 today and to whom big sister dedicated her medal: "Neither of us feel we lost the race today. We won Olympic silver and bronze medals. No-one can ever take that away. Words can't describe what its like. I'm going to meet my parents and sister - and this medal's for Lucy, she's 19 today - and we'll all be in floods of tears. It's just the best feeling ever."
Payne and Patten's medals added to those gained in the pool earlier in the Games - Rebecca Adlington taking two golds, in the 400m and 800m freestyle, and Joanne Jackson a bronze behind her teammate in the 400m. Patten raced in the 800m final with Adlington, and finished eighth, while Payne raced in the semi-finals of the 200m medley and the heats of the 400m, setting best times along the way.
Ilchenko let leaders Keri-Anne Payne and Cassandra Patten do the hard work in front, then made her big move for the historic gold medal, reaching up to slam the yellow touchpad first. Asked about her tactics and whether it was fair to coast on her rivals, Ilchenko said: "It doesn't bother me in the least. It is a competition after all and the best athlete wins. I actually worked as hard as anybody else."
Ilchenko's trademark strategy has helped her dominate open water swimming since 2004, winning five consecutive 5k world championships and three consecutive 10k races.
Patten and Maurer exchanged words on the pontoon after the race. "I had my legs pulled," Patten said. "I'm just annoyed because I didn't get to savour looking up and coming in third because of that negative. It's unsportsmanship. I would never pull on someone's legs so I would never assume someone would do it to me. But at the end of the day, I've got one of this (medal) and she hasn't, so that's enough."
Ilchenko also said that she had endured some physical challenges from rivals, particularly Brazilian teammates Ana Cunha (fifth) and Poliana Okimoto (seventh). "I had to clash on numerous occasions, especially with the swimmers from Brazil. I was trying to break away from the Brazilian girls, who were quite aggressive. This is swimming after all, not boxing."
Natalie du Toit of South Africa, an amputee who removed her carbon-fiber prosthetic left leg before diving in, finished 16th — 1:22.2 behind Ilchenko's winning time. She lost her leg below the knee in a motorcycle accident in 2001.
"I don't even think about not having a leg, and if I want to keep competing I will have to continue to qualify with the able-bodied," she said. "Hopefully I'll be back for 2012 (London Olympics), where I'll be hoping for a top-five finish."
Du Toit's effort was lauded by her rivals, with Ilchenko suggesting the South African be given a separate gold medal. "I want to compliment her on being so strong and so brave," said the Russian. Those sentiments were echoed by the British pair, Payne and Patten both saying that thay had "tremendous respect" for Du Toir fabulous achievement.
THE RESULT (Place, number, name, age, time)
- 1 12 ILCHENKO Larisa Russian Fed. Nov 18 1988 1:59:27.7
- 2 21 PAYNE Keri-Anne Great Britain Dec 09 1987 1:59:29.2
- 3 2 PATTEN Cassandra Great Britain Jan 01 1987 1:59:31.0
- 4 18 MAURER Angela Germany Jul 27 1975 1:59:31.9
- 5 1 CUNHA Ana Brazil Mar 23 1992 1:59:36.8
- 6 15 OBERSON Swann Switzerland Jul 26 1986 1:59:36.9
- 7 20 OKIMOTO Poliana Brazil Mar 08 1983 1:59:37.4
- 8 16 PECHANOVA Jana Czech Republic Mar 03 1981 1:59:39.7
- 9 6 PINTO PEREZ Andreina del Valle Venezuela Sep 10 1991 1:59:40.0
- 10 24 GRIMALDI Martina Italy Sep 28 1988 1:59:40.7
- 11 17 LYMPERTA Marianna Greece Jun 25 1979 1:59:42.3
- 12 8 ZUPAN Teja Slovenia Dec 04 1990 1:59:43.7
- 13 4 REQUENA Yurema Spain Jan 01 1983 1:59:46.9
- 14 25 van DIJK Edith Netherlands Apr 06 1973 2:00:02.8
- 15 14 GORMAN Melissa Australia Dec 11 1985 2:00:33.6
- 16 23 du TOIT Natalie South Africa Jan 29 1984 2:00:49.9
- 17 22 INACIO Daniela Portugal May 24 1989 2:00:59.0
- 18 3 BERGLUND Eva Sweden Feb 14 1984 2:01:05.0
- 19 9 FANG Yanqiao China Jan 18 1989 2:01:07.9
- 20 10 MARTINEZ Imelda Mexico Jul 16 1982 2:01:07.9
- 21 11 MULLER Aurelie France Jun 07 1990 2:02:04.1
- 22 19 SUTTON Chloe United States Feb 03 1992 2:02:13.6
- 23 13 SAMORODINA Natalya Ukraine Mar 17 1983 2:10:41.6
- 24 5 BOGARIN Antonella Argentina Nov 11 1991 2:11:35.9
- 7 KOBRICH Kristel Chile Aug 09 1985 DNF