BEIJING -- For someone who claims to know little about Australian swimming history, Stephanie Rice has done a stunning job of securing her place in it. In swimming the leadoff leg for the first Aussie team to win an Olympic gold medal in the women's 4x200 free relay Thursday, the 20-year-old Rice became just the fifth Aussie to collect three golds in a single Olympics, joining Shane Gould, Ian Thorpe, Jodie Henry and Patria Thomas in the pantheon. As with Rice's 400 and 200 IM victories -- she was the first Aussie to double in the medleys -- the one today was in world record time.
The victory was a huge upset. The Americans had won all three Olympic titles and the last four world championship titles in the event and were such heavy favorites in Beijing that bookmakers Down Under set 16-1 odds against Australia winning it. Yet Rice's teammates, Bronte Barratt, Kylie Palmer and Linda MacKenzie, seemed to be just as oblivious to history as she is: Their time of 7:44.31 shattered the record the Americans set at the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne by more than five seconds.
The American team of Allison Schmitt, Natalie Coughlin, Caroline Burckle and Katie Hoff finished third in 7:46.33, four tenths of a second behind China's Yang Yu, Zhu Qianwei, Tan Miao, and Pang Jiaying. Hoff nearly overtook Pang for the silver, but she ran out of pool. Failing to maintain the United States' gold-medal streak "is tough," she said afterward. "But we just got our American record by four seconds, so we can't really complain."
No doubt the Aussies had seen enough Yankee dominance. "I was part of the relay team at worlds where we saw the Americans absolutely smash that world record," said Rice. "To beat it by so far today is unbelievable. What an adrenaline rush it was!"
What a meet it was for Rice. On Sunday, she outtouched Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe in the 400 IM in 4:29.45, crushing Hoff's world record by two seconds. Three days later she came from behind to overhaul Coventry and lower her world record in the 200 IM by .47 seconds, to 2:08.45.
It has been a spectacular year for Rice, who first grabbed the world's attention in March when, wearing a Speedo LZR at the Australian Olympic Trials, she lopped about six seconds off her best time in the 400 IM to set a new world record of 4:31.46. With three golds in her pocket, Rice's fame Down Under is about to explode, and she already enjoys a celebrity unimaginable to any U.S. swimmer outside of Michael Phelps and Dara Torres: When she and Eamon Sullivan, the world record-holder in the men's 100 free, broke up recently, it led the news Down Under for three days.
Expect the media here in China to go nuts over a group of their own swimmers. As gratifying as the 4 x 200 silver was for the Games' host country, it wasn't even its brightest moment of the day at the Water Cube. In the women's 200 fly, Liu Zige and Jiao Liuyang finished 1-2, with Liu shattering bronze-medalist Jessicah Schipper's world record by nearly a second and a half. Pang, who held off Hoff in the relay, would have been the top qualifier in the women's 100 free final had she not false-started in the semifinal and been disqualified. (Her mistake opened the door for world-record holder Libby Trickett of Australia to sneak into the final.)
USA swimming officials knew so little about Liu that the heat sheet passed out by a team official before the race had almost no information beyond her height, her birth date and her time in the Olympic preliminaries. The sheet didn't have much more info on Liu's teammate, Jiao Liuyang, who came in second. Yet the crowd at the Water Cube embraced them like established heroes, roaring with approval as the two tore through their final lap.
"I didn't expect I could swim so fast," said Liu. Asked if coach Shang Yadong had purposely kept her under wraps before the Olympics, Liu said, "No, he didn't. I've improved only in the last year."
Like Rice, Liu picked a good year to do it.