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Rice shoulders Aussie hopes on day one

27 July 2012

The most talked about shoulder in world swimming - and Stephanie Rice's mettle - will be put to the ultimate test as Australia look to create early momentum in the pool at the London Olympics.

Rice's campaign to retain her 400m individual medley title headlines the opening day of competition on Saturday, and lingering questions over her ability to overcome a nightmare preparation will finally be answered.

With a troublesome right shoulder causing problems for the bulk of her preparation, Rice is banking on her ability to rise to the occasion on swimming's biggest stage.

And despite needing sharp improvement to catch American race favourite Elizabeth Beisel and Brit Hannah Miley, head coach Leigh Nugent says it would be foolish to write Rice out of gold medal calculations.

"She's a great competitor and she won't go lying down ... it will be a fight to the death," Nugent said.

"They are very closely packed in that event and it could go either way.

"But she is determined to defend her title and she can do that."

While Rice rose to stardom by winning three gold medals in Beijing, the four years since have been eventful to say the least.

She admitted to struggling for motivation after her Olympic success and missed the 2010 Commonwealth Games due to injury before battling back to win a bronze medal in the 400IM at last year's world championships.

She had more shoulder surgery late last year but a glimmer of hope appeared at Australia's Olympic selection trials in March.

There she showed her best form in three years and came out ranked first in the world this year in the 200IM and fourth in the 400IM.

"This has been her best year out of those three years and that's a bonus," Nugent said.

"In actual preparation elements of the training and so on, maybe not as consistent as what she had leading up to 2008, but she's a lot more savvy now and better for the experience of the Beijing Olympics."

Nugent said a successful opening night could set the tone for his team in London.

While Rice could represent Australia's best shot at glory on the first night of finals, the women's 4x100m freestyle relay team is also considered an outside chance at gold.

A final team featuring Cate Campbell, Melanie Schlanger and Alicia Coutts will attempt to chase down hot favourites the Netherlands, while comeback swimmer Libby Trickett will be out to impress in the morning heats to clinch the fourth place in the final.

US superstars Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte will have their first showdown in the men's 400IM final, with Nugent labelling Australian youngster Thomas Fraser-Holmes a "smokey" for the bronze medal.

Ryan Napoleon and David McKeon will contest the men's 400m freestyle, with the evening final expected to be fought out by China's Sun Yang and Korean Park Tae-Hwan.

Coutts will begin her campaign in the 100m butterfly heats and semis, with Brenton Rickard and Christian Sprenger beginning their campaign in the 100m breaststroke.

Liam FitzGibbon

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