Maroons in green and gold victory

WHEN the cauldron was lit by seven anonymous young athletes, the themes of co-operation and generational change for these Olympics were forged. Appropriately, both would play a part in Australia's first gold medal, a stunning, yet somehow endearingly relaxed victory by the women's 4 x 100-metre freestyle relay team.

WHEN the cauldron was lit by seven anonymous young athletes, the themes of co-operation and generational change for these Olympics were forged. Appropriately, both would play a part in Australia's first gold medal, a stunning, yet somehow endearingly relaxed victory by the women's 4 x 100-metre freestyle relay team.

The spirit of co-operation between Alicia Coutts, Cate Campbell, Brittany Elmslie and Melanie Schlanger is partly the consequence of their shared Queensland heritage. The three older members of the team, Coutts, Campbell and Schlanger, grew up competing, and feeding off each other's talent.

"We are like family," said Coutts. "Like you said, we have grown up together. I haven't raced Britt so much because she is so young. But the other girls I have been racing for a long time. Yes, it's like a little Queensland family."

One member of this family aquatic was adopted. Campbell was born in Malawi, where she lived until she was nine. With no pool in the town of Blantyre, she swam in Lake Malawi where rogue hippos, rather than flying Dutchwomen, were the main dangers. "It seems like that part of my life is in a different lifetime," she said. "It's a world away."

If the team's maroon blood was already thicker than the chlorinated water, the bond between four smiling assassins was sealed in the marshalling area before the race. With the Dutch heavily favoured, and the US also tough to beat, the Australians had been told by their coaches to simply enjoy the moment.

So, rather than fret before being called to the blocks, the four hung out like any group of exuberant young women. "We just talked rubbish, mostly," said Schlanger, who summed up the outcome in perfect Queenslandese. "All of us had a ripper, basically."

The generational change came with Elmslie's addition, at the expense of Libby Trickett. The 18-year-old was told after the morning heat that she would swim in the final, rather than three-time gold medallist whose picture was on her bedroom wall. Elmslie seized her chance with the boldness of youth, rather than a heavy heart.

"Libby is such a great athlete," Elmslie said. "She will always have earned the respect of Australia because she has done so well in the past. But I just did my own thing in the heat, and the coaches made the end decision."

Trickett, like the other heat swimmers Emily Seebohm and Yolane Kukla, was awarded a gold medal. She had taken her omission in good spirits, adopting the role of cheerleader. But, having laboured to make the team after coming out of retirement, the 27-year-old described the feeling as "bitter-sweet".

Swimming relays are, at once, team and individual events. The performance of one swimmer can profoundly affect the others. A slow start by the Dutchwoman Inge Dekker, particularly, put pressure on her teammates that not even a withering finish by Ranomi Kromowidjojo, could overcome.

For Australia, the individual burden fell on the anchor Schlanger. Standing on the blocks, Schlanger was both aware of the opportunity she had been given with the team's slender lead, but also desperate not to be caught up in the moment.

"You can go out and get carried away and spin the wheels a bit hard and die in the last lap," said Schlanger. "For me, I was just trying to control the first 50 [metres] and the second 50 is my weapon. I trusted myself to be able to come home quite strong in the last 15."

If Schlanger's finish was heroic, this was a every bit a team performance. There were screams at the finish and moist eyes at the medal ceremony. But, mostly, just flashing smiles. "Our coaches said relays are fun, make sure you go out and enjoy yourself," said Campbell, a bronze medallist in the same event in Beijing.

The relay victory ameliorated some of the disappointment of Stephanie Rice's sixth place in the 400-metre individual medley. That outcome was, given Rice's injury concerns, both anticipated and shattering. So much so that even Rice could only guess how she would respond in the 200 individual medley.

At her best, Rice bubbles. At the Melbourne Commonwealth Games she giggled her way to gold. In Beijing, her grin was mistaken for the entrance to Luna Park. Rekindling the enthusiasm that fuels her best performances, she acknowledged, would be a tough task.