Rebecca Soni competes in the preliminaries of the women’s 200m breaststroke event during the USA Swimming Grand Prix Charlotte Ultra Swim at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, May 12, 2012. (REUTERS/Davis Turner)

Breaststroke queen goes from Beijing underdog to London favorite

By Phil Minshull, Special to Universal Sports

Breaststroke exponent Rebecca Soni went to the 2008 Olympics with little to prove or lose.

She had made the U.S.100m breaststroke team despite finishing fourth at the Trials, when two of the women who finished in front of her could not make the trip to Beijing.

More was expected of her in the 200m breaststroke but the Australian world record holder Leisel Jones was still the prohibitive favorite.

However, once in the Chinese capital, the then University of Southern California student made the most of her opportunity to shine.

Jones won the shorter event but Soni excelled beyond all expectations to take the silver medal. Three days later, in the 200m final, Soni upset the odds and not only beat Jones into second place but also shaved 32-hundredths-of-a-second off her Antipodean rival’s world record with a time of 2:20.22.

For good measure, Soni also swam a leg for the U.S. quartet that took the 4x100m medley relay silver medals.

After advertising her arrival among the world’s elite in Beijing, Soni has since gone from strength-to-strength.

She won the 2009 and 2011 100m breaststroke world titles and bounced back, after finishing a surprise fourth in her longer event two years earlier, to also add the 2011 World Championships 200m breaststroke gold medal to her burgeoning collection of honors; and also played a crucial part in the U.S. winning the 4x100m medley relay last summer in Shanghai.

In recognition of her talent and triumphs, in both 2010 and 2011 Soni was voted as Swimming World’s World Swimmer of the Year, arguably the sport’s highest annual accolade.

Having been an unheralded underdog at the last Olympic Games, the spotlight is firmly on Soni ahead of London.

Most swimming pundits are expecting the New Jersey native to repeat her feats from Shanghai and return to her current home in California with three gold medals in her luggage, and perhaps a couple of world records into the bargain.

It’s a burden that seems to sit lightly on Soni’s broad shoulders. Last September, she took a trip to Britain to have an advance look at the venue where she is expected to display her prowess.

Rather than unnerve her, it had quite the reverse effect. “That was really, really exciting. It was a great way to start my training year. It motivated me to get into the pool and start working,” she commented at the time.

Her opponents are obviously not going to hand over the gold medals to Soni without a fight. In the 100m, Jones is still around and finished just behind her last summer in Shanghai while Russia’s Shanghai silver medalist Yuliya Yefimova, who doesn’t turn 20 until April, is starting to emerge as a credible threat in the 200m event.

However, Soni could still end the Games as the brightest female swimming star to emerge from the pool in the Aquatics Centre.