United States’ Rebecca Soni celebrates her gold medal win in the women’s 200-meter breaststroke swimming final with silver medal winner Japan’s Satomi Suzuki at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa De Olza)
By Clara Ferreira-Marques
LONDON, Aug 2 (Reuters) – Swapping laps of the pool for hours in the Pacific paid off for American Rebecca Soni, as the breaststroke champion took gold in the 200 metres on Thursday and broke her second world record in 24 hours.
Soni, wearing her trademark bright pink swimsuit, became the first female Olympic champion from Beijing to retain her title, with a powerful race that she led from the start, pulling away from Japanese challenger Satomi Suzuki in the last lap.
The 25-year-old touched in two minutes, 19.59 seconds and shaved 0.41 seconds off the mark she set on Wednesday. Suzuki took silver and Russian Iuliia Efimova clinched bronze.
Punching the air after she saw the world record on the scoreboard, Soni became the first woman to break the elusive 2:20.00, a personal target set for herself as a teenager after her coach suggested she could do it.
“I kept it to myself as a secret goal… I didn’t think it was possible for a long time, but I told myself, ‘I want to be there before I finish swimming’,” she said.
“I had him (her coach) in my mind today. I texted him last night and he said ‘you can do it’.”
Raised in New Jersey by her Hungarian-born immigrant parents, Soni stormed onto the Olympic stage in Beijing, where she beat favourite Leisel Jones in the 200 breaststroke and broke her Australian rival’s world record.
She then ended Jones’ domination of the 100 when she took gold in the 2011 world championships, winning by a body length.
Soni missed out on a gold in the 100 breaststroke in London, an event she had been the favourite for, when schoolgirl Ruta Meilutyte took the top spot. Soni won silver.
“I wasn’t swimming with anger or a vengeance,” she said on Thursday. “I took the 100 as a way to see where I am at and I felt really good about the 200.”
The 200, she said, was always her goal, and her training in the Pacific Ocean, often with friends and just blocks from her Californian home, helped her relax and ease her rhythm to prepare for the Games.
She continued to train at the pool in the morning but then “jumped in the ocean at night”.
“The main thing was to not to be too mentally challenged every day … a couple of friends joined me, it was a lot of fun,” she said.
“I just wanted to be in water and feel the water without being in a competition pool.”
Soni, who shares a room in the Olympic Village with gold medallist Dana Vollmer, has now equalled the number of medals won in London by team mate and boyfriend Ricky Berens.
Both hold a silver and a gold from the London Games, though Soni could still beat her partner’s haul as she competes in the 4×100 medley relay over the next two days.
Olympic couples are not unusual in swimming, where the pressures of elite competition and – swimmers often joke – the off-putting smell of chlorine, mean there are several couples among the sport’s top-ranking athletes.
France’s Fred Bousquet is married to fellow French swimmer Laure Manaudou, while Berens’ team mate Matt Grevers is engaged to another U.S. national swimmer, Annie Chandler.
Grevers proposed to Chandler by the side of the pool earlier this year, after a swim meet, with a podium-top proposal that has been viewed on youtube by almost three million people.