Three gold medals at the Beijing Olympic Games thrust swimmer Stephanie Rice OAM not only into the nation’s consciousness, but also into the pantheon of Australian sporting greats.
A triple Olympic gold medallist and five-time world record holder Rice dominated the 200 and 400 individual medley events and in Beijing she became only the seventh Australian in any sport to win three gold medals at a single Olympics.
Stephanie Rice’s achievements will be celebrated at the 35th Induction and Awards Gala Dinner on Thursday, 10th October, 2019 when she is inducted as an Athlete Member of The Sport Australia Hall of Fame and receives one of the highest honours that can be bestowed in Australian sport.
Like many Australians Rice started at learn to swim and quickly progressed through the ranks with a strong desire and love of the sport.
She was just enjoying racing and being with friends until a trip to the Sydney Olympic Games swimming trials changed her outlook.
“I was 12 and mum took me there as special holiday. I remember watching and seeing some of the athletes at the time and thinking like wow – Petria Thomas and Susie O’Neill they’re amazing. And then watching the Sydney Olympics and thinking, oh yes, that’s something that I really would like to do.”
It wasn’t until Rice was 14 that the signs of what was to come appeared when she won six gold medals at the age nationals. The following year qualified for the Junior Pan-Pacific Championships in 2002 where she won two gold medals. From that point on, Rice made winning national age titles a habit across a range of butterfly, backstroke and medley events.
Under the tutelage of coach Michael Bohl, who would guide her for her entire senior career, Rice’s results continued to catch attention.
She made her senior international debut at the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games, where she foreshadowed what was to come by winning the 200m and 400m individual medley golds. The next year at the world championships, also in front of a home crowd in Melbourne, she won bronze medals in both events, lowering the Australian record in the 400.
“I just managed to skim on to the Commonwealth Games team as the third Australian. My performance at the Games was a huge breakthrough for me because I was never the fastest in Australia. That was a really amazing meet… I built a lot of confidence from that meet to help push me through to world championships.”
“Getting on the podium at world champs in the 200 and 400 was like OK, I’m sort of in the mix of a podium finish at the Olympics but my time was so far off Katie Hoff the best in the world. Ten seconds off at the time.”
“So there was a lot of improvement that needed to happen but I was really motivated after that and I really noticed how much I stepped up everything. The focus of my training and things like nutrition, strength and conditioning, recovery, sleep. Everything became very military. I was very focused and very regimented. And it didn’t bother me. I liked that; I liked that consistency.”
Almost twelve months later at the Beijing Olympic trials in Sydney, Rice unexpectedly broke the world record in the 400 IM by a full second. Three days later she broke the 200 IM world record that had stood for 11 years and she qualified for Beijing.
“I remember really freaking out about that in the sense that I was really nervous. My goal since I was a kid was always to make an Olympic team not necessarily to win a gold medal at an Olympics, it was I just want to go to the Olympics, I want to be an Olympian and I’d just achieve that. So, it’s like what now. Now that I’ve made it how do I adjust all of my lifetime focuses – so I remember being quite overwhelmed about that.”
Rice needn’t have worried. Together with coach Bohl, they continued their winning formula though to the Games.
In Beijing, aged 20, she thrust herself into the spotlight, winning Australia’s first medal of the Games, and the nation’s 400th medal in summer Olympic history when she captured the 400 IM in world record time, becoming the first woman to swim under 4:30 in the 400 IM.
She entered rarefied company by also winning the 200 IM in another world record and then joined teammates Linda Mackenzie, Bronte Barratt and Kylie Palmer with an unexpected victory in the 200m freestyle relay, an event in which the United States had never been beaten. They wiped more than five seconds off the world record and left the highly fancied American and Chinese teams in their wake.
Along with Australian sporting heroes and soon to be fellow Sport Australia Hall of Fame members Betty Cuthbert AC MBE, Murray Rose AM, Shane Gould AM MBE, Ian Thorpe AM, Petria Thomas OAM and Jodie Henry OAM, Rice became one of seven Australians to win three gold medals at a single Games.
“Everyone asks which one is more special, but they were also different. The 400 was obviously really special internally just because it was my first gold medal and was the first Australian gold medal of the games. So that was all very exciting.
“The 200 medley I feel has this emotional connection to it because I was really sick for that race so knowing I was not 100 percent and just kind of being like, oh well we’ll just see how we go – this could be a complete shambles. So to win that and to have broken my own world record made me realise that performance is not just about the physical, it’s about being mentally strong. So that one holds this like really deep-seated connection for me.”
“The relay was obviously a lot of fun with the girls. So, I’m always split between all three because they’re all very different.”
As Australia’s most successful competitor at the Games, Rice carried the flag at the closing ceremony. In the same year Swimming World magazine named her World Swimmer of the Year.
After the Olympics Rice started experiencing nagging shoulder pain while she swam, which affected her results at the 2009 world championships in Rome where she won silvers in the 200 IM and the medley relay and bronze in the 400m IM.
In 2010 the pain worsened and required an operation, which although successful forced her out of the Delhi Commonwealth Games and the chance to defend her titles from Melbourne. But nine months before the London 2012 Olympic Games she tore a tendon in her shoulder which needed more surgery 10 weeks out from the selection trials. Given the timing, she had to opt for a quick patch-up to try to relieve the pain but wasn’t able to actually repair the tear in her shoulder.
Despite that, she qualified for the team and made the finals of both individual medley events where she finished an impressive fourth and sixth.
“Having to compete on the world’s biggest stage when you know your body isn’t prepared is really tough. My shoulder got worse and worse as the Olympics approached, so I knew it was going to be tough. I had so much more to prove as an athlete, but the lightness that I had before Beijing had gone. After London I was just so relieved that I had done as well as I had, I was obviously disappointed, but I think that’s why I was glad to have stepped away from the sport after that and focus on new aspects of life.”
Rice retired at the age of 24 with a trophy cabinet containing three Olympic gold medals, two Commonwealth golds, and two silver and five bronze medals from world championships.
In 2009 she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to sport as a gold medallist at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and in 2019 she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
She becomes the 55th swimmer to enter the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, the most inductees of any sport, ahead of cricket with 42 and athletics with 34 members.
“It’s really cool,” Rice said. “I think the thing for me with the induction is it’s nice to just go back and reflect on a past life. I kind of finished swimming and finished that whole world. It’s not often now that I go back to specifically focus on my swimming achievements. So I think what’s really nice about having an evening like this is you can go back and reflect on that time.”
“I’m obviously proud of my gold medals but that’s just the token that you get for all the hard work that goes into it. So when I look back and you say ‘what are you most proud of’, I’m proud of being super dedicated, being really focussed, being hardworking, being a good quality person. Those are the things I’m proud of because it’s the things I take into life after sport.”
Chair of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame Selection Committee Rob de Castella AO MBE said:
“If ever there is an event that tests an individual it must be the Individual Medley because you have to excel in all four strokes. Stephanie dominated the world at Olympics, world championships, Commonwealth Games and set world records in this incredibly testing and demanding event.”
Sport Australia Hall of Fame Chair John Bertrand AO said: “Stephanie trained harder than most people could ever perceive. Her historic performance at the Beijing Olympic Games in winning three gold medals, only the seventh Aussie to do so, is one for the record books.”
Stephanie Rice OAM will join shooter Russell Mark OAM, cyclist Robbie McEwen AM and triathlete Emma Snowsill OAM with induction into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame on Australian sport’s “Night of Nights” – the 35th Sport Australia Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala Dinner on Thursday 10th October at Palladium at Crown, Melbourne.
Established in 1985, The Sport Australia Hall of Fame exists to preserve and celebrate the history of Australian sport and to inspire all Australians to achieve their potential both in sport and life.
The Sport Australia Hall of Fame plays a vital role in preserving and perpetuating Australia’s rich sporting heritage, whilst promoting the values of courage, sportsmanship, integrity, mateship, persistence, and excellence, all underpinned by generosity, modesty, pride and ambition.
Along with the seven new inductees, ‘The Don’ Award will be presented to the athlete who has most inspired the nation and the Scholarship and Mentoring program recipients will be awarded. In addition, the 41st Legend of Australian sport will be celebrated.