ADELAIDE, Australia (AP) - Triple Olympic champion Stephanie Rice secured the first spot on the Australian swimming team for the London Olympics on Thursday, winning the 400-meter individual medley.
Rice, the so-called golden girl of the Beijing Games, finished in 4 minutes, 33.45 seconds to start the eight-day national selection trials.
Rice had surgery to repair a damaged tendon in her right shoulder last year and struggled to regain her form. She was fourth fastest in the heats but was too strong from the start of the final, giving up the lead for only a few meters in the race and winning by more than 4 seconds over Blair Evans (4:37.80).
The 23-year-old Rice waited for her time to flash up on the scoreboard before celebrating by blowing kisses to the crowd.
"It's the biggest relief - the biggest weight lifted off my shoulders," Rice said. "To be able to say now, 'I'm going to London,' is such a huge relief."
Rice won the 200- and 400-meter IMs and was part of the winning 4x200 freestyle relay at Beijing - all in world record times - but has had some setbacks with injuries since 2008 and is only now regaining the kind of confidence she needs to repeat in London.
"I think people have written me off for the past few years and I think it's nice to finally let the swimming do the talking," she said. "Obviously it's been a tough mental prep - getting my head around surgeries, inconsistent training ... to come away now with a really solid swim and a world-class swim, it puts me up in world rankings again."
Former world champion Jess Schipper led the qualifiers into Friday's 100 butterfly final, with reigning Olympic champion Libby Trickett posting the sixth-fastest time.
Schipper clocked 58.26 and just shaded Alicia Coutts, silver medalist at the 2011 World Championships, in 58.30. Triple Olympic gold medalist Trickett swam 59.67 in her first major meet since coming out of retirement.
"I'm buzzing at the moment and just so excited to be here racing at this level again," the 27-year-old Trickett said. "The bulldog (still) comes out in me."
Overshadowing Trickett's comeback is the return of Ian Thorpe, the five-time Olympic champion who quit competitive swimming in 2006, but has been training for more than a year in a bid to qualify for London.
His first race at the trials is Friday morning in the 200-meter freestyle heats, with the final scheduled for Saturday.
Thorpe also will compete in the 100 freestyle heats on Monday. He needs to finish first or second in either final to earn an individual spot at London, or finish in the top six to have a chance of selection as a relay swimmer.
Thomas Fraser-Holmes is the leading 200 freestyler in Australia and says he isn't likely to be awed by Thorpe.
"What he's done is incredible," the 20-year-old Fraser-Holmes said. "But no offense, that was a couple of years ago.
"And we're all young and hungry and we all want to go to London, so we're all fighting for the same thing. He's just another swimmer that I have got to race against."
Fraser-Holmes set an Australian record of 4:11.81 to win the men's 400 IM on the opening night to ensure he'll go to London regardless of where he finishes in the 200.
David McKeon won the 400 freestyle in 3:46.36 to beat pre-race favorite Ryan Napoleon (3:47.93) in the final. His father, Ron, and uncle, Rob Woodhouse, were both Olympic swimmers.
"I'm overwhelmed. Dad's been there, my uncle's been there, so I'm following on this family tradition. It's great," the 19-year-old McKeon said.