SHANGHAI (AP) — Stephanie Rice shook out her long, brown hair and tucked it behind her ears, letting her emerald green earrings sparkle under the lights. She smiled, triggering an appreciative hum of clicking cameras. Swimming's glamor girl was front and center at the world championships.
Rice has been away most of the past 10 months after having surgery on her right shoulder, allowing rivals to chip away at her dominance in the individual medleys, a process that began not long after she swept the events at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and helped Australia win the 800-meter freestyle relay.
"After 2008, coming off such a high, I really wasn't too motivated," she said Friday. "2009 was a bit of an off-year. And 2010, having surgery was really disappointing. But I feel like now I've really got my training back on track and I'm motivated a lot more. I'm really looking forward to the racing, which I haven't done in a while."
She has yet to win a world title, having earned two bronze medals at the 2007 worlds in Melbourne.
The eight-day swimming competition begins Sunday, when Rice competes in the 200 IM against defending world champion Ariana Kukors of the United States. Two years ago in Rome, Rice finished second in that race, and was third in the 400 IM.
"It's my toughest race of the meet," Rice said about the 200. "It's going to be extremely tough to get a position in that final. I know I'm going to have to do PB and get down to my best time."
Rice's rivals in the 400 IM include Hannah Miley of Britain and defending champion Katinka Hosszu of Hungary.
"I don't think I've done a very good race since the Olympics," said Rice, who set three world records in Beijing two years after debuting on the international scene as a bubbly 17-year-old. She still owns the world mark in the 400 IM.
The intervening years have brought mixed results, slower times and the first major injury of her career. Last August, Rice was in tears when she was forced out of the Pan Pacific championships because of her aching shoulder.
"I definitely had to re-evaluate my day-to-day training and the amount of kilometers I was doing," she said. "I'm not 17 anymore. I can't do 7k sessions back-to-back every day. My body just can't handle that anymore. I appreciate that I've had to put more time into the little things that I didn't care so much about when I was younger."
Getting surpassed by faster swimmers hasn't been the downer it might be for others.
"I've enjoyed the journey of not going in as the No. 1 athlete this year," Rice said.
When she wasn't swimming fast, the 22-year-old star became known for appearing in racy photos on the Internet and dating teammate Eamon Sullivan. She currently dates Aussie rugby star Quade Cooper, and keeps her fans updated on her doings as a prolific user of Twitter.
But all that will take a back seat during the meet, with the Aussies counting on solid showings by Rice and veterans Leisel Jones, Jess Schipper and 32-year-old Geoff Huegill to help them improve upon their three-gold medal performance in Rome.
Jones is back after taking a year off from international competition, while Huegill came out of retirement in late 2007.
"I'm looking to put myself in a decent position a year out from London," Rice said. "There's no real pressure or expectations that I'm putting on myself at this meet. It's just really about gearing up toward the big year next year."
The Aussies won't have superstar Ian Thorpe to help them.
Thorpe is training for his comeback, but he wasn't eligible for worlds because he didn't have enough pre-meet testing to satisfy doping rules.
Still, he is on his teammates' minds.
"To know he's got the hunger and passion to want to compete at London is very exciting," Huegill said.