Stephanie Rice will defend her Olympic swimming titles at London 2012
Australian has returned to prominence following injury problems
The 24-year-old is one of Australia's most popular Olympic athletes
She has courted controversy out of the pool with postings on Twitter
Sports stars love their routines. Some, like tennis champion Rafael Nadal, take it to extremes.
The Spaniard obsessively lines up his water bottles before matches, touches the front and back of his shorts, touches each ear and his nose.
Nadal will bring his rituals to the Olympics next month, but he faces a real rival in terms of pre-event preparations.
Take a close look at Stephanie Rice when the Australian swimmer defends her gold medals at London 2012.
“I’m very superstitious, especially before a race. I go through exactly the same routine prior to standing on the block,” she told CNN’s Human to Hero series.
“I do eight arm swings, four goggle presses, four cap touches. It looks really weird but it’s so comfortable to me it comes second nature now.”
Rice won the 200 and 400-meter individual medley titles at Beijing 2008 as a 20-year-old, setting world records in both events, and also had success in the 4x200m freestyle.
She was quite literally the golden girl of Australian swimming – the 400 IM medal was her country’s 400th at a Summer Olympics.
Born: Brisbane, AustraliaAge: 24Event: Swimming – individual medleyHonors: Olympic gold, Beijing 2008 – 200m IM, 400m IM, 4x200m freestyle
However, her return to the Olympic stage this year was by no means guaranteed. Having won silver medals at the 2009 world championships, Rice was forced out of competition the following year due to shoulder problems.
She also courted controversy as she called the South African rugby team “faggots” on her Twitter account, losing a sponsorship deal with luxury carmaker Jaguar.
Prior to her departure for London, this month she posted a picture of herself in a skimpy designer bikini she had got for her 24th birthday. Perhaps it is no coincidence that she was voted Australia’s most popular Olympic athlete in a recent newspaper poll.
It came soon after two fellow Australian swimmers were censored for posting pictures of themselves bearing pistols.
“I believe truly in superstition and karma, and everything happens for a reason,” Rice said. “I believe that if I can do the best job I can, and I always try to give 100% and enjoy what I’m doing, then I believe it will come back to you.
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of winning or getting achievement out of it, it’s more about the experience that you get from something. I’ve learned a lot out of negative outcomes as well as positive outcomes.”
After missing out on defending her titles at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Rice faced a battle to qualify for London 2012 following her surgeries – another shoulder operation was needed in December – but she triumphed at the Australian trials in March with times that put her back up with the world’s best.
“You definitely have days where you feel like it’s not going to plan, and especially the surgeries I’ve been through I’ve definitely had times I’ve thought, ‘Why is this happening to me now, is this a sign it’s not meant to happen for me now?’
“But I try to quickly turn the negatives to positives, try to think of it like it’s just a test of character and it’s going to make me stronger and more prepared for something that is hopefully going to happen later on.”
Achieving a dream
Success came early for Rice when she upstaged Australian Olympians Brooke Hanson and Lara Carroll at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, three months before her 18th birthday.
“Three months out of finishing school, that was the time I really thought I could make a job out of what I love to do,” she said.
“The Olympics had basically been a childhood dream, and to make that dream become a reality four years ago … I thought I’d (already) achieved my lifetime goal at 18.
“So I really had to sit down with my coach and reassess what I was actually going to hopefully achieve at the Olympics. So now to be able to represent Australia twice, it’s a huge goal and I guess from here on in I’m so thankful and appreciative for what I’ve achieved, so I take a lot pressure off this time around and just try to enjoy the experience.”
A star is born
Rice’s transition from promising swimmer to worldwide sporting stardom was one she welcomed. Having dated fellow swimmer Eamon Sullivan before Beijing, she went out with Australian rugby star Quade Cooper until earlier this year and has become a celebrity in her homeland.
“It was really exciting in many ways – I’ve always enjoyed the media, I’ve always wanted to be an inspiration to younger kids or older people,” she said.
“It definitely had its tough times, and there are times you wish you could switch it off and just be the normal person I was prior to Beijing, but it comes along with part of the sacrifices that you have to make and I don’t think of it as a negative thing.
“You just have to be a lot more aware of who you’re around and what you’re doing. There’s definitely times you can be a normal person, you just have to do it in the right environment.
“My goal is to give something of myself to everyone. I don’t find that a negative thing, it’s flattering, to engage with people and give them a bit of fun.”
But for all the non-sporting distractions, Rice is determined to focus on her pool ambitions.
“I have always been 100% dedicated to what I do, which is why I never studied and swam at the same time – I always put my heart into everything that I do,” she says.
“I just try to be a positive role model for the people around me, but more just to be really happy with the person I am and try to give that off to other people.”