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Keri-Anne Payne sets sights on London 2012 Olympics podium after qualifying for Games

It was, said Keri-Anne Payne, her “best day ever”. A world title, the guarantee of a place at the London Olympics and the news, relayed to her within minutes of emerging from the tepid waters of Jinshan City Beach, that her sister Janine had just gone into labour.

A few hours later, her new niece Erin arrived. Today was all about new beginnings.

Payne’s triumph in the toughest Olympic event of all, the 10km open-water race, brought her second World Championship crown in the space of three years, but this time it came with a special bonus.

By finishing in the top 10 she also sealed her qualification for the London Olympics, earning her the distinction of being the very first British athlete to secure a place on Team GB. Other sports have already qualified places for 2012, though Payne is the first individual to make sure of her spot.

One down, another 549 to go.

But the 23 year-old, a silver medallist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has bigger ambitions than simply making the team.

Her triumph never looked in doubt from the moment she dived off the pontoon and raced to her favourite place at the front of the pack.

She led for the entire race except for a brief moment at around 7km when she was overtaken by Australia Melissa Gorman, only to regain her advantage seconds later.

Another attack came with 1km to go from Italy’s Martina Grimaldi, the 2010 world champion, but Payne simply changed gear and stretched away from her pursuer. She touched home in 2hr 1min 58.1sec, with Grimaldi 1.8sec behind in second place and Greece’s Marianna Lymperta several body lengths down in third.

“Throughout the whole race I just tried to make things as easy as I could so that if somebody did attack, I’d still have a little bit left in me,” she said. “But I knew that when it came to the last bit, I had a sprint finish.”

With a sea temperature measured at 29C, just two degrees below the recommended safety limit for open-water swimming, not every competitor was able to remain as composed as Payne.

Three swimmers had to be pulled out by a rescue boat midway through the race, including Italy’s 2010 world silver medallist, Giorgia Consiglio, who was in a state of delirium as she was stretchered to a waiting ambulance.

“She had a respiratory crisis and got scared, but she’s OK,” said Italian team physician Sergio Crescenzi. “It was just something psychological.”

Payne can look forward to more benign conditions when she races for gold in London’s Serpentine next year, though she will have no team-mates for company.

Fellow Briton Cassie Patten, the bronze medallist in Beijing, broke down in tears after finishing 21st yesterday, which means she now has no chance of qualifying for London in the open-water event.

Under the rules of FINA, the world governing body, if a swimmer qualifies for the Olympics as a top 10 finisher at the World Championships, as Payne did, then no other swimmer from the same country can qualify unless they also finish in the top 10.

Patten’s only hope of making the team is in the 800 metres freestyle, though that looks a tall order in an event in which Britain enjoys so much strength in depth.

Payne’s gold medal was Britain’s first of the World Championships and performance director Michael Scott said he hoped it would galvanise the rest of the team when attention switches to the pool next week.

“To have one gold medal in the bag early on is going to be really inspiring to the rest of the team,” he said.

Among the spectators yesterday was Andy Hunt, chief executive of the British Olympic Association, who said Payne’s qualification was a milestone for Team GB.

“It’s our first athlete, and what an extraordinary athlete to lead from the front right throughout the race,” he said. “A week before the one-year-to-go mark and we’re on our way. London is getting so real.”

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