BEIXIAOYING TOWN, China (AP) -- Exploiting the calm water conditions, Larisa Ilchenko drafted behind the leading British duo most of the race before sprinting to a gold medal in the final 50 meters of the first women's 10-kilometer marathon swimming race at the Beijing Olympics.
The Russian finished four grueling laps in 1 hour, 59 minutes, 27.7 seconds Wednesday morning in the warm, shallow water at Shunyi Rowing-Canoe Park.
Ilchenko let Keri-Anne Payne and Cassandra Patten do the hard work in front, then made her big move for the historic gold medal, reaching up to slam the yellow touchpad first by 1.5 seconds.
"It doesn't bother me in the least," she said of her tactics through an interpreter. "It is a competition after all and the best athlete wins. I actually worked as hard as anybody else."
Ilchenko's trademark strategy has helped her dominate open water swimming since 2004, winning five consecutive 5k world championships and three consecutive 10k races.
Payne, who got weeds stuck in her suit and in her face, took the silver in 1:59.40.7. Her British teammate, Patten, earned the bronze in 1:59.42.3 despite swimming into a large orange buoy.
"The last 1,000 meters seemed like another 10k," Patten said. "Every part of my body was aching."
Natalie du Toit of South Africa, an amputee who removed her carbon-fiber prosthetic left leg before diving in, finished 16th -- 1:22.2 behind Ilchenko's winning time. She lost her leg below the knee in a motorcycle accident in 2001.
"I don't even think about not having a leg, and if I want to keep competing I will have to continue to qualify with the able-bodied," she said. "Hopefully I'll be back for 2012 (London Olympics), where I'll be hoping for a top-five finish."
Du Toit's effort was lauded by her rivals, with Ilchenko suggesting the South African be given a separate gold medal.
"I want to compliment her on being so strong and so brave," she said.
American Chloe Sutton, one of two 16-year-olds in the field, was 22nd, crossing the finish in 2:02.13.6 -- 2:45.9 behind Ilchenko.
"I was in a good position during the first lap, but it didn't feel right. I never found that comfortable spot, that place, my little bubble that I could just hold," she said, breaking down in tears. "I just never got to the position that I wanted to be in. I tried my very best."
There was a lot of crying, hugging and bitter words exchanged after the contentious 25-woman race, similar to wrestling in water.
Patten and fourth-place Angela Maurer of Germany got into it on the dock, with the Brit angrily pointing in Maurer's face.
"I had my legs pulled," Patten said. "I'm just annoyed because I didn't get to savor looking up and coming in third because of that negative. It's unsportsmanship. I would never pull on someone's legs so I would never assume someone would do it to me. But at the end of the day, I've got one of these (medals) and she hasn't, so that's enough."
Patten said Maurer claimed she didn't see the Brit.
"I don't want to say anymore because I don't want to start an inter-country war," Patten said.
While not admitting anything, Maurer said, "It was really crowded going around the corners, there was a lot of grabbing and pulling, but I have to say I was no angel either."
Payne and Patten led virtually the entire race in calm conditions that were opposite of last year's World Championships in Australia. Ilchenko won there, overcoming white caps, biting jelly fish and strong winds.
Sutton competed in Melbourne, too, so she was familiar with the rough racing tactics of kicking, grabbing and knocking over competitors' drinks on sticks at the feeding station.
"It was a pretty physical race. I tried to stay away from a lot of it," she said. "If I would've tried to get into a good draft position, I would've just gotten beat up. I was sprinting so long that when people started to speed up, I just started to slow down."
Ilchenko said she had her own run-ins with Brazilian teammates Ana Cunha (the other 16-year-old, who was fifth) and Poliana Pechanova (seventh).
"I had to clash on numerous occasions, especially with the swimmers from Brazil," she said. "I was trying to break away from the Brazilian girls, who were quite aggressive. This is swimming after all, not boxing."
Edith van Dijk of the Netherlands, a 36-year-old, two-time 10k open water world champion, finished 14th.