Four years ago Rebecca Adlington went into the Beijing Olympics as a virtual unknown to those outside the swimming world. Fast forward to 2012 and she’s one of Britain’s best gold medal hopes for the Games. Sportsister’s Jessica Whittington caught up with the double Olympic champion as she prepares to take her first step this month towards defending those titles.
Rebecca Adlington has often been referred to as Britain’s ‘Golden Girl’ and, although we might try, it’s impossible not to carry the cliché. She’s claimed titles at every level – Olympic, world, European, Commonwealth – and is arguably one of Britain’s most successful swimmers, yet she still refuses to take her place at this year’s home Games for granted. Ironically, it’s this modesty which may even put her in better stead towards securing herself a spot – she understands previous success is no free pass card, it takes hard work at the top.
And so the first target for Rebecca and her GB team-mates on their road to 2012 success is this month’s British Gas Swimming Championships. Although there is a second chance to qualify for the Games in Sheffield in June, the majority of berths will be booked this time round in the Aquatics Centre.
The 23-year-old will be competing in the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle at the selection trials, which run from March 3-10. Given her track record, qualifying should prove a walk in the park, or, in fact, a paddle in the pool as it were, but Rebecca’s not so certain.
“There will be some nerves at the trials, that’s for sure,” she says. “So much rests on the Championships.
“We have so much quality in the events I compete in. There’s the likes of world champion Keri-Anne Payne as well as Olympic medallist Joanne Jackson to name just two.
“As there are only two spots available for each individual event, it will be a challenge simply to qualify.”
Failing to make the team is, unfortunately, a possibility Rebecca’s had to consider. Having experienced something vaguely similar when she missed out on qualifying for the 2006 Commonwealths in Melbourne she understands it’s not the be-all and end-all, but missing a Commonwealths in Australia isn’t quite the same as missing an Olympics on home soil.
“If I didn’t qualify for the London Olympics it would obviously be a huge disappointment,” she says. “However, given what I’ve achieved so far in my career I’d still be proud of my accomplishments.
“As an athlete, I need to back myself, and that’s what I’ll be doing when I go to the trials.”
Rebecca was a tender 19-years-old when she scooped two golds, one in the 400m and another in the 800m freestyle, in Beijing. Her success in the 400m made her the first woman to win Olympic swimming gold for GB since Anita Lonsbrough in 1960. Her 800m freestyle run didn’t disappoint either – she broke swimming’s longest standing world record by two seconds, one held by the USA’s 1988 Olympic champion Janet Evans.
And this feat in itself has relevance again today for Janet is one of several athletes looking to come out of retirement to compete this summer. The 40-year-old mother of two retired after the Atlanta Games in 1996 and had set the world record in 1989, when Adlington was aged just six months. This, in itself, gives you some idea of the talent, passion and level of competition that will be on show later this year.
“It would be amazing if she [Janet] qualified for the American team,” Rebecca says. “I’d love to race her. There will be lots of talented swimmers in the 800m event.
“In the 400m the favourite will be the Italian Federica Pellegrini, who is the current world champion. The competition to get a medal will be very stiff.” But where better to see off that competition than at a home Games. “Competing at a home Olympics, in front of a passionate home crowd, would be the highlight of any athlete’s career,” she admits. “I hope to be able to experience it.
“I’m used to Aussie or American crowds cheering their swimmers on – so to have a British crowd cheering us on in London would be an incredible experience. A home Games would be really special.”
However, with all the highlights that a home Games bring, Rebecca also knows there will be the added weight of expectation this time round. She will need to take strong personal belief with her to the blocks in order to avoid a repeat of her 2009 World Swimming Championships performance.
“I struggled initially after Beijing with the expectation on me and worried too much about achieving for other people,” she admits.
And that struggle showed when, in Rome, Rebecca experienced not a failure by any means, but certainly a comparative failure given the previous year’s exploits. Two bronze medals in the 400m freestyle and 4 x 200m freestyle were accompanied by a surprise fourth place finish in her favourite event, the 800m freestyle, which proved, perhaps, that the weight of expectation had become too much to bear.
However, all is experience, and this is one Rebecca has certainly learnt from. “Now I simply try to focus on myself and what I have to do,” she says. “There may be additional nerves for all British athletes; however it’s a question of channeling this in a positive way and feeding off the buzz from the home crowd.
“I’ve had four years to prepare myself mentally so I try not to worry about performing well for everyone and simply focus on myself and the close team.”
There was talk after Beijing that Rebecca might not even be a part of London 2012 with people, including her nan, questioning why she might want to carry on after securing such success. But Rebecca insists giving up never crossed her mind.
“I was only 19 when I won in Beijing and I love everything about swimming, so I never considered retiring,” she says. “Swimming has been such an important part of my life, ever since I can remember. Giving up after Beijing wasn’t even a consideration.”
But there have since been new reports that retirement is on the cards, should she either have a successful run or fail to qualify for London. She soon puts that straight.
“Eventually everyone has to retire,” she laughs, “but I don’t have any plans to retire at the moment and I don’t have any injuries which would force me to retire either.”
“Once the Olympics have passed I’ll take some time to decide my future plans. As a swimmer it’s very important to concentrate on the next event and right now that’s the Olympic trials. Once that’s done, it’s then the Olympics and after that I might think about what I want to do.
“If I qualify then the aim would be to enjoy the experience of a home Olympics and hopefully perform to my best – if that’s good enough to win medals then great.
“Simply I love swimming, so never think about stopping. Its my life and I love it. Its my job – and I’m lucky that I can do something I love.”
Jessica Whittington, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine