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Challenges Old And New For Adlington

Feb 5, 2013  - Craig Lord

In her last extensive interview as an elite competitor on the eve of announcing her retirement, Rebecca Adlington speaks to Craig Lord about her career, the team (coach, swimmers, parents, psychologist, sports scientist, agent) the journey, the highs and lows, the next chapter and her mission, her greatest challenge and potentially her greatest legacy that is all still to come 

Becky Adlington's SwimStars initiative aims to have every child in Britain able to swim a length before leaving primary school

Much was made today of Rebecca Adlington retiring from racing at "just 23", two weeks shy of her 24th birthday. She might have gone at 19 and never made the defence of her two Olympic swimming titles at home Olympic Games in London last year had it not been for two lifesavers, she believes.

If the "unconditional support" of coach Bill Furniss at a time of confusion and struggle kept her in the water, then the help of a psychologist saved the career of a "an overwhelmed 19-year-old who had no way of coping" with her new-found status as a household name in Britain back in 2008.

Adlington made the Britain youth team 10 years ago and showed medal-winning promise at a youth Olympics event in Paris in 2003. She arrived at the Olympics proper in Beijing a debutante with a good prospect of winning a medal in the 800m freestyle. She left China as the most successful British swimmer since Henry Taylor claimed three gold medals at 1908. 

A truly unexpected victory in the 400 metres (Pellegrini, Hoff, Manaudou all in the hunt before her) and shared podium debut with teammate and friend Joanne Jackson was followed by a second triumph, over 800m, her 8mins 14.10sec effort breaking the oldest surviving world record in the sport, one that had stood to American Janet Evans since the British champion was six months old back in 1989.

In the 800 final too was Cassie Patten, on her way to the podium for bronze in the marathon alongside another Britain teammate, silver medallist Keri-Anne Payne. Patten emerged from the 800 final, found the Britis media and sent a message to Her Majesty: Come on Queenie, make my mate Becky a Dame. Her wish may now be granted, Adlington's tally beyond even that of Dame Kelly Holmes from Britain track and field.

Television crews greeted Adlington, her parents Kay and Steve and sisters Chloe and Laura, when they arrived back home from China. There were bus-top tours of Nottinghamshire, the keys to Mansfield, a gift of golden kitten heels from designer Jimmy Choo, while Nottingham's Sherwood Baths, where she had long trained, were renamed after her, as was a high-speed train. Interview requests came in almost daily for the next six months.

"It was life-changing in many respects," Adlington tells me in her last lengthy interview before her official goodbye as a four-times Olympic medal winner with world, European and Commonwealth crowns to her credit. "I just didn't know who to turn to, how to relate to people," she said. Her parents' down-to-earth approach had helped: "They didn't know how to cope with this huge change in our lives either. 

"It was a completely new situation," added Adlington. "You could end up thinking yourself quite grand but I was never going to end up arrogant because of the great team around me, my coach, a family that would never have let me be big-headed, and the psychologist. You don't go into swimming for the fame, let alone the fortune. I had hopes, dreams, we'd worked hard, I set goals but I didn't think for a moment that I'd win two Olympic golds. It was huge. I was an overwhelmed 19-year-old who had no way of coping. It came to me all at once, almost overnight."

With the help of Furniss, who on Monday was appointed Britain head coach on the way to the Rio 2016 Games, Adlington turned to Simon Middlemas, a 30-something psychologist working with the English Institute of Sport. "Simon and the work I did with him helped me get through some difficult times. People just expected me to win two gold medals whenever I got in the water. Its not their fault but there just didn't understand how difficult that is. I read I'd made it look easy but it wasn't easy at all. The process I worked on with Simon turned it around."

Midlemas, now 35, sums up his approach in simple terms: "Confidence is lost when you start to focus on the wrong things. I encourage my swimmers to simply go in and enjoy the moment and remember they can’t control the outcome. I talk a lot about process over outcome. You should set yourself process goals, which can be as simple as setting your alarm half an hour earlier each day so you can get up and do a little bit of exercise. If you focus on one huge outcome goal, every day you don’t achieve it you are likely to feel demoralised."

Adlington now urges others who could benefit from psychological help to ignore the stigma that is sometimes attached to "strengthening mental health", noting: "I'm not ashamed to say I worked with Simon and that I had to learn how to cope. He helped me get through it; I wouldn't have coped through the last four years without him. A lot of people shy away from working with sports psychologist but I am so proud to have worked with Simon. I don't think it was weak of me."

It was Midlemas she dined with last Wednesday telling Furniss of her decision to move on and put her energies into "Becky Adlington's SwimStars Initiative", her "lifelong mission of safety first" to get every child in Britain to swim at least one length before they leave primary school". She described that as her greatest challenge and what she would like to be her greatest legacy, one that transcends personal achievement.

Expect success to follow success: be it Michael Phelps the swimmer turned golfer or Jamie Oliver in kitchen and then irritating the hell out of schools ministers around the world in an effort to get them to feed children good food, Adlington is another extremely high achiever at a young age who has the drive to make it happen again if passion is part of the sequel.

No surprise to find that during her down time away from training post-London 2012 and beyond a 450km chary bike ride in Africa, Adlington has earned her level 2 swim teaching qualification in Britain. "I've loved doing it," she says. "Swimming has been my passion - and remains my passion, including the next step into grass roots levels and aiming to have every child swim a length."

Her own journey started when she followed her sisters to the pool - only to overtake them, in the water and on the scale of commitment. "To start with swimming was all about being very social, growing up in the water when we all went swimming as a family and with a nice group of friends at the club. It wasn't until I was 12 or about that that I kind of thought 'this is more than that'. I loved it," says Adlington. 

"I would come home from school and say 'can I go swimming, please can I go'. I never snoozed through the alarm. My sisters had to be dragged out of bed but it was never like that for me. I genuinely loved it," she adds. "Often teenagers fizzle out through school, boys and all that stuff. I wanted to go to bed so that I could get up and go back the next day ready for more in the pool."

Even after Beijing and into her 20s, she never drank, got to bed on time, turned down the distractions that would take her off her intended path. "Some people struggled with that. They couldn't really cope with me being 'too serious' and not 'letting go' sometimes. But I knew what i wanted and I was prepared to do what I had to do."

There had never been a moment where she "knew" she would make a team, the Olympic team, the Olympic podium. "I didn't think I would make the Olympic team until I made the team: I always dreamt and hoped but didn't ever think 'yes, I can do that'." Events contribute to the break on belief, perhaps in a helpful way: Adlington just missed out on 2004 selection, got to attend the pre-games camp courtesy of an invitation from then director Bill Sweetenham, and had a down season in 2005 when her sister Laura became gravely ill after contracting encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). 

Adlington returned to form in 2006, picking up silver over 800m at the European Championships in 2006. Gladular fever intervened and while she had recovered in time for the 2007 world titles in Melbourne, she raced below par and missed the 800m final.

A blessing in disguise, she believed: "I swam rubbish, it was one of those things where you think, Holy crap, what happened there," recalls Adlington. "I got home and worked my butt off … I worked and worked and worked and worked and got to trials hoping to make the Games. I was over the moon to make it to Beijing and the times reflected the work we'd put in. The rewards finally started to flow and just at the right time."

She and Furniss thought she could "sneak a bronze in 800m … that was our target". She made the 400m final but it "never occurred to me to make podium … there was Pellegrini, Manaudou, Hoff. Then it happened and I was on the podium with Jo [Jackson], which made it all the more special." The 800m looked likely to deliver another great success? Not quite, says Adlington. "Even after the 400, I did not get complacent: I knew there were totally different people in 800."

After a fine heats swim, Furniss said to his pupil: you could get the world record tomorrow [in the final]. "I said Bill! Shut Up!" No more was said. By the 400m mark in the 800m final, Adlington felt she could not lose. "It was scary: I felt so good and I looked and thought 'well, surely no one can catch me from here."

Then at 500m, she thought: maybe there;s someone out in 8 that I haven't seen. "I didn't want to have a proper look," Adlington recalled. "I just put my head down and thought, give it everything you've got. I kept focussed, I was pushing and pushing myself to go on and realised the pain it was causing me. At some point between 500 and 600 I thought 'crap, this is killing me': 200 to 300 from home my legs felt like they were burning, like they were on fire, like someone was rubbing a snap blade up and down my shins, sharpening it," said Adlington. "I just kept telling myself: come on, you can do it. I saw Bill going mental but still didn't know what was happening [on clock and in the race]."

When she touched and looked up at the scoreboard "it was like 'oh my God! … I just couldn't believe it, the time". The moment lives on in her: "I still get nervous watching the video because the emotions come flooding back. Its very vivid in my mind. The 400 too: with that, its like "did I really win that?!"

Which means more, the 400 or the 800 win? "That's a hard one because they were totally different races, and the 400 was special because it was the first and because Jo was there with me.  But for the 800, the race I've always thought of as mine and loved it, my parents were there, I got the world record and I could fully relax at the end knowing the job was done. I never thought at any time in my career that I would have a world record. It's nice to be part of that history and to know that your name will always be in the programme at the Olympics. 

Furniss once said of his charge: "She has a tremendous ability to tolerate physical pain. It is brutal and she can do that." She had always shown “steel” and had been a “perfectionist … someone who is very willing to pay the price that’s required in terms of physical pain and psychological concentration and the application that’s required".

There's a note of hard-edge in the laughter around Adlington's words as she says: "I've never shied away from hard work and I'm still not afraid to push to limit and beyond but all athletes have to analyse the situation and decide if they want to go … I never want to be in place where I can't get back to where I was."

Asked what she would miss most, she choked back a tear and replied: "Bill. Its the saddest part of this. He has been like a second dad. I'll miss not seeing him every day after 11 years of it. I was sorting my stuff out and putting my swim things in boxes when I came across all the cards Bill sent me every years to say 'well done, I'm proud of you'. I read them and just burst in to tears." Just as Steve Parry, Olympic 200 'fly medallist from 2004, called to see how she was doing. Adlington laughs as she says she told Parry, through a bit of blubbing, that she was fine. 

She then notes: "It would not make sense to stay with it just in case I wouldn't see Bill each day. We all have to move on."

The past will always be present in some respects. Adlington talks about the deep bond that she believes she and Furniss will always have because of a deep, shared experience, one that not even parents, teammates and others are entirely in on. The relationship was one of absolute faith and trust, both ways and yes, she agreed, it wasn't dissimilar to the feelings she imagined people who served in a battle together might have felt. "We've been through so much together, he's helped me personally and professionally; we worked so hard for so long together. I'm going to miss that," she added.

So, how and when did you tell Furniss that the time had come - and what did he say? "The good thing about Bill is that I don't have to say stuff … he just knows and that was so much of what made us a special team: he just knows, I don't need to tell him much. I didn't have to tell him I was tired, he knew; I didn't have to tell him that something had gone wrong or someone or something had upset me, he knew. He was 100% comfortable with my decision to stop. He just looked at me, without me saying much at all, and said 'yes, you've done everything, it makes sense and I'm 100% behind you'.

"He always supported me in that spirit. If I had said I wanted to race on, he would have told me the truth, told me if he thought I should go and not go on past my best as so many do. Most people are 50-50 when its time to go; some wasn't to finish on a high and some want to see how long they can keep on getting away with it!"

Looking back at her 12-13-year-old self, she added: "I've always said from being younger that I wanted to finish on a high, no matter what that was going to be. I'll always be a swimmer, of course. I will always swim. Its the best way for me to keep fit."

Her reasons to go, beyond waning motivation, are practical. "M body is just not the same. I can't do now what I could do at 18 and 19. If I could sprint I could move down. Bill looked at it and told me, frankly, that I would not have been able to achieve what I have done in distance by moving down. So what would be the point? My love is the 800 but my body cannot keep doing that kind of work. I've really noticed that in the recent times, the rest and recovery I need gets bigger and bigger."

Ian Thorpe, the four-time Olympic champion for Australia who turned to a psychologist before his retirement in 2006, noted the importance of having new goals when he said: "I'm delighted that she's decided to create her own legacy, establishing swimming as a 'life skill' is such an important crusade."

Unlike Thorpe, there will be no comeback for Adlington, who said: "So many make comebacks because they have regrets over things that they left unfinished. I've been going to the pool on my own for a while to give myself time and space to think. I had to be ready in my heart, mind and body and I had to make sure it was coming from me. I've thought about it long and hard because I didn't want to be one of those with regrets. I'm 100% certain: I'm definitely ready to go and will move on with no regrets and no reason to make a comeback."

She felt she had finished on a high and achieved everything she could, her body "no longer able to do the work needed to keep pace" with teenagers such as 15-year-old American Olympic 800m champion Katie Ledecky, who reminded her of herself back in Beijing. "I can't compete with that and can't do the same level of work. I need a lot more rest and recovery. I think it was the perfect time," said Adlington.

Among tributes that poured in after Adlington's announcement was one from Ledecky. Showing maturity beyond her years on dryland just as she did in water, she paid this tribute to Adlington: "I have enormous respect for Rebecca Adlington and for the great passion and excellence she brought to the sport of swimming. I will always remember how gracious she was to me in London following our race. She retires as the world record holder in the 800m freestyle and she is one of the greatest Olympic swimming champions of all time. Her legacy will always stand and I wish her well and much success in her future.

"I hope she will continue to stay in the sport of swimming and that I will have future opportunities to see her."

Although double gold was followed by double bronze at London 2012, Adlington was keen to emphasise that she "was not disappointed with bronze, I was only disappointed by the time in the 800m freestyle - it was my slowest all season and that hurt". She placed some responsibility for that on leaders who insisted on Olympic trials five months before the Games, the timing of which left her struggling to pace her season properly. 

The tears she shed after her second bronze medal Adlington were "tears of joy not sorrow" as the crowd chanted her name. "I didn't think I deserved that heartwarming chant … it was such a heart-warming moment. That's what's special about a home Games; I would never have got that elsewhere. It was my favourite moment from the whole Games, a career highlight I will remember for the rest of my life."

Reflecting on two gold, two bronze in that order, Adlington said: "Maybe it would have been nice other way round. There was a lot of expectation there for London. For me, I cannot believe that I got bronze in the 400. I was crying after the heats because I came so close to missing the final. I was in lane 8 or 1 - can't remember which [lane 8] - and I will always treasure the fact that I made the podium - that was just unbelievable."

That the 800m was her slowest big swim of the season (she went faster 3 times elsewhere) was something that still hurt. There were lessons for British swimming in there too, she believed, noting: "I pride myself on having stepped up at major meets but I ended with a moment in which I was unable to step it up. The thing that makes it a lot better and easier to deal with it knowing that I could not have done anything differently. Dennis [Pursley, head coach] and Michael [Scott, performance director] opted for early March trials and that was something that affected me in a bad way. It was nothing something I could do anything about. I was still lucky to have been able to swim the way I did."

Many who retire from elite sport feel the draw once more the moment they watch the national team leave for a big competition without them. Adlington feared that moment back in December when the world short-course championships were staged in Istanbul. "I sat a home and watched and I didn't want to be there and I knew that it was time to move on. I know what it feels like to sit and watch a world championships supporting from home or wherever; I love being part of it but no longer racing. I'm ok with not being in the race any more."

A mark of a champion can be found in the thanks they give for those who have helped them on the way. Perkins, Egerszegi, Meyer, Gould, Baumann, Phelps all spring to mind. 

Adlington posted a note of thanks on her website. Among those who have meant much to her was a former training partner of mine, Mike Peyrebrune, a sports scientists engaged by Furniss and his charge the day after Beijing was in the bag. "He's been great," said Adlington. I've worked with him since Beijing and often the things that can count for so much are the little things that give you that little, critical bit more. Finding the little things, getting those little things right can make a big difference."

Rob Woodhouse, her agent and an Olympic swimming medallist for Australia in 1984, also played a stole critical to keeping Adlington on the podium from 2008 to 2012, Adlington citing him as an example of the kind of relationship the serious athlete needs to remain successful. "He has been the absolute perfect choice for me as an agent. As soon as I met  Rob, it clicked and fitted, straight away. He had come from a swimming background; he got it; he got the sports thing; he just understood my goals and what I wanted to achieve - and never got in the way of that. He always understood the need for down time with family and my boyfriend. He's been easy to communicate with."

She added: "Swimming is so different to other sports: it is 99.9% training, 50 weeks a year, over 25 hours a week of had work in the water. he gets that, he knows what it feels like. He's also become a friend, someone I can have a laugh with. He's similar to Bill in many ways: he doesn't get stressed and need heart to hearts all the time. Bill was so on board with Rob from the start. It worked out really well."

Furniss may welcome wish to recommend the Woodhouse way of working to others who make the top grade in the sport and face similar pressures to those Adlington faced. Peyrebrune may also play a role in what follows for Britain: he has longed worked with Furniss and will surely have a role to play in the future of the national team and the flow of talent to it. 

Adlington, of course, welcomes her mentor's rise to head coach. "They [the new leadership team] have got a lot to sort out after a debrief over six months and all the changes that are flowing from that. Bill will have a lot to do with that and Chris [Spice, performance director] has a lot to learn about the sport. It will take some time."

In that sense, there will be those, not without justification, who wonder whether a leader from within the sport of swimming might now have been the better choice to take on the performance task. Time will tell.

On the head coach side, Adlington has no doubts at all. From her perspective, "Bill is best the coach in world. Its perfect timing, and time for him to pass on what he has learned in more than 30 years of coaching. There's so much experience there and I think he'll work well with the other coaches. He was the right person for the job."

In a hint at one of the criticism of the British swimming board from leaders gone by, Adlington added: "Hopefully, he can run things the way he believes best, the way his thoughts and ideas tell him is the right way, pass that on and see the sport grow."

Besides setting up the SwimStars programme, Adlington will spend the next year travelling and going on her first skiing holiday with girlfriends, life on the piste forbidden to those who cannot afford broken bones on the way to Olympic dreams. Some, she said had "found me hard to cope with and too serious because I refused to drink, to stay up late, to stick to the discipline you need if you're going to meet your goals", said Adlington. 

"Sleeping in, ignoring the alarm clock" and planning a future and a family with boyfriend and fellow swimmer in Nottingham Harry Needs ("just 21", so "lots of time"), are also on her list of "things I can do now that I have all my life ahead of me".

The last words to the couple who made it all possible: Kay and Steve. Would they be there to see Adlington wave goodbye via the media in London? You bet. "They wanted to be there," said their daughter. "Mum and dad said that they were there for my first swimming lesson; they were there in India, Australia, Beijing, Shanghai, all over Europe, they've travelled everywhere to see me race and support me. It is only fair and right that they should be there when I say goodbye too: its been their career as well, their medals, their effort. It was the right thing for them to be there."

We wish a great champion who made it a privilege to be there all the very best for all that follows.