If Britain's Rebecca Adlington retains the Olympic 800m freestyle crown at the London Aquatics Centre on August 3, she may not only opt for retirement but could spend the rest of her life as reigning champion.
On the eve of Adlington's defence of the 400m and 800m freestyle titles at home, there is strong support for an American proposal to replace the longest event with a 1500m race in time for Rio 2016. By then, the teenage double champion of Beijing would be 27, no age to be taking on a distance “I never wanted to do”, she says.
Adlington may never have to. "If things don't go well [in London], I may feel there's unfinished business ... but I can’t see myself doing the 1500. If I’m happy that I’ve done what I can, I’d be ready to go. I would like to do more commentating [on swimming], ‘Strictly [Come Dancing, a TV show]’, I’d love to do it - and then I’d love to do the team manager’s job for Britain,” says a swimmer used to getting her way in the water - and sometimes out of it.
Back in 2009, USA Swimming shelved a campaign to replace the 800m with 1500m out of respect for Adlington and the 2012 hosts after the swimmer made it clear that she would want the chance to defend her 800m crown at home. But as the clock stops on August 3, Americans will press the IOC to call time on "gender inequality" in the pool in favour of bringing the race schedule for men and women in line for the first time since the fairer sex made its swimming debut at Stockholm in 1912.
A vote could take place as early as next year, an IOC source saying: "There are no real arguments against equality … this is about 100 years of progress for women in sport." The 800m entered the fray in 1968, Debbie Meyer (USA) the first champion. There is now widespread support for a theme raised by Bruce Wigo, head of the International Swimming Hall of Fame and organiser of a Multi-media tour of America entitled "From Bloomers to Bikinis: How the Sport of Swimming Changed Our Culture and the Status and Image of Women".
The relevant passage concluded: “Baron de Coubertin cringed at the thought of physically weak women collapsing on the track, but today women compete successfully in the same events as men on the road and track in the marathon [since 1984], at 5,000 and 3,000 meter distances. In the water polo tank, women compete in a game long considered by many to be too difficult for women. In the open water, men and women contest the same distance of 10 kilometers and men and women both swim 1500 meters at the FINA World Championships. But in the Olympics, one last vestige of Victorian thinking remains: now is the time to fix what should have been done in 1968 - change the women’s distance event from 800 meters to 1,500 for the 2012 London Games."
Make that Rio 2016 when the matter of a home defence is out of the way if the IOC's Programmes Commission votes with the strength of argument come the moment.
Adlington is already a pioneer in the book of her sport, with titles Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth, and a world record of 8:14.10 for one of the most dominant victories in Olympic swimming history to her credit. No-one would blame her for moving on after attempting what would be a rare success story at the end of 12 years of hard slog (see panel): since 1924 over 400m, only three women have managed to return to the podium after a debut medal, while over 800m since 1968, just two have repeated, Americans Janet Evans and Brooke Bennett retaining the title in 1992 and 2000 respectively.
Intent on more, Adlington has turned “doing general circuits with the squad” before Beijing into “one-to-one” work on areas of weakness with land conditioning expert Andy Hall alongside the Britain Olympic gymnastics team. "They laugh at me when I can't do something that's really basic to them. I'm like 'I can see you laughing - stop it!" says Adlington. No ballet with other members of the Britain team, then? "No! Can you imagine me doing Ballet! No, Just awful," she replies, Zumba what she has in mind as a keep-fit routine when she retires from racing.
Adlington has clearly given much thought to a post-swimming future of late and looks forward to "just being a bit more normal, like learning to cook properly like my mum, who's always been at the heart of the kitchen”. Among things she is looking forward to are “not being tired, to waking up and feeling like I can do stuff in the day and not be grumpy all the time," says a woman who always comes across as anything but, even under pressure.
“Like last night,” she recalls. “I really struggled in training and then I got out and picked up my wet bag and started walking down the side and Bill's [Furniss] like walking behind me." Adlington hunches her back Quasimodo-style. "He was taking the piss. I'm like 'Bill!'. He turned round to Harry [Needs, her boyfriend and fellow swimmer] and was like 'will you take this dead body home please'."
There’s a lightness to her as she talks on the theme of sleep, rest, glad rags, handbags, designer kitten heels and home comforts but there’s also steeliness, something of the Adrian Moorhouse about her. After his victory in the 100m breaststroke at the 1988 Games in Seoul, he "don't expect to see me stick my head through a box on children's telly so they can guess who I am 10 years from now".
He built a successful business in motivation instead. Adlington may build a swim school and trust or something of similar ilk aimed at ensuring not only that every child in Britain learns to swim but that far more of them grow into adults who make swimming a habit for health and fitness throughout life.
"She's passionate about swimming, not just kids but making sure adults are encouraged to swim," says her agent Rob Woodhouse, an Olympic medal-winning swimmer for Australia in 1984. "The projects she's working on have longevity in them. She isn't driven by the money but doing things she honestly believes in.”
That comes from home. Of parents Kay and Steve and sisters Chloe and Laura, Adlington notes: “They tell me to shut up. They don't spoil me in any way … I like that. Some people will come in a think that's a bit harsh but we're not, we're just honest and say it as it is ... it helps us all.”
The family will be in the stands this time round in London, the tickets nightmare (they fell foul to fraudsters) of Beijing behind them. Adlington knows she will get only support from home and coach Furniss whatever happens. And yes, she wished she knew how things are going to turn out.
Even when it comes to books and films, she has to take a peep at the ending before setting out.
“I’m a bit obsessed when it comes to films. I have to know the ending before I watch them so I look at it or find out the plot on Wikipedia,” she says. “When I read a book I must read the back page before the rest of it. I’m weird like that."
I ask 'so you know what will happen at London?" Adlington: "That I don't know. I definitely wish I did!"
Even so, once the race is done, she is not one for looking back over her shoulder. “I haven’t even seen my races from the worlds last year, it’s something I don’t do. My coach Bill has a thing on his iPad where you can break races down but I don’t watch the full race. I’ve watched the races from Beijing before but that was only because the whole family were there.”
Including her nan, who had an obsession of her own. “I can remember watching the 400 with my grandparents. My nan had watched it before and she knew how many steps I'd taken to get out to the pool; she knew how many arm strokes I'd taken. I was like 'alright …. this is a bit obsessive.' Bless her!" says Adlington through a belly laugh. “She just likes watching it. For me, I was just getting annoyed I was saying 'go on what are you doing ... why are you so far behind’ and I get angry. I know the outcome but I still get so nervous.”
The nerves will reappear on race days to come this month and next, as they always have. How to handle it? Adlington repeats the swimmers' mantra that you cannot control what happens in the next lanes - in which Lotte Friis and Katie Ledecky, the 15-year-old American who joined the sub-8:20 club at US trials in Omaha - but she will know that she has done "everything possible to be the best I can be ... I know I’ll be either happy or sad in London and hopefully it’ll be happy. Regardless of what happens I just want to keep improving and get faster.”
Evans’ textile best of 8:16.22 is still out there - as is Adlington’s 8:14.10 from Beijing in one of the most dominant displays of strength over rivals there has been. “And nothing can ever take that away,” says a woman who after her Beijing brace will be a champion forever in the hearts of Brits come what may in London.
Rebecca Adlington is an ambassador for British Gas: sponsor of the sport to the tune of £15m in Britain and supporter of the Great Britain swimming team, British Gas is giving away free swims in Britain as part of a nationwide health and fitness campaign.