Rebecca Adlington has announced that she would be ending her competitive swimming career. She has left some wonderful memories. It is always a bit more special when you have followed someone’s career as they have progressed through the ranks.
I think the first time I heard of Rebecca Adlington would have been around eight or
nine years ago. I am a keen follower of all sports and read the sports pages of the
local papers. Living in Nottinghamshire meant that even before she was well-known
elsewhere I was aware that we had a promising local swimmer. She won national
titles as a junior and started to make some of the senior national teams and I kept an
eye on her results.
I still wasn’t sure how good Becky was going to be. Things didn’t go very well for her
in 2006 and I thought that perhaps the height of her ambitions would be competing in
international championships and making the odd final. However, for me that changed
in early 2008. She appeared to be swimming well but it was at the world short course
championships in Manchester that I first thought she could win an Olympic gold. At
those short-course championships she won the 800m freestyle which demonstrated to
me that she could handle the pressure of a big championships. Short-course results
can be a little misleading as often some of the top competitiors aren’t there. This
meant that although I was gaining confidence it was no more than a feeling that she
would do well.
As the summer progressed it became clear that Becky was in great form. She swam
British records at 400m and 800m freestyle and my hunch was becoming stronger that
she would do well in Beijing. A few days before the Olympics began I was having a
meal with some friends. We were talking about the Olympics and they asked who I
thought would win golds for Britain. I went through some of the expected golds in
cycling and sailing before mentioning that I thought that Rebecca Adlington would
win one and possibly two golds. Despite my friends being quite keen sports fans and
Becky being a local girl they didn’t know about her. This seemed to be the general
situation in the country. In the build-up to the Games there hadn’t been much attention
paid to Adlington at all. I was starting to wonder if I was being unduly optimistic
about her chances when I read a preview in one of the national papers where their
swimming expert also tipped Becky for a gold medal. Relieved that I wasn’t the only
one who was backing Becky I sat down to watch the Games.
Becky’s first event was the 400m freestyle. This wasn’t her best event and there was a
hot favourite in world record holder Federica Pellegrini. I still had a feeling however
that Becky had a chance. This became much stronger after the heats. Pellegrini and
Adlington were drawn in the same heat and Pellegrini went out like a train. It seemed
that she was trying to lay down a marker by setting a super-fast time. Adlington set
off at a steady pace and maintained it to the end whereas Pellegrini faded badly and
only just held off Adlington.
For me this was a crucial race. Pellegrini either wasn’t in top form or was feeling the
pressure and when she faded so badly it scared her for the final. In that final she changed tactics and didn’t swim a good race at all. This meant that she gave the race away
when she should have won the gold. However, in that final Becky swam another
beautifully paced race to come through from the back and win gold.
Once she had won that race I was pretty certain she would take the 800m. That was a
great twenty minutes in the pool. The race before the 800m was the men’s 100m
butterfly where Phelps somehow took the race from Cavic inches from the end. I was
still in a state of disbelief from that when Becky’s race began. She just swam away from
everyone and broke Janet Evans’s twenty year old world record.
It is always difficult to mantain a peak level of performance after such a momentous
time and it was no great surprise that Rebecca’s performances suffered in the year
after the Olympics. It didn’t help that the world championshps were in Rome and
Pellegrini was in front of a home crowd. Becky also chose not to use a super-fast
swim suit. She attracted some unfair criticism for her performances there, which although a little disappointing, were understandable.
Being the figurehead of your sport brings extra pressure and it seemed to affect Becky
when she felt she had underperformed. She was in tears after what she felt was a poor
effort in the European championships. She recovered to win the 400m and was a Commonwealth Games gold medallist as well.
In 2011 she was not far off her best again and her race against Lotte Friis in the 800m
freestyle at the world championships was a classic. Friis had won the 1500m gold and
there was real concern that she would beat Becky. The two of them went neck-and-neck for the first 700m but in the final two lengths Becky kicked away to win convincingly.
Going into the London Olympics I thought that Becky would win the 800m again. I
wasn’t too surprised that she lost the 400m and I thought her performance there was a
good one. In the 800m I had reckoned without Katie Ledecky. The young American
had swum fast in the American Trials but nobody expected her to swim away from
the field in London. I , and I expect her rivals, thought that after a fast start she would
fade. Howver, she didn’t and when Adlington and Friis tried to chase her down they
couldn’t catch her and it wore them down. Friis slipped out of the medals and Becky
got bronze. I’m sure that if she hadn’t gone after Ledecky, Adlington would have got a
I think the arrival of Ledecky on the scene is one of the reasons Rebecca has decided
to retire. Ledecky looks like a tremendous prospect and being so young she will be
around for a long time. Becky has won everything there is to win and it is going to be
hard to add to that with such a good rival emerging.
I stopped competing in my sport after nine years where I trained six days a week,
although at a lower level than Becky. I stopped as I couldn’t motivate myself to carry
on training so I can understand Becky’s decision to retire. She is the greatest British
woman swimmer of all-time. Through it all she has always remained so well-
grounded and hasn’t let success change her. This is why she has been such a popular
figure in British sport and I am sure that she will be a great inspiration for future