London: Twelve days shy of her 24th birthday, Rebecca Adlington admitted on Tuesday that she was simply too old to keep up with the new generation of water babies as she announced her retirement from competitive swimming. “I felt old at 23, sad to say,” she said as she reflected on the London Olympics of last summer and how she lost her 800 metres freestyle crown to 15-year-old American Katie Ledecky.
“Female distance swimming is going a lot, lot younger. Female swimming in general is getting younger and in loads of different events in London — the 100 breaststroke, the 400 medley — they were all 15 and 16-year-old girls who were winning. I certainly can’t compete with that. I’ve noticed over the years that I can’t do the same level of work as I used to be able to do and I need a lot more rest and recovery. It was just time to go. It was natural and I’ve achieved everything that I wanted to achieve.”
The career of an elite female swimmer may appear brutally short but Adlington’s six years as a senior competitor have been time enough for her to amass the largest medal collection by a British swimmer. The highlight, she said, was naturally her Olympic golds in the 400m and 800m freestyle in Beijing in 2008 — the latter in a world-record time (8min 14.10sec) that still stands — but there were also the two bronzes she won in London and 13 other medals garnered from world and European Championships and the Commonwealth Games.
She is, without question, the greatest British swimmer of all time. At a press conference in central London, Adlington said a post-Olympic break from training had given her the taste for life outside the pool and she would not miss the daily 5.15am alarm call nor the 25-hours-a-week training regime that had been her routine for the past decade. She has also “enjoyed eating chips” and added: “I’ve got to be careful. I’m not exactly the smallest girl, am I?”
Although her competitive career is over, Adlington insists her involvement with swimming is definitely not. Having recently qualified as a ‘level two’ swimming teacher, she has plans to go into partnership with a leisure operator to roll out a learn-to-swim programme for young children entitled ‘Becky Adlington’s Swim Stars’.
“I want to create a legacy, which is trying to get every single child to be able to swim 25 metres before they leave primary school,” she said. “That would be my absolute goal in life. I know it’s very ambitious but I wouldn’t have said five years ago that I would have had four Olympic medals in my drawer at home. I know with a lot of hard work, you can achieve things. It’s such a life skill and it would overtake anything I’ve achieved medal-wise. It would be the greatest legacy of all for every child in the UK to be able to swim.”
She also plans to mentor up-and-coming elite swimmers and does not rule out a closer involvement with British Swimming in future years now that her long-term coach, Bill Furniss, has been elevated to the position of head coach. Among those paying tribute to Adlington’s achievements on Tuesday was the greatest Olympian of all time, American swimmer Michael Phelps, who said: “Her accomplishments speak for themselves. She has been a great representative for British Swimming and the sport overall.”
Lord Coe, chairman of the British Olympic Association, said she had inspired a generation of young people to take up swimming. “Her down-to-earth personality and remarkable career achievements have made her a national treasure,” he said. Adlington said the secret of her success was down to “sheer hard work” and she confessed to being so single-minded in training that other swimmers were sometimes “a bit scared”.
She said: “Some people don’t know how to deal with somebody who is so driven. I’m not there to make it fun for everyone else. You always get one person on the team who has a laugh with everyone and messes around but I’ve never been that person. If you swim across me during my swim session, I’m just going to swim over the top of you, so you don’t want to get in my way. I think that attitude has helped me to get where I am because I don’t think an athlete can get to the top without being a bit selfish.”
Asked how she would like to be remembered as an elite competitor, Adlington said she hoped her performances had raised expectations among British swimmers. “I’d like to be remembered as someone who helped people have a bit more confidence and belief in themselves. Before Beijing, no one ever expected a British swimmer to get two gold medals, so hopefully the younger guys coming up can see that it’s possible. I’m just a girl from Mansfield, and I’ve done it.”