Rebecca Adlington’s tears as she stood on the podium to receive her bronze medal after the Olympic 800 metres freestyle final last month at the London Aquatics centre were not simply because she felt she had let people down, but because she knew this had been her last Olympic appearance.
The greatest British Olympic swimmer of all time with two gold and now two bronze medals may only be 23 years old, but she is already calling time on her Olympic career at least, and is far from clear whether she will even make it to the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, let alone the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Even if she does, her 800 metre days, once her flagship event, are over.
Having won a bronze medal in the 400 metres freestyle final to add to her 400 metres gold in Beijing Adlington was the favourite to defend her 800 metres title but trailed home third behind the 15-year-old from America, Katie Ledecky, in a slower time than she achieved in the British trials.
She announced immediately afterwards that she would need to evaluate before deciding on her future. Now, less than a fortnight before she embarks on a charity cycle ride in Africa, she has reached a decision of Olympic proportions.
“Rio is out of reach,” she admitted last night. “I’ll be 27 years old and swimming, especially for distance swimmers, is a young person’s game. Do I want to carry on and not get any faster? The answer is no. I know what it’s like to stand on a medals podium. Everyone’s different, of course. Some swimmers are happy to carry on, even if they have little chance of winning medals in the future. But I don’t want to swim unless it’s at a very high standard. If I was a sprinter then I’d go to Rio but I don’t have an ounce of sprinting in me, and that’s why my Olympics are over.”
That is some statement for one of our most famous, high-achieving and high-profile female sports stars who burst into British hearts as a golden teenager and who has ended her Olympic career just four years’ later.
“Physically I’m ready to finish completely,” she admitted. “Mentally it’s still in my heart.”
This is why she may compete for the final time at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014, although not in the 800 metres, the distance she smashed a 19-year-old world record when she took gold at the 2008 Beijing Games in 8 minutes, 14.10 seconds, and also won the world title twice, and the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medal.
“If I were to race in Glasgow – and that’s an if – then it would be in the 200 and 400 metres, but definitely not the 800 metres. I’m done with that distance. I have a holiday and then the bike ride and there are many other things I plan to be doing, so it may be that I decide after that to call it a day completely. I’d like to be in Rio, though, even if I’m just a fan. Hopefully I can be a bit more than that, like a mentor, or have some kind of official or unofficial role with the British swimming team. I’d love the chance to be able to give back and share my own Olympic experiences with the Rio team.”
As Britain’s most successful swimmer it is something she feels she can contribute to right now, and is irked that British swimming has ignored her own credentials in favour of Conor O’Shea, the Harlequins Director of Rugby, Bow Bowman, Michael Phelps’s coach, two time German Olympic medallist Thomas Lurz and British Swimming’s National Performance Director, Michael Scott, who is an Australian.
“You can never get enough help or gain enough knowledge after any sporting event but I wish they’d asked me or my coach, Bill Furniss, because we’re the only ones who really know what’s going on poolside,” Adlington explained. “Michael Scott’s not poolside and is in Australia a lot and the others don’t know what’s going on here. Britain is very different to America or Australia or China. We don’t have the collegiate system for starters. We have to make do with the tools at our disposal.”
What does she make of British swimming’s perceived failure at London, where they won a silver medal with Michael Jamieson and two bronzes through Adlington?
“I think it’s been exaggerated,” she said. “We won three medals in the pool in Beijing, too, although they were two golds and a bronze. London was still better than Sydney or Athens, and we had a record number of finalists which bodes well for the future.”
That said she feels mistakes were made.
“I think the reason why I swam slower in the Olympic final than at any point during the year is because our first trials last March were too early,” she explained. “It’s something both Bill, my coach, and I agree on. Most of the British swimmers swam their fastest times before the Games, too. We have a 15-week cycle, which is why we all swam so well in our June trials. But it was too long to hang on to that form for London. The first trials would have been better held in April. I’ve trained and raced well all season but swam slower when it really mattered. I wasn’t upset with the bronze in the 800 metres. It was the time.”
So what now? The immediate future is planned. Adlington leaves for a week’s holiday today before embarking on a 10-day charity trip to Zambia in a fortnight’s time in which she will cycle 280 miles in four days.
“Mel Marshall (former teammate) asked me last January if I wanted to come and I jumped at the chance to do something completely out of my comfort zone and face a new challenge. I haven’t ridden a bike since I started swimming properly at 12 so I fell off a few times to begin with, and with camping in the jungle it’s going to be tough, but something I’ve always wanted to do, especially as we’re raising funds for Sport in Action which aims to build a treatment centre next to a swimming pool in Zambia.”
On her return she has a number of swimming days with schools and has hopes of skiing holidays, and even a trip to Australia to catch up with friends.
“I’m excited and scared about the future,” Adlington confessed. “Swimming is all I’ve ever known. It’s what I’ve done since a small child and it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. Sometimes I look at people in swimming and wonder why they do it because you have to absolutely love every aspect of being a full-time swimmer. It’s the only way you will win medals. But I’ve also missed doing things normal 23-year-olds can do. I’m looking forward to that and I’m so proud of what I’ve been able to achieve. After the next few weeks of travelling and other commitments I’ll have a better idea of whether I want any more five o’clock in the morning starts, and the hard, hard training that’s required. I may not. I may be finished completely. All I know for sure is that three Olympic is one too many for me.”
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