When in 2008 Rebecca Adlington gave her first major interview seven days after swimming from obscurity to stardom in world record time, conversation turned to her favourite TV show. “OH MY GOD! That would be just sooooo amaaaazing!” she told this newspaper in Beijing, when asked about a possible turn on Strictly Come Dancing. “I’ve heard there’s been an invitation to go on A Question of Sport, but Strictly would be something else. Do you think I could get on Top Gear as well? I’d love that!”
It was the sort of wide-eyed response – a mix of awe, naivety and nervous energy – that had so endeared an increasingly giddy nation to British sport’s brightest new arrival. With two gold medals in the 400 and 800 metres freestyle at the Beijing Games, an unknown teenager from Mansfield had achieved more in in a single Olympics than any homegrown swimmer for a century. And we greeted her as gleefully as she did the gold Jimmy Choo shoes presented to her at her homecoming parade.
There would be no time for TV – Adlington leapt straight back into training for London 2012 – but five years on from Beijing she has her wish. Free from the sacrifices of sport after her retirement in February, the 24-year-old is not dancing for votes (she revealed in August that Strictly had turned her down) but doing battle in the I’m a Celebrity jungle. And in that programme’s harsher light, her crawl from clear water of swimming into the celebrity swamp has appeared fraught. Whether she likes it or not, Adlington has become a case study – of a young athlete searching for a second career while displaying a vulnerability in a culture that can be cruel even to champions.
She won’t know it yet, but the swimmer’s apparent plight went all the way to the House of Lords on Wednesday. A debate there followed an episode of I’m a Celebrity in which Adlington broke down in tears while talking about body image, and about one of her rivals – a pneumatic Miss Universe contestant. “It’s making me very, very insecure that I have to look a certain way,” she said. “I was an athlete. I wasn’t trying to be a model, but pretty much every single week on Twitter I get somebody commenting on the way I look.”
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, the Paralympic champion, despaired of “a worrying trend that young women are increasingly put under pressure to conform to look a certain way.” Baroness Northover, who speaks about women and equalities for the Government, added: “It is enough to make me weep to hear about Rebecca Adlington… We should be proud of what she’s achieved.” Yet the scrutiny has only intensified while a “mystery illness” excludes the swimmer from I’m a Celebrity’s bushtucker trials. Critics (male, mostly) have taken aim, as if the trials, with their plastic-star rewards, mattered in the case of an athlete with four Olympic medals.
Adlington’s journey to the jungle began at the Sherwood swimming baths in Mansfield, since renamed the Rebecca Adlington Swimming Centre. Her parents, Steve and Kay Adlington, had only wanted their daughters to learn to swim but Rebecca, the youngest of three, quickly emerged as a gifted and fierce competitor, rising fast through the county ranks. Not otherwise sporty or suited to academia, she passed her GCSEs and then devoted her life to swimming with Nottinghamshire’s elite Nova Centurion squad. By then she was already developing concerns about body image. “We’ve tried to bring the girls up to believe it’s about who you are not what you look like,” Kay Adlington, 52, said last week. “But my daughter’s always had insecurities about the way she looks.”
Sharron Davies, the Olympic swimmer turned BBC presenter and reality TV star (Dancing on Ice, 2010), met Adlington four years before Beijing, when the 15-year-old came second in the 800 metres at the British championships, narrowly missing out on the qualifying time for the 2004 Games. “I was amazed by her tenacity and level-headedness,” she recalls. “She would never give up.”
Adlington went back to training and, as Beijing approached, she remained unknown outside the sport, a position Davies says suited an athlete who struggled with nerves. “It was a lot easier coming in under the radar whereas in London in 2012 the pressure had become extraordinary,” she says.
Filled with confidence after her shock 400 metre victory, Adlington smashed the oldest world record in her sport in the 800 – and life changed in an instant. But before she could adjust to the fun of fame, it was soon coloured by snide comments on social media and beyond. When Frankie Boyle, a Scottish comedian who has made a career out of being nasty, made a joke on a panel show about Adlington’s appearance, it prompted public outrage, a formal complaint by the swimmer, and a reprimand from the BBC Trust.
With each setback, support for Adlington only grew. She employed a psychologist to help regain her focus, and promised to stop reading the comments, good or bad. The approach worked, and in 2011, the swimmer became the world 800-metre champion, arriving in London the following year as one of the faces of Team GB. But time was running out. In an event dominated by youth, 23 was, she admitted after her retirement, pretty old. No longer able to recover as quickly after training sessions, she was being overtaken by a new generation. The two bronze medals she won in London seemed like a disappointment to some, but Adlington has said they became a source of great pride.
On the day she retired in February. Adlington launched SwimStars, an awareness and teaching campaign that she hopes will reverse a drop in swimming participation among the very young. She is training as a coach but, as Davies says, after a life of lengths and chlorine, she also loves the “the glitz and glamour” of fame – and did not hesitate to accept the I’m a Celebrity invitation. “The show hopefully gives me a chance to talk about my vision of teaching kids to swim,” she wrote on her website.
Adlington perhaps did not account for the priorities of the show’s editors, or media lapping up jungle intrigue. But those who know her say it would be wrong to think she regrets her appearance after one tearful episode. Davies sympathises with Adlington’s concerns about body image. “When I was young and people wrote nasty things in a paper, it was tomorrow’s fish and chip paper – today it stay with you forever.” But, she adds, “nobody becomes double Olympic gold medallist unless you’re really tough in every single area of life. She’ll be fine.”
Rob Woodhouse has managed Adlington’s since her Beijing breakthrough. “Even then she was mature beyond her years as well as being a lovely person, and she still is,” he says. “And remember she’s still 24. She went on the show to have fun and that’s what she’s doing. She’s shown very clearly this year that she’s capable of managing a difference phase of her life and career.”
If Adlington does return from the jungle feeling burned by the glare of reality TV, she might yet choose to withdraw to her new life as coach, and the home she shares with her fiancé, a swimmer called Harry Needs. Davies says she “has no huge desire to be in front of camera for ever.” In February, Adlington spoke to journalists beside a Derby pool filled with paddling toddlers, where she appeared to suggest relative anonymity may suit her. “I love teaching the three- and four-year-olds who didn’t have a Scooby-doo who I was,” she said. “It was so nice they just thought I was another teacher.”
A Life In Brief
Born: Rebecca Adlington, 17 February 1989, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire.
Family: Youngest of three daughters. Parents are businessman Steve, and Kay, a former office manager. Engaged to fellow swimmer Harry Needs.
Education: GCSEs at the Brunts School, Mansfield.
Career: Began swimming with Sherwood Colliery Swimming Club and swam for Nottinghamshire at county level. Won gold in the 400m and 800m freestyle at 2008 Beijing Olympics. Gold medals followed at European and Commonwealth level. Won two bronze at London 2012. Retired from competitive swimming in 2013.
She says: “My vision is that every child in Britain will be able to swim 25m by the time they leave primary school.”
They say: “Her down-to-earth personality and remarkable career achievements have made her a national treasure.” Lord CoeReuse content