Rebecca Adlington: Happy to teach doggy paddle. Just don't ask me to eat a dog

National treasure from the depths is passing on her enthusiasm by teaching children to swim. But she simply can't wait to get back in the water in Delhi. Nick Harris speaks to Rebecca Adlington

From the depths of despair to the ecstasy of Olympic gold, the moments that Rebecca Adlington considers to be the single worst of her life and the single best speak volumes for her priorities, and also her nature.

The worst came in 2005, the year before the Melbourne Commonwealth Games, an event Adlington hoped would be her first major senior meet. She never made it; she had a mild bout of glandular fever and then post-viral fatigue, and though she recovered to swim at the Games trials, the 16-year-old missed out. That is one reason she is relishing next month's Games in Delhi so much. Not that her worst moment had anything to do with her own illness back then.

Her sister Laura, two years older, also fell ill in 2005, with encephalitis. "She'd had a fever and was feeling really, really ill, and she'd gone into hospital and was on a normal ward getting tests, and then all of a sudden her eyes were back in her head, she grabbed mum's hand and went 'Call a nurse', and then had a fit," she says.

"I wasn't there when that happened but my other sister [Chloe] drove us to the hospital and when we arrived, the look on mum and dad's faces said it all. I'd never seen my dad cry before, ever. I just thought, 'Shit, this is really serious, we could lose her'. And people were saying, 'You've got to prepare for the worst'. And I was just saying, 'No! She's my sister'.

"Laura was in intensive care, and mum and dad were just crying their eyes out and they wouldn't let me see her in intensive care. They said, 'You're not remembering your sister like this'. They wanted me to remember Laura like she'd been. And that was it, awful. It's all a blur now. My mental state wasn't stable."

It was touch and go for a few days, but Laura's condition improved. She was moved from the ICU and, after a month, allowed home to continue a long, slow recovery.

Fast forward three years, to the best moment in Adlington's life to date, at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when the then teenager from Mansfield won gold in the 400m freestyle, and then, in world record-smashing time, the 800m. She says she "can't describe" the elation but explains it with infectious enthusiasm.

"It's so personal... swimming is so important to me. I love it and you can't adequately explain to someone else why you love something. To someone else swimming is just swimming, boring, whatever. To me I absolutely love to do what I do, and winning gold was a result of [training for] 365 days a year for 10 years."

So which medal was more special, the 400m or 800m? The reply is emphatic. "The 800, without a doubt," says Adlington, now 21. "I know the 400 was the first, and the shock medal. But the 800, getting the world record, meant everything. I was just so nervous beforehand, I thought I was going to cry, be sick, faint. I've never been so nervous. It's the one I wanted."

So when was the moment of elation? The touch? The home straight as she powered a whopping six seconds clear of her nearest rival? The medal ceremony? None of the above.

"It wasn't till I was back at the Village. The race was around 10 in the morning. I didn't leave pool till about half three. I had a drugs test, media, so busy. I left the pool at half three and had to be at a team meeting [in the athletes' village] at half four. The bus took half an hour, then I ran to McDonald's, ran back with a Big Mac, got really bad indigestion because I ran and ate at the same time, and then I went into the room and the whole team was sitting there.

"I was late and I said, 'I'm so, so sorry'. And then [fellow GB swimmer] Simon Burnett shouted, 'You've changed', because I was late! I just burst out laughing and then the whole team stood up and clapped, and that was it, [I thought] 'my God'. That's when it sank in.

"It was just so nice to have that experience with the rest of the team, who've helped you so much, and I know it sounds stupid and clichéd but while swimming is an individual sport there's so much to being part of a team. That was it, the moment."

Adlington's achievements since have been well-documented; adoption as a national treasure, a top-three finish at the 2008 Sports Personality of the Year award, being part of the fastest 400m race ever (at her first big post-Beijing event, the 2009 National Championships), then a mixed worlds in 2009 in Rome ("only" two bronze medals), and gold in the 400m in the recent European Championships in Budapest.

London 2012 is on the horizon, not that Adlington is taking anything for granted. "I'll need to qualify first, that's my main target," she says. She will possibly need to "move down" her events, focusing on her shorter distances, because at 23 – the age she will be when the London Olympics are held – "the body might not be able to do what it did at 18, 19".

Given this glancing acknowledgement to a finite career lifespan, has Adlington thought what she might do for a living when she hangs up her goggles? "No idea," she says, but she would like to remain in swimming in some promotional capacity.

The most rewarding elements of her post-Beijing life have come from meeting "so many great people", and she doesn't mean "celebs" but people at grass-roots events. The latest campaign to get her backing is Speedo's Learn to Swim initiative, and given a choice over how she would like to use her fame, long term, she wants her legacy to be practical.

"I don't think I've necessarily got the patience to teach people to swim," she laughs. "But doing anything that raises the profile and gives people opportunities... I 'd like to go into that side of it, getting kids into pool. I just have such great memories from when I was a kid."

Adlington eschews any notion that she could go into TV, like Sharron Davies. "I could never do Sharron's job, not in a million years. I could never interview my friends after a race. I think it would be the worst thing in the world. I'd just want to give them a hug, whether they'd swum well or badly, and just have a chat."

She doesn't rule out commentating, though. "I know about swimming and I absolutely love the sport," she says, as if that's not obvious. A case in point is the Commonwealth Games, an event that some stars in some sports (Usain Bolt, various cyclists) will skip for other commitments.

Adlington is genuinely enthused about the event because she missed out last time, and because "it's a rare thing, being able to represent your country, I still get excited making it on to any team. And of course it's always good to get a chance to beat the Aussies".

That reference to Australia shows why swimming is meaningful at the Commonwealths. The world's No 1 nation, the United States, are not there, but Australia's presence guarantees world-class opposition. Adlington will swim in the 200m, 400m and 800m free, plus the 4 x 200m relay.

She has never been to India before but has "heard great things about it, apart from having to be careful about the food and water". She has no concerns about security or safety. "We all signed up. We're kept in the loop. Commonwealth Games England obviously don't want anything bad to happen to us, and we know they'll make the right decisions."

Adlington will not be day-tripping to the Taj Mahal. "The focus is all on swimming," she says. "Although when I go to places, I do look out the window and make my mind up whether I want to go back for holiday, outside swimming." Like where? "America, I love America. I went to Florida for training a few years ago, then went back on holiday, to all the theme parks. I just love everything about America; the place itself is like a theme park, an adventure. There's always something to do. I'm one of those people who gets bored after a while lying on a beach. In America you can't get bored. There's stuff to do all the time. It's sunny, totally different. I love it."

And places she didn't like? "I didn't like how they treated women in Dubai, but that's because I'm so used to how we do things here, where it's equal. I don't think women should be seen as the lesser sex. You had to cover up there. In 45-degree heat, I can't wear trousers. So you wear a skirt and get looked at. I wasn't wanting to offend anyone, I was just boiling. That's their culture, and that's fair enough. You respect each other's culture."

And China, the venue for her finest hours? A pre-Games trip in 2007 was fun, she says, mainly because of the "immense" experience of walking a stretch of the Great Wall.

Otherwise? "Too many people, it's just soooo packed. You'd see 10 people in one tiny apartment. And the smog and pollution is unbelievable. The traffic's a nightmare.

"I went out of the Village quite a lot, more than other people. I just never got used to going into a restaurant and seeing pieces of pig and dog. I've got two little dogs and I could never, ever in a million years eat them."

Rebecca Adlington is a Speedo-sponsored athlete. For more information, go to: speedo.co.uk

Making waves...

Born 17 February 1989, Mansfield.

Vital stats 5ft 10in, 11st.

Early doors Began swimming at Sherwood Colliery Swimming Club in Nottingham.

Current club Nova Centurion with coach Bill Furniss.

Show us your medals 2006: Silver in 800m freestyle at European Championships, Budapest.

2008 First British swimmer in 100 years to win two golds at an Olympic Games – 400m and 800m free in Beijing, the latter in a world record time of 8min 14.10sec – breaking the longest-standing swimming record. Gold in 800m free and silver in 4 x 200m free at World Championships, Manchester.

2009 Bronze in 400m free and 4 x 200m free at World Championships, Rome.

2010 Gold in 400m free and bronze in 4 x 200 free at European Championships, Budapest.

Honours Awarded OBE, 2009; Mansfield's Yates Bar was renamed the Adlington Arms – though it soon reverted to its original name

And another thing Great uncle is former Derby County goalkeeper Terry Adlington.

Giles Lucas

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