Sometimes, the most balanced personality can be a split one. As Rebecca Adlington acknowledges, most of her young life has been spent in "a bubble" – a numbing, obsessive schedule of training that reduces every different pool, Doha or Delhi, to the same, daily ducking-stool test of endurance and belief as the one where it all began, back in Mansfield. And yet, within these cramped horizons, she has discovered, or preserved, a sense of perspective somehow uncompromised by an almost pathological determination to swim faster than anyone else.
These twin strengths enable Adlington to reflect on an exotic experience at the Commonwealth Games with an equanimity that appears to have eluded many others. Yes, it doubtless helps that she won two gold medals to match the pair she won at the Beijing Olympics, when aged just 19, again at 400 metres and 800m.
Now, of course, all lanes lead to London 2012, and she paid an immediate visit to the half-built Aquatic Centre on her return from India. Judging from some of the reports out of Delhi, you almost expected her to rate this sprawling building site as already a superior facility. For Adlington, however, the bellyache she shared with so many other athletes in Delhi was only a noun – emphatically not a verb. Having peered beyond the bubble, she has come back refreshed in humility as well as pride.
"We had a 40-minute bus journey every day to the pool, and I couldn't believe it," she said. "If you see someone homeless here, it just makes you feel lucky. But in India I just felt selfish. I've never seen anything like it, it just shocked me. I thought: 'Oh my God, I'm never going to moan ever again.' Every time the bus passed down the street it would make your heart stop. It was a massive eye-opener for every single person on the bus. Someone mentioned the stomach stuff. And I was like: 'Seriously! You've got a bit of belly issues... just look out of the window.' As soon as you saw that, I think everyone just got on with it."
Back in the bubble, though – surely that was another matter? How can an elite athlete, trained for a peak, fail to be physically or mentally debilitated by sickness? "Oh, there were a lot of people worse off than myself," Adlington said. "Without going into too much detail, no matter what you ate, you were going to the toilet 10 minutes later. So it was just a case of trying not to aggravate it, while trying to actually refuel. I was living off Imodium, and the team doctor was brilliant. It must have been the hardest week of his life. But we all expected to get it, we were all prepared, and it wasn't as if it was just us."
Of course, it is precisely the ability to isolate yourself from extraneous distractions – and they can scarcely be less extraneous – that in turn separates elite athletes from the rest. To Adlington, the pool will always turn whine into water. "No matter what mood I'm in, if I'm angry, I'm upset, you dive in the pool and you just forget about everything," she said. "It's the only place I feel comfortable, the only place I feel myself, where I feel I belong. I'm a bit more of a weirdo when I get out of the pool!
"And in a race most of us are so focused, so up for it, that no matter what else is going on in your life, you just switch off. So I'm not going to let a little belly thing hold me back when I've trained the whole year for this."
Perhaps the ultimate test of this zone will not be adversity, but expectation, when she competes in 2012. "Obviously, for London, we're going to feel pressure," she said. "We're all going to be in the spotlight. At the same time, with everyone cheering for you, you just get involved in the atmosphere. In Rome last year, I raced against [Federica] Pellegrini and even I felt the buzz, though the crowd were cheering for her. No matter what I come away with, a home Olympics is just my absolute dream."
After disappointing herself at the European Championships, Adlington is encouraged that she proved so at home in a quasi-Olympic environment in Delhi – sharing an athletes' village again, and watching other sports. "It was such a positive week," she said. "I've learnt I have the confidence to pick myself up when something hasn't gone right. I just raced my own race, relaxed and enjoyed it like I used to. So I think it's a massive step, for London, and a massive thing also that the year has gone so well for the British – we're definitely becoming a nation to watch in the pool. We walk in, and people notice us. People are scared of us. We're just getting better and better, and when you put in a home crowd as well, God knows what we can achieve."
In Delhi, Adlington again dominated the field from the start – always a strategy instructive of the fires within: "Thou shalt not pass". Where does it come from, this ferocious message to her pursuers? With her cheerful, unpretentious demeanour, Adlington seems immune to egotism. In the pool, however, the mermaid apparently becomes a shark. In a recent conversation with her coach, Bill Furniss, she was affronted when he told her: "Some people just can't handle you." He had to explain that it was intended as a compliment.
"I am the most driven person," she admitted. "I want to make something of my life. I'm so lucky that I love what I do, and I'm not going to waste that. I don't want to look back and regret things. I can be difficult to deal with, because I won't let people stand in my way. Sometimes I'll come across as a bitch, but I don't care – at the end of the day, I want to achieve something. You can clash, if someone is not as driven. I get angry when I see such talented people, not giving everything. I think: 'You've all the talent in the world, you can achieve something so rare, and it's just wasted.' I'm not as naturally talented as some people. I have to work hard every single day. And when I see someone doing well, when they don't work as hard, I do get frustrated, because they could be so amazing."
There it is again – the paradox of this pleasant, everyday young woman from Mansfield. She permits only the quietest hint of her distinction, in the flags of St George painted proudly on her fingernails. Becky Adlington remains scrupulously down-to-earth. Then she exchanges terra firma for water – and, suddenly and literally, she is in her element: one of the best in history, a serial record-breaker.
"You do have two personalities: one when you're competing, one when you're not," she said. "I think it's hard for people not involved in sport to be around me, because they don't understand that. I've got the rest of my life to go out and drink, to travel, to ski. People think I miss out on being a normal 21-year-old, but at the end of the day I'm getting so much more from doing something I truly love. I actually think it's them that are missing out."
Rebecca Adlington is supporting Spots v Stripes, Cadbury's campaign to get the nation playing in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics. Visit www.spotsvstripes.com
The 800m freestyle world record holder has won six major international gold medals in her career.
2 Adlington's golds at the 2010 Delhi games. She became the first British swimmer to win an Olympic gold since 1988 and the first double champion since 1908.