Rebecca Adlington: 'I'm at one in the pool. I dive in, it's a different world'

The Brian Viner Interview: Two golds in Beijing made Rebecca Adlington Britain's finest swimmer in 100 years and a poster girl for her sport – even if outside her natural element self-doubt can surface

London, London, London. When strangers stop Rebecca Adlington OBE in the supermarket, or at the petrol pumps, the 2012 Olympic Games are all they want to talk about. Is she excited about them, and does she think she'll do as well as last time? Her standard answers – yes and hope so – mask the prosaic truth that there are more urgent bleeps on her radar than next year's Olympics, starting with the British Gas Swimming Championships in Manchester, which begin tomorrow.

British swimming's poster girl is understandably keen that the great waves of public interest in her sport, which followed her two gold medals in Beijing, keep on rippling irrespective of Olympics past or future. "Yes, we're all excited about London," she says. "I last saw the aquatic centre in October, after the first tile had gone in, and it already looks amazing. But people forget that there's life before London, and after London, too. It will be great to say 'We've had the Olympics here' but we have to build on that."

More immediately, her hope is that the less exalted British Championships, which double as qualifiers for this summer's World Championships in Shanghai, will yield the interest, and the spectator numbers, that in her view swimming so richly deserves. "It's such a good, such an interesting sport," she says loudly (she's very loud). "I absolutely love it and I want everyone else to love it, and I think that's, like, starting to happen. The British Championships are normally in Sheffield, but Manchester's an even bigger sporting city and I think there's quite a bit of excitement there."

She more than anyone has driven that excitement, yet hers is still not the household name that it might be in some countries. "In Rome for the worlds last year, the crowds were just mental. It's the same in America. They get 11,000 just to watch the USA trials, we get my mum and dad. That is changing, but there's still not the promotion. So many people said to me after Beijing, 'Why isn't swimming on the TV any more?' And I'm like, 'I don't know'."

The word "like" abounds in her conversation, and for all her sporting achievements, not to mention the OBE, Adlington has an unworldly, appealingly girlish air. Although she turned 22 a couple of weeks ago, there is still something of the ebullient sixth-former or perhaps of the bubbly young gym teacher about her, an aura no doubt compounded by our presence at a girls' school, Rosebery School in Epsom, Surrey, where she has just been giving pupils a two-hour training session in the pool. Did she spot any talent? "Yeah. Chloe. I don't know her last name. But she was very good."

By the time Adlington was Chloe's age, swimming was her passion, her obsession, and the object of what, in an otherwise ordinary girl, the youngest of three daughters from an ordinary Mansfield family, amounted to truly extraordinary willpower. "I've just always had it, that drive," she says. "I don't know where it came from, but I've never, ever thought 'God, I've got to get up'. I've never, ever snoozed my alarm, not once in all my years of life, and I never will. If you don't love what you're doing then it's a chore, but for me it's not like that. I only have one life, why waste any of it? Obviously we all have mornings when we don't feel that great, but even then I'm still happy to go."

The alarm that she has never snoozed bursts into her consciousness at 5.15am, as it has done almost for as long as she can remember. By 6am she's in the pool and she swims until 8am, with a further session from 5pm until 7pm every evening. This is the six-day-a-week training regime that turned her into an Olympic champion and she's not about to alter it, even though she has added the 200-metre and 4x200m freestyle to her competitive repertoire, and recently confirmed that she hopes to contest them both at next year's Olympics, where of course she will also defend her 400m and 800m titles. It is a hugely challenging prospect for an endurance swimmer, even one with such broad shoulders both figuratively and physically. But then challenges are raisons d'être for this remarkable young woman.

Remarkable but unremarkable, extraordinary but ordinary. I was surprised, I tell her, to read recently that only in the pool does she consider herself completely at ease with life. Out of the pool she seems no less comfortable in her own skin, and we all know how comfortable she feels in a pair of Christian Louboutin shoes ("Everyone thinks I've got, like, hundreds of pairs of shoes, but I've only got about 20," she assures me). Can it honestly be that smiley Becky Adlington with the foghorn voice grapples with inner demons?

"Well, it's just that I feel at one in the pool," she says. "I'm more secure, more myself. I dive in and it's a different world. I know it sounds stupid but I don't have to worry about anything else. I can daydream, I'm relaxed, I'm like, stress-free. I love that. I love that feeling that you can be yourself. Out of the pool things are a bit more complicated, people talking at you. In the pool all you can hear are your own thoughts, and that's not as scary."

This may or may not be an oblique reference to the storm of unwelcome publicity that was whipped up in 2009 when comedian Frankie Boyle said on the TV show Mock the Week that she looked like someone looking at themselves in the back of a spoon. It was the cheapest of cheap gibes and I have resolved not to dignify it by raising it with her, but it is interesting, nevertheless, to hear her admit to feeling insecure out of the water. And what about in it? Does the mistress of her domain, the finest British swimmer for 100 years, sometimes doubt her prodigious talent?

"Yeah, my turns are rubbish. I don't have as much speed as the other girls, because I'm not as lean. There are a lot of improvements I could make. Obviously, no swimmer is perfect. [Michael] Phelps is the closest to perfection, he's like a god in the swimming world, but I'm very different. He's a medley swimmer, and I can't do medley to save my life.

"I do the other strokes in training, for variation and to work different muscles, but I'm shocking at them. You'd probably beat me at breaststroke. I know non-swimmers say it's the easiest, but trust me, it's the hardest when you do it properly, because it's not about speed, it's about power. I can't deal with it."

Watching her breaststroke tribulations, and everything else, is Bill Furniss, her coach since she was 12, and however comfortable she might feel in the water, there is always a little stab of panic if, on lifting her head to breathe during competition, she can't locate him. "In those split-seconds I can even see if he's stressing or not," she says. "We're both so good at reading each other's body language."

What she is not good at, she cheerfully admits, is reading swimming statistics. "It's shocking how little I know," she says, with a laugh like a peal of cathedral bells. "James Goddard [the British backstroke swimmer] can list every world record, but I can't even remember my own times. I think you can get too caught up in it. If I win, but miss some sort of record or target, I don't ever want to be disappointed in my swim."

As for how long she will be swimming competitively, she predicts an end to those 5.15am starts in three or four years' time. "Your mid-twenties is kind of it for female distance swimmers," she says. "After that I don't know. I have zero qualifications. I'd love a job like Sue Barker's. I'd love to get into that kind of thing, though I'd never want to do what Sharron Davies does. I could never interview my friends after a race. If they'd swum bad I'd hug them and cry, and if they'd done well I'd be, like, 'Oh my God'."

Speaking of Davies, it is worth reflecting that she owed her considerable fame, at least initially, to a silver medal in the 1980 Olympics. That, between Anita Lonsbrough winning gold in 1960, and Adlington's seismic feats in 2008, was as good as it got for Britain's female swimmers. So it is no wonder that her life changed on the back of Beijing, and yet, Adlington insists, it changed much less than people think. The main difference is that she drives herself to the pool now, rather than relying on her mum. "And I own my own house, in Nottingham." And, I remind her, she now has letters after her name.

"Yeah, the OBE. That actor, Michael Sheen, got his on the same day as me, and my dad was more excited about that. He was like, 'Hey, I've just seen him in a film', while I was, like, 'Oh my God, I'm in Buckingham Palace, oh my God, here's the Queen, she's like my nan'. I wanted to say to her, 'You're like my grandma, you're so cute, I want to hug you.' Another thunderous peal of laughter. "But I didn't."

Rebecca Adlington is an ambassador for British Gas. The British Gas Swimming Championships 2011 take place at the Manchester Aquatics Centre on 5-12 March, see www.swimming.org

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