Swimming: Adlington in form to eclipse her 2012 rivals

The Olympic champion can win the British 400m freestyle title today. She tells Nick Harris how she hopes to stay ahead of two very close competitors

The good news for British swimming is that Rebecca Adlington is back in form; the better news is that the double Olympic champion has got two compatriots breathing down her neck in the quest for freestyle supremacy at the London Games of 2012.

And this evening in Sheffield, in the 400m freestyle final at the national championships, we will get the latest update on how Adlington, 21, is shaping up against Jo Jackson, 23, and Jazmin Carlin, 19, the "upstart" of the trio.

Come London in two years' time, the three of them plus A.N. Other could well be climbing the podium together with relay medals – possibly gold – around their necks. They won bronze in the 4 x 200m free at last year's world championships in Rome and are coming on in leaps and bounds.

The other great hope for 2012, is that Adlington, Jackson and Carlin – three from a pool of vibrant British talent – will push each other to individual glory in one or more of the 200m, 400m and 800m events. So to say that tonight's 400m final is the most eagerly anticipated race of the week at this year's championships would be to understate matters. At Ponds Forge a year ago Adlington, Olympic champion, went head to head with Jackson, Olympic bronze medalist. Jackson won while both went inside the previous world record in the fastest 400m race in history.

With Carlin an ever-more intriguing factor in the mix, their three-way rivalry is exceptional. Incidentally, Carlin is coached by Bud McAllister, mentor to the former American great, Janet Evans, whose 800m freestyle record from 1989 Adlington smashed in China in 2008.

"The strength in depth across the board is part of why we're all improving, and that makes it a very exciting time," Adlington told The Independent. "Me and Jo are now among the older swimmers, relatively, but Jazz is really strong, a great competitor and very funny to be around too. We'll all be fighting for the 400m title."

Adlington has already had a decent week. She regained her national 200m title on Monday, beating Carlin into second place, and then obliterated the field in the heats of the 800m free and won the final last night. She qualified for that final almost a full length clear of Carlin in second place, and that was not anywhere near at full tilt.

The championships are doubling as the trials for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October and are the last major meet ahead of the summer's European Championships in Budapest. A year ago, the corresponding nationals were the trials for the 2009 World Championships in Rome, but last year was not so great for Adlington overall.

"I feel like I'm in really good shape right now, and that's largely down to the intense training block between September and December. That's my basic endurance block for the year, the hard work, and that makes a massive difference to your season.

"After Beijing, that [autumn training] was affected. I'm not moaning for one second about that because I got to do and experience so many amazing things after the Olympics. But I learnt so much from the past year [about what needs to be done], and I'll learn more with every year."

Adlington is, by a tally of Olympic golds, Britain's most successful female swimmer of all time. "But people forget I'm only 21 and actually I'm a very inexperienced swimmer in terms of major events. I've never been to a Commonwealth Games, for example, I've just been to one Olympics, and I've been to a worlds which didn't go so well."

The question of whether the Commonwealth Games matters to Britain's elite swimmers is a "no-brainer". As Adlington says: "They're a major Games, and when Australia is competing at a meet then it's going to be competitive. The Europeans are important, both mean a lot to me."

Security issues in India have cast a shadow over the participation of Britain's – or rather the individual nations' – athletes, but Adlington is prepared to "go with the flow" and accept whatever decisions are made at a higher level.

"We all keep getting asked whether we want to go, whether it's safe, but we want to go. British Swimming would not do anything that jeopardises our safety. At the moment I don't think there are security issues that will stop us being there."

The Taj Mahal will be not on the agenda, whatever happens. "We'll be there to compete, not sight-seeing," Adlington says. "Holding camp, then in, swim, out."

If today is anything as businesslike, rivals beware.