It was four years ago on a Wednesday morning, in front of a sparse crowd at Ponds Forge pool in Sheffield, that Rebecca Adlington first earned selection for the Olympic Games. Few outside the close-knit world of British swimming had heard of the then 19-year-old from Mansfield. Tomorrow morning Adlington will take a first plunge into the Olympic pool in east London in search of another Games selection, this time watched by a considerably larger audience and known to anybody with a passing interest in the Olympics, and plenty beyond.
In 2008, Adlington was so unsure of her future that she signed up for a teacher training course in case the trials did not produce a ticket to Beijing. This time around she still claims uncertainty over what she will be doing come July – failure in the week-long trials would leave her at a loose end – but as one of the world's most formidable swimmers it seems improbable that she will not be shouldering the immense expectation of an Olympic host nation.
Adlington's life changed for ever in the wake of her stunning performances inside the Water Cube in Beijing that realised two gold medals, a feat no British swimmer had managed for 100 years, and a world record which had stood since six months after she was born. From a promising sportswoman she became a national figure, a standing that in Britain brings a challengingly intense mix of adoration, opportunity and, inevitably once green eyes get focused, opprobrium.
For Adlington it was about seizing the moment, and the odd pair of Jimmy Choos. "Everyone thinks I have hundreds of pairs, I just have four very nice pairs," she says. Carpe diem is how she has lived her sporting life. Her coach, Bill Furniss, calls her the "ultimate racer", and it seems to apply outside the pool as well. There are no regrets.
"It was very different and overwhelming," says Adlington, "and I didn't really know what to expect or how to handle it but I enjoyed everything I did after Beijing. I am so glad I did that. I think you have to experience it, I think I had to take that time to enjoy it. I had been to an Olympics, I had done something that I never expected to do and I wanted to enjoy stuff after, go to events that I would never have had the chance to go to. I don't regret that decision to do those things."
Adlington is sitting in an office at British Swimming's Loughborough HQ. The sounds of training, length after length, drift through from the pool and there is a whiff of chlorine in the air. Above her head a Union flag is pinned to the wall. She is at the tail end of intensive training, happy to be beginning the tapering off period ahead of the trials. That morning she had tweeted about battling to get the cleaning done in time to make the short journey from her home near Nottingham, where she still trains in a 25m pool, over to Loughborough. Life is normal again. For the time being.
Post-Beijing, Adlington suffered in the pool. Her performance level in competition slipped. At the 2009 World Championships in Rome she finished outside the medals in the 800m freestyle, her signature event. A year later she finished seventh in the same event at the European Championships in Budapest.
"She was a 19-year-old girl, she was unknown and suddenly overnight her life totally changed," says Furniss. "Her life wasn't her own and we had a period where we had to learn to handle that – anybody would have. The biggest thing was the expectation. That was the hardest thing to handle. Every time she jumped into the pool she was expected to win. It's not that easy. She's learnt now – as she did before – to focus on preparing well, turning up to the competition and racing.
"[I'm] very close to Becky. I see her twice a day every day, I've coached her for 11 years. It's hard to watch anybody have a disappointment and then have to handle it. She's resilient and she copes with it. [There has been a] lot of blood, sweat and tears. It's experiential – you have to go through it. People have guided her but Rebecca has sorted it out for herself."
That sorting out included consultations with a sports psychologist. Whatever she and Furniss have done, the signs over the past year have been good. Last month she posted the year's fastest 800m time, the quickest she has ever swum at that early stage of the season. In Shanghai last July she became a world champion, beating Lotte Friis, the Dane who will be her great rival for London gold, over the last length; the "ultimate racer". She won her surprise 400m gold in Beijing by beating the American favourite Katie Hoff over the last 20m.
"She is a woman now, she was a girl four years ago," says Furniss. "She's matured physically, she's matured mentally. She's not the same person I suppose – she's got the same good traits, her determination and her will to win but she's much more aware now, confident, self-assured. The whole hype that surrounded what she did four years ago, she's learnt to deal with that, to handle that and that's a big bonus."
That hype will surround her again, only this time it will be ahead of the Games. But there is no echo here of the recent criticism that Tom Daley received from Alexei Evangulov, British diving's performance director. "We've never courted the press," says Furniss. "We've always focused on what she needs to do day in, day out, and while there's certainly a public image, a certain amount of work that goes with that – you don't get the sponsorship and the like without it – she's still 100 per cent focused on her training. Nothing interferes with that. We manage the whole thing so that nothing interferes with her preparation and I expect that to be the same up to the Games. She has learnt a lot in terms of expectation, and how she will handle that."
Adlington insists she has not changed, and that once the post-Beijing clamour died down it was back to normality, albeit the normality of 5am starts for four hours of ploughing up and down the pool six days a week. "I'm still at the same club, still the same coach, nothing has changed in that way at all," she says. "I'm still in the same environment. It's just that now I'm a bit more well known. But nothing has changed with who I am. I've grown as a person and I've grown as an athlete and, hopefully, that experience can sit well on me.
"I don't really concentrate on [what] other people [say]. I love swimming and that's why I want to do it. I won't be thinking Joe Bloggs is going to slag me off if I don't do well. I've got over that. I've realised that I should just enjoy it. I'm in the sport because I love it, so why not enjoy it? Why put so much pressure on myself when I don't need to? It's better when you swim happy and relaxed and just enjoy the experience."
A home Games brings extra pressures, aside from the fact that no Briton has ever defended an Olympic title in the pool. In 2000 Susie O'Neill was Australia's sure thing for gold. "Madame Butterfly" hadn't lost in the 200m butterfly for six years and had won Olympic gold four years earlier. But she cracked, and even though she won freestyle gold, it took her a decade to come to terms with what she saw as her failure. Last October O'Neill spoke to Adlington and the rest of the British team about her experiences.
"It made us excited but also made us a bit more realistic and realise it's not going to be all 'la, li, la, la, it's going to be amazing'. It is always good to listen to other people's experiences and how they dealt with it."
Adlington's attempt to book a return to the Aquatics Centre later this year begins with tomorrow morning's heats of the 400m freestyle. The final is that night with the 800m final on Friday evening. She may also swim the 200m free in between. The top two in each event qualify for the Olympic team. "I can't explain how much of a relief it will be just to make the team," says Adlington. "It is weighing down on everyone's shoulders. It is just about getting a spot on that team. If you saw my diary at home there is nothing after the trials."
All 15 morning and evening sessions over the week – the last is next Saturday – are sold out. The capacity for the trials is limited to 3,000 – come Games time it will be 17,500 – but that is still a far cry from four years ago. "No one's ever experienced that much of a crowd at trials," says Adlington. "I'm just used to my Mum and Dad being there."
For Adlington, those days are very long gone.
Britain's water babes
As well as Adlington, Britain has potentially its strongest female line-up for an Olympics in recent times. Look out for:
Ellen Gandy The 20-year-old is based in Melbourne. Competed in Beijing and won a world silver medal in the 200m butterfly last year. She swam the second-fastest time in the world this year behind...
Fran Halsall The Commonwealth 50m fly champion has twice won five medals at major events and has hopes of paying more than one visit to the podium – provided she can negotiate the trials.
Lizzie Simmonds The European champion's 200m backstroke encounter with Missy Franklin, the starlet of US swimming, promises to be one of the races of the Olympic meet.
Gemma Spofforth The 100m backstroke world record holder, former world champion and current European champion missed out on a medal in Beijing by 0.04sec.
Hannah Miley Ranked No 1 in the world in the 400m individual medley, the 22-year-old Scot is approaching her peak and is one of Team GB's best medal prospects.
Live coverage on BBC 1 and the red button
Adlington: ‘I’m still scared of the sea’
There is one place where Rebecca Adlington, despite spending so much of her time in water, will not be heading off to for her post-Games holiday. The sea. "No, don't like that," she says. "I go in to my hips but have not swum properly in the sea... you don't know what's in there. They don't come on to our land! I did go paddle-boarding at Bondi once but I had to have the lifeguard on the back of the board with me."Reuse content