The last act of Rebecca Adlington’s career, a career that installed her as Britain’s greatest swimmer, was to step on to a podium in the humid atmosphere of the London Aquatics Centre and listen to the acclaim that tumbled down from the steep stands on either side of the pool. Around her neck hung a fourth Olympic medal.
The first act of her new career could not have been more different, standing on the side of a school swimming pool in Derby facing an audience not so quick to offer applause. “They didn’t have a Scooby-do who I was,” said Adlington of her new beginning as a swimming teacher, her charges a group of four-year-olds. “They just thought ‘oh, the new teacher’.”
At the ripe old age of 23, Adlington confirmed what had seemed certain since the moment she stepped down from that podium and walked out of the Olympic pool. It’s over. Over after two Olympic gold medals, two bronze, two world titles, two Commonwealth gold and with a world record in the 800m freestyle still to her name.
It is a record that is unlikely to be broken any time soon. She leaves with head held high, announcing her retirement to provide a full-stop to a decision mulled over for the last few months as she enjoyed “being a normal 23-year-old”.
In the longer term there may be a role with the British team, possibly helping to mentor young swimmers, but in the meantime it is the even younger who will be her focus. Adlington has broad ambitions for her sport.
“The talk around the Olympics is about legacy but you can’t just leave it at that and say ‘I’ve done the job in London’,” she said. “I want every child to be able to swim 25m by the time they leave primary school. I know it’s ambitious but I would never have thought I would have four Olympic medals in my drawer. It would overtake anything I have achieved medal-wise. That would be a legacy.”
Adlington is in the process of completing her qualification as a level one and two swimming teacher – this is about teaching children to swim rather than coaching protégés – and is setting up a programme, called Swim Stars, to help spread her gospel.
“Sport can give you so much - respect, friendship and determination,” she said. “I want kids to learn values as well as how to swim. Swimming isn’t on the national curriculum but it is a life skill. We learn how to walk and run but we don’t learn how to swim. I’d like to change that.”
She talks as the grand dame of British swimming, a grand dame at an age when most sportspeople have barely got into their athletic stride. In London, Adlington was beaten in her main event by the 15-year-old American Katie Ledecky, one of a shoal of teenagers who left their elders and presumed betters in their wake. Ruta Meilutyte, the 15-year-old Lithuanian based in Plymouth, is another, both four years younger than Adlington was when she claimed her historic golden double in Beijing.
“I did feel old at 23,” said Adlington. “Female swimming is getting a lot younger. I can’t compete with that.”
Adlington’s strength was her consistency, of stroke and training. Since joining Bill Furniss’s coaching group aged 12 she has had 11 years of hard, gruelling training and that takes its toll. In Adlington’s distance events, hard work in the training pool wins medals.
“It is the nature of how hard the sport is,” said Adlington. “As a female we naturally peak a lot younger than men. When you are younger you can do hard session after hard session and you do not run out of energy. As soon as you get older you get more tired. They can do more hard work. I still do the same hard work but then my body shuts down and goes ‘you need to do a recovery session’.”
Ledecky did to Adlington what the Briton had done to the rest of the world in Beijing in 2008. Her two swimming golds were the first time a Briton had achieved the feat in a century, the first British woman to win gold in the pool in 48 years and the first Briton full-stop to top the podium in 20 years.
At first she struggled – in and out of the pool – with the magnitude of her achievement. She did not like being the centre of attention out of it and she did not like being the one to beat in the pool.
The road to London was often rocky but her two bronzes, of which she remains resolutely proud, were again the substance in Britain’s medal tally. She was drained by the end. It was time to look to the future, and ignore the advice of one friend to “get really fat and then do a fitness DVD”.
But it will always be about the pool. “I could talk all day about swimming,” said Adlington. “I know about swimming and I love it. That is never going to change.”