Swimming: Rebecca Adlington wants to ensure a true legacy after confirming retirement at 23

Double Olympic champion calls time on her career

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.

In pictures: Britain's most successful ever female swimmer

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.”

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballLatest score and Twitter updates
Arts and Entertainment
David Hasselhof in Peter Pan
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
Life and Style
A still from a scene cut from The Interview showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's death.
tech
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'