Rebecca Adlington: 'A statue of me? With these shoulders?'
She swam from obscurity to stardom – and in record time. Mansfield's most famous daughter talks to Nick Harris about fame, Jimmy Choos and starring in Strictly Come Dancing
Saturday 23 August 2008
"Oh my God! That would be just sooooooo amaaaaaazing!" says Rebecca Adlington, double Olympic swimming champion, about the prospect of appearing on her "favourite, favourite" television programme.
"I'd absolutely love to do Strictly Come Dancing," she says. "I don't dance at all, but I watch it every time it's on. It is just the best programme on television."
Speaking yesterday in her first major newspaper interview since winning gold medals in the 400 metres and 800m freestyle, the effervescent Adlington remains, for now, as down to earth as any other 19-year-old. Stardom is not a concept that has dawned on her.
Tell her she is famous and she says: "Don't be silly, that was all a week ago!"
Ask her to explain how it feels now her life has changed for ever and she cannot explain, because she does not believe it.
But when she gets on to a topic close to her heart, like designer shoes or reality TV, she talks as she swims. There is no stopping her.
"I never missed an episode of Strictly in the last series, when Alesha [Dixon] won. It's one of those shows that I actually miss when it's not on. It's just the best." You could be on it, I tell her. You will only need to ask, and the BBC might even throw in a frock and some shoes. "Oh my God!" says the girl who has spent as much time over the past week talking about her love for Jimmy Choo shoes and Christian Louboutin kitten heels as she has about split times and personal bests.
"That would be unreal," she says. "I've heard there's been an invitation to go on A Question of Sport, but Strictly would be something else. Do you think I could get on Top Gear as well? I'd love that. I think Jeremy Clarkson is really funny. I've read his books and everything. Do you really think I could?"
Disbelief remains Adlington's overriding emotion, not just over what she achieved in the pool on the mornings of 11 August, in the 400m final, and 16 August, in the 800m final, when she smashed the oldest world record in her sport. No other female British swimmer has won two golds, let alone at one Olympic Games.
"People back home keep telling me that I'm in the papers but I'm no different from anyone else in the British team," she says. "We're all still here in Beijing and we're all on a level. I think I got all that attention early in the Games because we didn't have that many gold medals at the time. We've got loads now. People have covered me already. Why would anyone want to do it again?"
Adlington will get a better idea of that when she returns to Britain on Monday. On Tuesday she will be the star attraction in the biggest civic celebration that her hometown, Mansfield, has ever seen. There will be an open-top bus parade in her honour, ending in the Market Place, where thousands gathered to watch her early-hours swims on big screens.
Adlington and her parents, Steve, 50, and Kay 48, will be delivered to the parade in a gold Rolls-Royce at 5pm. The teenager will then be presented with a pair of gold Jimmy Choos by the mayor, Tony Egginton, just as he promised, for a gold medal, before the Games. "Rebecca is a credit to herself, her family and Mansfield," Egginton said this week. What does Adlington think of that?
"Surreal. People say I should be made a dame like Kelly Holmes and that is just silly, quite frankly. I'm 19 and I'm a swimmer. Someone asked me whether they should make a statue of me somewhere. How daft is that? Who'd want a statue of me with my big shoulders?" The best female swimmer Britain has ever had is equally modest about potential commercial deals. "I'd like to get a sponsorship deal for kit," she says. So far she has not been told the specifics of the offers that have flooded in, for public appearances and endorsements.
British Swimming, her father and her coach, Bill Furniss, are dealing with those. An agent will eventually take over, but no one will be appointed until her return to Britain.
Adlington's celebrations have been low-key. "That's something to do when I get home," she says. She did indulge in one treat, a McDonald's hamburger and a small portion of fries, after her second win, although she did not actually have time to sit down and eat them.
"I've been so busy, it's been mad. I won the 800m on Saturday morning. I spent virtually the whole of Saturday doing media. I saw my parents for one hour in the evening, then had a 9pm press conference for the BOA [British Olympic Association]. I was on the BBC at 12.30am, teatime back home, and didn't get to bed until 2am. I had the McDonald's walking between appointments.
"Sunday was nearly all interviews again. I went to the Summer Palace on Monday, on Tuesday I went to a Speedo do, then to some markets for a bit of touristy time. Wednesday and Thursday I went to see the British guys in the open-water swim and the rest of time I've just been hanging out."
She has talked, daily, by phone to her boyfriend, Andrew Mayor, a 22-year-old Scottish swimmer who lives in Newcastle. "More than once a day, actually." What does he think about his girlfriend being on the front pages? "We haven't really talked about that but he's happy for me. It's more just been what he's been doing each day and what I've been doing. Normal stuff."
Adlington is sharing a two-room, four-person apartment at the athletes' village with three swimming team-mates – Jessica Sylvester, 21, Julia Beckett, 22, and Hannah Miley, 19. She is rooming with Sylvester, a club-mate from Nova Centurion in Nottingham. Partying has not been on the agenda.
She remains almost as much in awe of her feats as those who watched them.
"To be honest, I did not come here expecting to win two medals," she says. "After the Olympic trials I was ranked No 1 in the world in the 800m and No 4 in the world in the 400m because of my time, but everyone knows that rankings often don't mean much once you get into the Games.
"I've gone to swimming meets before ranked 50th and come something like 10th, for example. So I didn't really expect much. I wanted to reach my finals. That was my goal. It's my first Olympics, it was meant to be about gaining experience, and then focusing on London 2012."
Those Games will be Adlington's main target now. She insists the prospect of a home Olympics will remain central to her life for the next four years.
"Whatever else happens away from the pool, the swimming comes first," she says. "If I can do fun things in my time off, then great. But the training and the sport is the whole point for me. That's not negotiable."
The world championships in Rome next year is an intermediate target. Adlington also wants to swim for England in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010. By then, she might well have established herself the world's leading female middle-distance swimmer. Certainly, the way she cruised to victory in the 800m here suggested that she has the quality to develop further.
What transpired in Beijing was sensational. Adlington won the 400m on the final touch by a tiny margin (0.07sec) from the American favourite, Katie Hoff. In the 800m, however, she led virtually from the start, pulverising the field to win by more than six seconds.
"Winning in the 400m, I just could not believe it," she says. "I looked up at the scoreboard and thought, 'Was it me?' It was surreal, bizarre. There are no words that really describe it."
When Rebecca Adlington is lost for words the achievement in question must surely have been, as she might say herself, "sooooooo amaaaaaazing".
My other life
Because most other people hadn't finished competing when we had, for most of our spare time we've just been sitting in the flat chatting, or watching girly DVDS. The other night we watched a romantic comedy, What Happens in Vegas, with Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher.Another favourite is CIS Miami, the American television drama about the work of the Miami-Dade Police Department's forensic scientists. I watched an episode to calm myself when I felt sick with pre-race nerves before the 800m final.
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