Rebecca Adlington: 'I really missed it, the whole atmosphere. Getting back to normal life was really hard'

In the last of a series of interviews with the men and women who helped make Beijing 2008 Britain's best Olympics, Ian Herbert talks to the golden girl who captured the country's heart

So here she is, in the place we all thought she probably would be four months on from winning the 800 metres freestyle Olympic gold by simply miles, and Rebecca Adlington seems to be feeling more comfortable now. She has done a few of these glossy photo-shoots, enough to hold back that laugh we now know so well – the one which rises into a giggle at the end – when someone points out, "That one of you lifting your leg up was really nice", and asks for more of the same.

It is still not her thing, though. All that Jimmy Choo talk in the days after she had taken the 400m and 800m gold in the Beijing Water Cube, but today they had to bring along some cheap heels and a few £10 M&S bangles for Adlington to slip on. When the clicking periodically stops, she reaches gratefully for the mug of tea, coated with her lipstick, provided by the people at a studio called The Shed behind a corrugated iron door on the Grantham Road in Nottingham.

And then comes the heaviest hint that the world is still turning in old, familiar ways for the individual whose extraordinary, 29.66-second last 50m in the 800m final encapsulated, perhaps more than any feat, what the Beijing Games meant to Britain. "Better cover up that T-shirt," says the 19-year-old's manager, Graeme Smith, when the "glamour" shoot turns to the images which are to accompany this conversation. The garment in question has a swimming brand but, extraordinarily for a woman who has shattered the country's entire conception of what its swimmers can achieve, she is not tied up with a kit sponsor yet and no one wants to muddy the waters for the pursuit of one which is expected to reach fruition in the next few months.

The contrast with Michael Phelps could hardly be more marked. The sum total of Adlington's endorsements so far is the renaming of a leisure centre and a pub in her home town of Mansfield (the publican of the Adlington Arms promised her burger and chips for life). There has also been the freedom of Mansfield, an occasion for which the mayor kindly bought her a pair of Jimmy Choos. So what about the pairs that Tamara Mellon, the president of Jimmy Choo, is supposed to have sent? "Everybody thinks Jimmy Choo has sent me shoes and everythin'," she grins – dropping her "g" again in the way we have come accustomed to and which contributes to that feeling that she's just the girl next door. "It was actually the mayor. People think it's bigger than it is, but a girl can only wear one pair of shoes at a time. I don't need that many."

Privately, Adlington's people are quite happy for the shoe business to get no bigger. Adlington reflects that it was a good thing, even though she jokes that "I wish I'd said Ferrari", but there is a feeling that it could take a bit of the focus from her huge athletic abilities.

There is no doubt about it, though, Adlington simply adores the glossiness which her success has brought and no part of it more than the brushes with celebrities. There have been plenty of Saturday trips down the M1, with two hours of morning training already put away, to see her friend Mark Foster perform on Strictly Come Dancing and to experience that sensation of having legends put an immediate name to your face.

She reels off the list with the excitement of one who, in that thoroughly 21st-century way she has, just loves her celebs. There were Elaine Paige and Lionel Blair in the BBC's green room ("the nicest, so lovely, just giving me a hug"), as well as Johnny Vaughan and Sara Cox. "They didn't really know who I was and I'm still bit of a stargazer, I'm just 'Oh my God, there's thingy' – you don't just go over and say hello." At the Cosmopolitan Awards, where she picked up Ultimate Sports Superhero, there was Kim Cattrall ("not wrinkly like you might think") and drag queen Jodie Harsh ("at first I thought it was Jodie Marsh!"). But the memory of the past four months which will perhaps live longest is Sir Richard Branson, at the Brit Awards, asking her if she was an actress before they handed out an award together. "I was just, 'Oh thanks, but no I'm not'" she says, beaming at the thought. "He said he was out of the country training for his sailing project [to cross the Atlantic] and he was like, 'I'm really sorry, I didn't get to watch much of it.' Actress? I'm awful. Couldn't act to save my life."

The celebrity-fest which we shared her anticipation for was the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. As things turned out, it did not bring the prize so many had hoped for an individual who made good on sheer willpower and around £10,000 a year from UK Sport, but Adlington wants to dispel any sense of personal expectation she might have created with her comment about Lewis Hamilton. Her desire that an Olympian should take first prize got lost in translation, she believes, and though third place might not have seemed much for braving that unfortunate BBC ramp in high heels – the BBC's advance tip-off that Sue Barker had managed it did not reveal the full level of difficulty in the obligatory pair of Jimmy Choos – the recipient of the night's main honour happened to be the individual whose friendship she has come to value perhaps above all others among the non-swimmers from Beijing.

Adlington's bond with Chris Hoy has developed beyond the Olympics as they have shared podiums at events the length and breadth of the country, from Pride of Britain to the Great North Run. "We've overlapped quite a bit with our medals situations," Adlington says. "Before Beijing I'd never been to an event with non-swimmers so I've learnt how his training works, how British Cycling works, where he trains – everybody's season is very different. I didn't even know that the cyclists compete all the time. Swimming is so different to that."

The friendship with Hoy's partner, Sarra Kemp, has been the same, Adlington clearly taken with her ability to throw herself into social situations despite not occupying Hoy's world. Adlington's boyfriend, Andy Mayor, shares her profession.

The community which the Olympics pitched her into had a deep and lasting effect and the way she describes her attempts to get back to living without it, when August was over, shows how, after all the ecstasy, it felt something like a bereavement for some. "It was hard to come back, because you've just spent five weeks with the same people, living in each others' pockets, supporting each other through the biggest thing you've done in your life," she says. "You've been with these people who have seen you there through your ups and downs and your emotions, done everything with you, and then you have to go back to normal life and it's just, 'Oh where's so-and-so? I can't tell her this'. Yes, I really missed it, the whole excitement of it, the atmosphere, missed seeing everybody. It's really hard to get back to normal life."

Elite swimming has a way of sobering you after the euphoria, though. Following six weeks off, including the 10-day whirlwind which accompanied her return and a 12-day cruise around the Mediterranean with her boyfriend's family – "Before, you always tend to stick to yourself but there were a couple of British people on the boat who actually recognised me" – came the return to her swimming team in Nottingham. Adlington craved normality by that time and, though the forced mundanity with which she describes that first morning back makes you smile - "People were like, 'Oh hiya, how are you? How was your summer?' 'Good thanks – how was yours?'" – the realities back in the pool were anything but funny.

They say that an elite swimmer will take a month and half to get back to full fitness after the usual two weeks off in the summer and the six that Adlington allowed herself left her disoriented and – even a few weeks ago – an extraordinary 30 or 40 seconds off the time she set in the 400m final. "It was so hard," she says. "I can't explain to someone who doesn't swim how hard it was, because you don't just lose your fitness but you lose your feel for the water. Nothing is like feeling under water, pushing off. It felt quite awkward and weird."

That is the difference between the worlds she and Hoy occupy which strikes her most. "In other sports it's, 'Oh, I'm going racing next weekend' and I'm like: 'Wow, you can't do that in swimming.' That's why you have two major competitions a year and the rest is training."

She knows from personal experience how the sport can break you, too. The world remembers how her surprise win in the 400m in Beijing was followed by victory in her stronger discipline of the 800m when she broke the 19-year-old world record of Janet Evans and became the first Briton in precisely 100 years to collect two gold medals in the pool. Those in British swimming also recall the anguish she felt after finishing 10th in the world championships in March 2007.

The abiding memories of Beijing are fading already; among them the walks around the Olympic Village she allowed herself, trying not to get too wrapped up in the place because "if you keep walking round you don't realise how much you've walked so your legs ache" and the delicious dip in the practice pool with the 200m British backstroke finalist Lizzie Simmonds to get herself awake for the 800m final.

The next target is March's trial for this summer's world championships in Rome and, naturally, talk of London 2012 keeps drifting into the conversation, even as Adlington muses over what life beyond swimming might bring – a return to the education she left for swimming after GCSEs. "I would love to go back to education after obviously London and actually get some qualifications."

Contending with the expectation she has already created – with talk already that she might be the face of the next Olympics – may be the hardest part of the three and a half years to come. "I just want to go [to the London Games]," Adlington says. "Just to say you've been to a home Olympics – how fantastic would that be? So that's my goal. Four years is such a long time for a sportsman or anybody – you can have 10 babies or whatever it is in that space of time. I probably won't [win two golds again] again. Obviously I hope to, but there are younger swimmers – there might be a 19-year-old when I'm 23. Obviously 'doing it again' is there, in the back of my mind, but I don't think about it because I have to think about the competition at present. You've got to go through the steps."

So that is why the shoots will remain occasional for now. Training started on 27 December, a day after Hoy's and the next few months are occupied, swimming aside, with the Nottingham house which she and her boyfriend are seeking, to replace a flat no bigger than this photographic studio.

Adlington in numbers

48 years

In winning the 400 metres freestyle in Beijing, Adlington became Great Britain's first female Olympic swimming champion since Anita Lonsbrough secured the 200m breaststroke in Rome in 1960.

24

Years since a British woman previously won a medal in the pool at the Olympics, Sarah Hardcastle winning silver (400m freestyle) and bronze (800m) in Los Angeles in 1984.

3

Adlington finished third in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, behind fellow Olympian Sir Chris Hoy and Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton.

4:02:24

Adlington's time in the heats for the 400m in Beijing, which broke the Commonwealth record...

8:14:10

... and she also broke the 800m British, Commonwealth, European, Olympic and World records in winning the 800m final five days later, finishing six seconds ahead of the silver medallist Alessia Filippi.

1989

Adlington broke Janet Evans' 19-year-old world record time of 8:16:22 in winning that 800m final.

1908

Adlington became the first British swimmer to win two Olympic medals since Henry Taylor at the London Games in 1908.

5.15 am

The time Adlington rises to travel to training on a typical day. She can swim up to 70,000m a week.

275

Cost, in pounds, of the gold-heeled Christian Louboutin shoes her mother bought her as a reward for her performances in Beijing.

41

Appearances made by Terry, Rebecca's grandfather, for Derby County. He also played for Blackwell Colliery Welfare, Torquay United, Baltimore Boys and Dallas Tornado.

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