Rebecca Adlington: 'I was getting out of training crying. Your mind plays tricks'

She's the girl next door with a radiant smile and bubbly personality. She's also a double Olympic champion who says the whirlwind of attention blew her away. Richard Wilson speaks to Rebecca Adlington

This is the girl you know: tall, blonde, radiant, smiling, always smiling. There she is, Rebecca, in the audience at Strictly Come Dancing. There she is, receiving an award, or presenting another. There she is, at a film premiere. In her designer shoes, in her sleek dress: tall, blonde, radiant, smiling, always smiling.

This is the girl you don't know: tall, blonde, dogged, grimacing, always grimacing. There she is, Chick, in Nottingham's municipal Beechdale pool at 6am. There she is, out for a three-mile run first thing in the morning, or at the gym. There she is, back at the pool in the evening, for another two-hour session. In her swimsuit, in her goggles: tall, blonde, dogged, grimacing, always grimacing.

Bill Furniss, her coach, met her as Rebecca Adlington eight years ago, when she was 12, and Chick is his name for her. He describes her as a Jekyll and Hyde character. Warm, bright, bubbly outside the pool; cold, focused, unyielding in the pool. She is a double Olympic champion, having won gold medals in the 400m and 800m freestyle events in Beijing last year, when her life changed, when it suddenly felt as though it became two worlds she inhabited: the one you know, the one you don't know.

There she is, walking into a Nottingham hotel, tall in her training tracksuit, her blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, an uncertain, watchful look on her face. Then a smile, that smile. She has been at the pool, up from her bed at 5.15am as always. She has been to the gym, and she has just finished lunch. Soon, she will rest, and then it is back to the pool again. This is the girl she is: to herself, a swimmer, just a swimmer.

At Buckingham Palace last Tuesday, she received an OBE, then the Queen leaned forward and asked her: how is training going? She thought, is this real? But it is, all of it, the life of Rebecca, the life of Chick, what we see, what we don't see. All of it, real, the highs and the lows, the two lives.

There she is, at the British Championships in Sheffield last March, her first swimming meet since the Olympics. In the 400m, she breaks the world record, but still finishes behind her friend and team-mate, Jo Jackson, by 0.23sec. In the 800m, she wins in 8min 18.86sec, four seconds outside the world record she set in Beijing, but still a time that only three women have ever bettered. When she stood at the poolside and they asked if winning at the Olympics had dulled her hunger, tears slipped into her eyes, glistening. But she held them back, because she had spilled them already, the girl you don't know.

"It was hard after the Olympics, with everybody expecting me to break a world record every time I got in the water," she says. "I was trying to handle that. Going into [the British Championships] I wouldn't say I dealt with it particularly well, I was getting out of training sessions crying, because it's hard to live up to expectations. Particularly when you're not fully fit. Your mind plays tricks on you. I knew what I was doing in training before the Olympics; so going into something when I knew I wasn't doing those times is about trying to keep your confidence up. I needed to get away from it all and think about myself."

There she is, returning from Beijing to a cascade of attention: cheering crowds, the freedom of Mansfield, her home town, celebrity. She looks back now and thinks it "insane". A brief holiday with her boyfriend apart, for five weeks she submitted herself to this new world, this place of opportunities, of a thin, shimmering lustre. But even when she returned to training, the demands for her time, for Rebecca, were intrusive, and she began to miss sessions.

By January, with her conditioning not as it should have been, she started to say: no, I cannot keep doing everything. Then in February, she suffered a stomach bug. Furniss revised her schedule, sacrificing the endurance work for speed sessions, to ensure she could race well in Sheffield and qualify for next month's world championships in Rome. So the Adlington who swam her fastest ever 400m, and left the 800m field in her wake, was not at her best, not able to stretch her muscles beyond their boundaries.

"I had to turn a lot of stuff down," she admits, with a wistful sigh. "A lot of stuff I wish I didn't have to turn down, like the primary school visits, stuff locally, just because of training. With swimming in general, people don't recognise the work. We do 90% training and 10% is the race. It's extremely demanding. After two hours of solid work, a session, you're going to be a bit dead, and you have that in the morning and the evening, as well as gym. I am still a local girl; I'm still them [sic] things that people perceive. When I retire, I'll be able to spend a lot of time doing them things. But now, I feel in good shape, and moving the right way."

There she is, sitting in the lobby of a Nottingham hotel, trying to make sense of it all. Her soft blue eyes carry an amiable, considerate gaze and her pale, full lips seem forever on the verge of a smile, that smile. She folds her legs beneath her and leans forward, attentive, as though there is nothing but you and her, in this moment. Her skin is pallid, smooth, like porcelain. Two young girls approach, nervously, to ask her for a photograph. She unfolds her tall body, touches her blonde hair, and eagerly obliges.

"It's mainly in Sainsbury's, or somewhere like that, [when people notice her]," she giggles afterwards. Then, briefly, she is a 20-year-old, any 20-year-old, carefree, jovial. For all that has happened, the success, the clamour, the jostling for her time, she remains, essentially, true to herself. At first, she carried her two Olympic medals with her everywhere, now they are tucked away somewhere safe, somewhere she knows they will always be for her, and she is moving on.

"It was a brilliant thing that happened, and I've enjoyed every single minute of it, so I hope [her life] does not go back to what it was," she says. "But my motivation's always been there. The thing people ask themselves after such a successful Olympics is: can I improve? There's a lot I can still do, so there was never any question in my mind."

In Rome, her focus is on swimming a fast time, of delivering the best of herself, of the training, of the work. Of Chick's life. The Romanian swimmer, Camelia Potec, has posted a faster time than her this year, and other competitors will be seeking Adlington's scalp. This is how it is now; she is out in front, exposed. "Everybody thinks it's going to be similar to Beijing, but I don't," she says. "We're outdoors for starters, blazing sun, hopefully. I don't set myself place targets, though, because you can't control what anyone else does."

There she is, four years old, jumping into the pool on a family holiday. She has had no swimming lessons but paddles comfortably to the side. Her parents, Steve and Kay, look on, startled. By nine, she is swimming competitively and her mum eventually has to quit her job to drive her daughter to training.

Her life is different now. Before Beijing, she received £12,000 a year in Lottery funding, the lowest level, she paid for her own swimming kit, she made ends meet. After Beijing, she is under less financial pressure. Life is different, although not drastically.

"My funding levels went up," she says. "If you want to live in the city, £12,000 is not really enough to live on, whereas £24,000 means you can easily pay your rent and your bills. It just means I don't need my parents to help me out, which they love as well. And other stuff that's come along has just made it a little bit easier. It's not that I'm rolling around in money, or that I can buy a Ferrari – I wish I could. It's just a bit more freedom."

There she is, watching footage of her 400m win in Beijing, screaming at herself: "Come on Beck." She is nervous, even though she knows the outcome, because she wins by only 0.07sec. Watching the 800m final, she looks at herself and sees flaws, even though at the end of that race her limbs were burning, she felt spent, because she had left everything of herself in that pool.

"I could not have gone any quicker then," she says. "I pushed myself to the limit of what I knew. But there are things I can improve, my technique, my turns. I can get stronger. I'm still in my 20s, my body's going to change a lot."

So Bill will watch Chick from the poolside at Beechdale, urging her on, warning her not to flick her arm, and guiding her training. Tall, blonde, dogged, grimacing, always grimacing. For Rome, for London 2012.

"It's bizarre that when I get in the pool I'm very different to how I am out the pool," she says, smiling. "I don't know why. I just want it. I want to be the best, to improve, to get faster."

That is who she is: a swimmer, just a swimmer.

Life and times

Born: 17 February, 1989

Place of birth: Mansfield

Height: 5ft 10in

Weight: 11 stone

Club: Nottingham Nova Centurian

Coach: Bill Furniss

Superstitions: Always wears a new race costume for each major competition

Achievements: Wins two silver medals at European Olympic Youth Days in 2003. European junior 800m freestyle champion in 2004. Wins silver medal in 800m at European Championships in 2006. Wins 400m and 800m freestyle events at Beijing Olympics in 2008, becoming first British woman to win an Olympic swimming gold medal since 1960 and first British swimmer to win two Olympic gold medals since 1908.

Richard Wilson

Rebecca Adlington is a Speedo ambassador. For her top swimming tips, go to www.speedo.com

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