Out of the pool at 23, Rebecca Adlington faces the same questions we all will - just a whole lot sooner

Careers are more exciting for Olympians, retirement more painful

Related Topics

Rebecca Adlington doesn’t like the word ‘retire’, she said yesterday, and it’s hard to blame her. She’s a 23-year-old who has what most of us would call her whole life ahead of her; far from being pensionable, she’s barely got started.

But, as a competitive swimmer, at least, retired is exactly what she has become. These days, she explained, she is unable to compete with younger athletes, who can work harder with less time for recovery. It’s a brutal idea, with slightly horrifying implications for the rest of us. At the age of 23, I could barely tie my own shoelaces, much less point to a collection of Olympic medals as testament to my hard work and talent; if Rebecca Adlington is past it at that age, what am I at nearly-30?

The soothing consolation is that very few careers besides professional sports and extremely-high-level mathematics are bound to burn out quite so fast. But that’s not much use for Rebecca. She has her whole life to become brilliant at something else, and I’ve no doubt that she’ll manage it, but if I were in her shoes I’d be petrified at the idea of starting over. It’s the great penalty of athletic prowess, this strange reworking of the Dorian Gray effect: you give your all to be a flawless physical specimen, and you deploy your gifts in arenas that make typical workplaces seem humdrum beyond words, and then, one day, your perfection is no use to you anymore. And what if the bits that are left are withered beyond use?

It is a titanic adjustment, and not always one that’s easy to make: the terrible sight of Paul Gascoigne’s suffering is testament to just how hard it can be. It’s visible even in the story of the disgraced Lance Armstrong, who might even have gotten away with his sins had he not felt the urge to return to his sport and try to recapture the youth that had already left him.

Those two differ from Adlington in one crucial respect: in triumph and despair alike – and in particular in the alleged disappointment of her bronzes last summer - she always seemed to have a sense that there was more to life. It’s like that bit in feelgood winter sports comedy Cool Runnings, a reliable source of profound life advice, so far as I’m concerned.  Success is “a wonderful thing,” the coach tells the Jamaican bobsleigher, “but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.” The bobsleigher ponders this, and asks: “How will I know if I’m enough?”

The reply: “When you cross that finish line, you’ll know.” Rebecca Adlington has crossed the finish line; I’m sure her answer is a good one. Perhaps the rest of us are lucky that we get to defer the question.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Trainer / IT Trainer

£30 to £32k : Guru Careers: We are seeking a Trainer / IT Trainer to join an a...

Recruitment Genius: Fence Installer - Commercial

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This privately owned Fencing Co...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £22,000

£17000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you answer yes, this company...

Recruitment Genius: Project / Account Manager and IT Support

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This world leader in Online Pro...

Day In a Page

Read Next
From left: Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham at a televised Labour leadership debate  

Jeremy Corbyn wouldn't be so far ahead in the Labour leadership race if his rivals weren't so awful

Ash Burt

Giving children 'iRights' to delete what they put online sends the wrong moral message

Joe Rivers
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'