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

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The Independent Online

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.