With Olympic, world, European, Commonwealth and British titles to her name, Rebecca Adlington is already Great Britain’s most successful swimmer of all time. In London she will stand on the brink of greatness, but her biggest challenge might lie in the mind rather than in the pool.
“Nerves can be brilliant because it gets your adrenalin going and it means you care and want to do well,” Adlington told BBC Sport. “I think she has done an incredible job by following up her results in Beijing with some strong consistency. Becky is similar to the great distance freestyle swimmer [four-time US Olympic champion] Janet Evans and when we speak of an athlete in the same breath as Evans, we’re speaking of one in the highest regard.”
Ian Thorpe, five-time Olympic champion. The first high-profile case of this came at the 2009 World Championships in Rome, when the world-record holder finished fourth in her favoured 800m freestyle event.
“It wasn’t a complete disaster and it wasn’t a bad time, but I just let the pressure get to me a little bit too much,” reflected Adlington. “It was the first major meet after Beijing and everyone thought ‘oh, she’s going to go and win two gold medals’. At 20, I wasn’t ready for that level of expectation. “
A year later, at the European Championships in Budapest, the situation worsened as she finished a surprise seventh in the 800m. “After Beijing the 800m took a bit of a dip and it became this challenge,” she said. “I just got so nervous and so worked up that I literally dived in and I completely stiffened up. “I’d never experienced it before. The whole way through the race I didn’t feel myself and it was that moment where I learnt I had to relax.
“I realised there was no point in harming myself, getting that nervous, and that I had to just chill out and enjoy the experience.”
Working with sport psychologist Simon Middlemas has certainly helped and, since the low of Budapest, the Mansfield-based swimmer has claimed two Commonwealth titles, a maiden world gold and qualified for the London Olympics.
“I used to think I don’t need any help and I’d be fine, but it’s nice to just speak to someone who’s completely non-biased and is separate from swimming who’ll say ‘man up - you’re just diving into a pool’, so I love how honest he is.”
Sporting anxieties are not the only obstacles Adlington has had to conquer. At the age of 15 she was diagnosed with glandular fever and around the same time her eldest sister, Laura, was admitted into intensive care with Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain tissue).
“That was a really, really tough year,” admitted Adlington.
“My coach Bill [Furniss] knew to really ease down my training. I was upset coming to the pool because I wasn’t well and it was also taking me away from home and my sister, so he knew to make it enjoyable.”
Furniss, who spotted Adlington’s potential at the age of 12, added: “People watch her doing really well and think it must have been an easy ride, but it’s not.