‘Even when times are really tough, if you believe you can do it you’ll find the strength to move forward and achieve your dreams.’ A lady that needs no introduction, four times Olympic medal winner Rebecca Adlington is kind of a big deal. The nation’s most successful swimmer, we all held our breath and jumped for joy as she became a double gold medal winner in Beijing, setting the world record for the 800m freestyle aged 19. Four years and an OBE later, on home turf, the crowd roared for her as she made it onto the podium again, bursting into tears at the steady chant of her name. Retiring with two World Championship titles, four Commonwealth Games medals and three European titles, Rebecca (just call me Becky) has now set her sights on inspiring the next generation.
We were honoured (and a little star struck) when Becky agreed to take some time out and talk to us about life as an Olympian, her advice for those hoping to follow in her front crawl and her new SwimStars initiative. Passionate, dedicated and down to earth, Becky proves that with a bit of tenacity, an amazing team and an unbreakable self belief, anyone can achieve their dreams.
First things first, how old were you when you started swimming?
I learnt to swim when I was around three or four years old and joined a club aged eight-nine.
When did you realise you were going to take this up professionally?
I started competing when I was ten years old and moved through the junior competitions. I raced at European Youth Olympics and European Juniors where I won medals. I didn’t really do it professionally until I was around 18 years old, when I could solely concentrate on swimming rather than balancing school and swimming.
What was your training schedule like?
My schedule was ten swim sessions a week and they were all two hours long. I would average around 70,000 metres a week!
Monday – Swim 6-8am, gym 8.30-10am, swim 5-7pm
Tuesday – Swim 6-8am, swim 5-7pm
Wednesday – Gym for 1 hour, swim 4-6pm
Thursday – Swim 6-8am, swim 5-7pm
Friday – Swim 6-8am, gym 8.30-10am, swim 5-7pm
Saturday – Swim 7-9am
I would also have physio and sports psychology sessions on top of that.
That sounds tough! Did you have to do any forms of cross training?
Yes, I used to run at the beginning of a season to help build my endurance and fitness back up. All my gym work was based in a gymnastics centre as the floor is springy and helped reduce the impact.
What was your diet like when you were training like that?
Professional swimmers get to eat a lot which is amazing! On a typical day I would eat:
5am: Small bowl of cereal
8.30am: Either breakfast if I wasn’t in the gym or a shake and a banana if I was going straight to the gym
10am – Breakfast: Six weetabix or a big bowl of porridge
1pm – Lunch: Four sandwiches
3pm – Snack: Fruit, toast, yoghurt, nuts
7pm – Evening meal: Pasta or stir fry – I would need big portions and had to make sure I was getting lots of protein and carbs
9pm: Bowl of cereal or some nuts before bed
I would indulge more at the weekends and maybe have a meal out. That was our only way of socialising really as we didn’t go on nights out when in hard training.
You must have answered this a million and one times, but how does it feel to win a gold medal for your country?
Amazing! It’s very difficult to put it into words as it’s just so personal. You think back to all the early mornings, all the hard work, all the times you’ve been in pain and it’s all totally worth it. You flash back over every moment, every swim session. It’s a great feeling of satisfaction, relief, joy, happiness – every emotion!
I bet. You’ve got so many amazing achievements – looking back over your career, what has been the highlight?
The highlight has to be the Beijing 2008 Olympics – it was where it all started for me. Winning the two golds and getting the world record was just incredible, a dream come true. I didn’t think going to Beijing that I would walk away with that result. My goals were to make the final for the 400m freestyle and possibly get a bronze in the 800m freestyle, so to walk away with double gold was something beyond all expectations.
Why did you decide to retire at 23?
I decided to retire for a number of reasons. I felt I had achieved everything I could ever have hoped for, my body couldn’t handle the work load the same way it used to, and I always wanted to finish on a high. Female distance freestyle is very young – I won at 19 and in London the winner was 15. It’s just the nature of the sport and the event.
I really enjoyed working with young kids and getting them into sport, I realised that this was a big passion of mine. A lot of athletes are scared of retirement as it’s the only thing they know and love, so I was lucky enough to find something I was equally as passionate about.
Can you tell us a bit more about your SwimStars initiative?
We started Becky Adlington’s Swim Stars in 2012. I really wanted to make a difference and encourage more and more children to swim. After hearing over a million kids in the UK leave primary school unable to swim, it absolutely shocked me when it’s the only sport that’s a life skill. In a lot of other countries like Australia and America it’s a huge part of their lifestyles and school systems. Yet in the UK – a tiny island by comparison – you can’t live your life without meeting water at some point and we don’t seem to take it as seriously. I think learning to swim should be about learning a life skill but also having fun and growing in confidence.
My vision is to see that every child in the UK leaves primary school being able to swim 25 metres. It’s been amazing to see the program grow so much since starting. We now have 17 venues and over 3,500 children on the programme. Not quite the million children, but just knowing it’s making a difference and the kids love being in the water makes me very happy.
That sounds amazing! Is it just aimed at children?
No, we are also offering private adult swimming lessons at the Hilton Hotel Syon Park in London. The one-to-one lessons are suitable for complete beginners or people looking to perfect their technique, and the Swim Stars teachers are trained to develop swimming skills and ability. The lessons are designed around the individual’s level and needs and can cover topics from learning new strokes, developing water confidence, perfecting breathing and race techniques and intense competition preparation. Alternatively, they can be used as fitness training to complement other sports such as rugby, football or tennis.
What advice would you give someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
Firstly, you have to love what you do. Your heart has got to be in it as you need that drive and passion to put in all those hours of hard work, dedication and determination! Secondly, build an amazing team around you. From your family and friends who you can relax with and who support you the whole way, to a great coach who you respect and trust, then the people who will help your performance – from physios to sports scientists. Lastly, always believe in yourself no matter what. Even when times are really tough, if you believe you can do it then you’ll find the strength to move forward and achieve your dreams.
That’s a brilliant answer, thank you! What’s next for you?
I hope to continue to grow my learn to swim programme and get more and more kids having fun and learning a life skill. Also, I’m looking forward to becoming a mother in June – I’m very excited! The swimming world championships are taking place in August so I will hopefully be joining the BBC team too.
Finally, what’s your favourite stroke and why?
My favourite stroke is front crawl as it’s the fastest and the only one I’m good at!
Thanks again Becky and best of luck with everything!
If Becky has inspired you to dive in at the deep end and get back in the pool, why not take a look at the swimming courses listed on our site. To find out more about Becky’s Swim Stars, head over to her website, or get in touch via Twitter.