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Saturday, August 16, 2008

From Miss Nobody to greatest British swimmer for 100 years

Let's start with the numbers.

She's 19 years old.

This was her first Olympics.

On Monday she became the first woman to win a British swimming gold for 48 years.

On Saturday she became the first British swimmer to win two golds at the same Games for 100 years (the last was Henry Taylor in 1908).

She is only the third British athlete since World War Two to win two golds at the same Games (the others being Kelly Holmes, 800m/1500m 2004 and Richard Meade, three-day eventing, 1972). 1308 BST UPDATE: And now Chris Hoy kierin/men's pursuit, 2008.

Adlington won her second gold in the 800m final with a winning margin of more than six seconds - in a new world-record time of 18 minutes 14.1 seconds.

It was a record which had stood for 19 years, the oldest record in the swimming book and she broke it by more than two seconds.

But let's look at some less sexy numbers. The ones that really matter, the real story behind Rebecca Adlington's double gold in the pool.

Her day starts when the alarm goes at 5.15am.

By 5.45am she is getting changed at her home pool in Nottingham - home of Nova Centurion Swimming Club.

After a quick warm-up poolside, she is in the water by 6am.

Over the next two hours she will swim about 320 lengths.

She will have swum around 8,000m before many of us are out of bed.

Then it is home for breakfast, a sleep, a bit of TV - then at 4.15pm it's time to leave for the pool again for the second session of the day - when she gets to do it all again.

This happens every day of the week, except Wednesday - when coach Bill Furniss gives her and the 20 or so other members of the Centurion elite squad the morning off - and Saturday, when they get a whole extra hour in bed.

"The best hour of the week," says Centurion and GB team-mate and friend Jess Sylvester, who estimates that in a week Adlington may swim up to 80,000m.

That's more than 50 miles.

It's not glamorous. And it's not lucrative.

As a member of the British Swimming elite team, Adlington is funded by UK Sport.

For the last few years she has been in one of the lowest funding brackets, category C, which has given her an income of between £8,000-£10,000 a year.

Out of that she and her family have had to fund her full-time career as a swimmer - her travel, their travel, accommodation and kit.

"You've probably heard how expensive those new LZR costumes are, about £200 a go," she confides in whispered tones while we're sitting backstage in BBC TV's Ling Long Pagoda studio in Beijing.

She's joking about the pair of Christian Louboutin shoes she has got her eye on (she has already emailed her mum the internet link).

Adlington is just starting to understand what she has done here in Beijing in her first Olympic Games and what it might mean. A new pair of designer shoes.

"Coming into this meet, nobody wanted to speak to me - I was Miss Nobody!" she gasps in glee to the Today programme's John Humphreys, one of the many people waiting to interview her back home.

It was a very different story as she left the Olympic pool this morning, where a pack of 500 were waiting to speak to her.

Furniss, who describes her as an "aerobic animal", said: "It's going to be a steep learning curve for her, getting used to this attention, but I think the penny dropped when we came out to that crush.

"But she will handle it, she's a Mansfield girl and a pretty amazing one too, she'll keep her feet on the ground."

Indeed though Adlington is hungry and tired after this morning's exploits in the pool - she is still engaging, modest and excited at the prospect of appearing on the sofa to be interviewed by Claire Balding and Adrian Chiles in front of many millions of TV viewers in the UK who have got up for an early Saturday morning breakfast to hear how she got on.

Indeed, her bubbly nature was visible on the podium, where her tears dried up to be replaced by giggles - the fault of the British swim team who had all gathered around the pool side to celebrate her medal moment.

"I could just hear them all shouting - I could hear Simon Burnett yell, 'I want your babies!' - which I am sure his girlfriend would have something to say about as well as my boyfriend!"

The horseplay indicates what a fantastic mood now resonates within the British swimming camp - where while there has been only one other medal (Jo Jackson), the team has performed well.

Her good friend and fellow GB swimmer Cassie Patten, who jokingly called on the Queen to make her a Dame in the BBC's live post-race interview, has a good chance in the open-water swimming, and Adlington is pleased she can now take time off to go and cheer her on.

As Adlington is whisked away for a spot of make-up, Sylvester, a 100m freestyler who swam in the 4x100m relay team which finished seventh, tells me how they have all been buoyed by her wins.

"It is just so inspiring going to London in four years time. It is a long way away off and will mean a lot of hard work but it gives you the inspiration to do it when Becky can just go out there and smash the world record to win her second gold."

"I have had the privilege of seeing her train every day, and I know what she puts herself through and how tough she is.

"I saw how upset she was after last year's World Championships but to be honest I believe if she had not had that disappointment she might not have done this now because it made her a stronger person."

Adlington had been tipped as an outside medal chance going into the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne - but failed to make the final and left the pool in tears.

"She was bawling her eyes out, she was so upset," said BBC pundit and former GB swimming champion Karen Pickering.

"So that was the only question mark over Becky - there was no doubting her talent or her hard work - but could she do it at a major championship?"

The answer, as we now know, was very definitely yes.

Adlington herself admits that disappointment was what spurred her on over the last 18 months, when she has "pushed her body to the limits".

"I learnt a lot about myself that day. I had trained so hard - no less hard than I have been this year - but it was my first major meet and I was a bit out of my depth to be honest.

"I got out of the pool after failing to make the final and I was distraught, I was in tears, I have never been so upset. I swore then that I was never going to let that happen again, that I was not going to be getting out of the Olympic pool crying my eyes out."

She did, but it was tears of joy as she finished a full six seconds ahead of her nearest rival - then raised her arms aloft as she realised she had got the world record.

As Chiles joked, Adlington was so far ahead she could have turned into the final 50m and given the others a wink as they were coming towards her.

Indeed the distance by which she won had all Brits, starved of swimming success in recent years, pleasantly surprised ("She's six metres clear - and she's British!," squealed BBC commentator Andy Jameson).

It wasn't the close finish Holmes put us through in Athens on the way to her double gold, but in the same way, it could be the enduring image of this games for British fans.

While Holmes was a 34-year-old veteran in Athens, a victim of injury and bad luck for years until it all came right at her last shot at Olympic gold, Adlington is just getting started.

She had been talked about as a hot young talent as far back as 2004 when she won the European Junior Championships aged 16.

But the following year she contracted glandular fever and was laid low for many months, and at the same time, one of her two sisters contracted meningitis.

"It was a really testing time for the family and to be honest a lot of people were questioning whether she could come back from that," said Sylvester. "But it just shows how tough she is."

Adlington bounced back to win a silver at the European Championships in Hungary in 2006 - for which she received a special commendation from the mayor of Mansfield (the town is now going to rename the local Sherwood Baths in her honour).

After that her mum gave up her job to run her daughter's career full-time - though she still helps out in the accounts department at the steel fabrications company where Becky's dad is managing director.

"Mum has given so much for me, she is the one who is always there to ferry me around, to make sure things are right - my dad helps me financially but my mum is basically my manager.

"I owe them both everything."

Between them, her parents had seen every race their daughter had ever swum, until Monday...

They had bought tickets for the 400m final in the Water Cube - but they'd turned out to be fake and were only able to fly out on Wednesday.

"I thought 'oh no, maybe they've have missed my gold so in the 800m I just wanted so much to do it for them'."

"At about 500m, I breathed, and happened to look up and I saw my mum in the crowd with the Union Jack - I wasn't looking for them it was just luck - and I thought 'I've got to do it for them'.

After two golds in Beijing, Adlington is now hugely excited about the prospect of appearing on home turf at London 2012 - where she will be the same age as Michael Phelps now - but admits it also feels a bit overwhelming.

"The prospect of another four years of such hard work feels a bit daunting right now.

But I am going to have a good few months off which will help. But my body is developing; I am more muscley than I was last year so I am getting stronger.

It is early days now but I may focus more on the 200m and the 400m - as the training for the 800m is such hard work!"

But first up is a well-deserved holiday.

Courtesy : BBC

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