With just a week for SJA members to register their votes for the 2011 Sportswoman of the Year, CRAIG LORD, swimming correspondent of The Times, explains why Rebecca Adlington deserves your support
Little wonder that the Sheraton Pudong hotel room in Shanghai shared by Britain’s Rebecca Adlington and Kerri-Anne Payne was renamed the Golden Suite by teammates back in July: 10 days after the marathon ace from Stockport retained the open-water marathon world title, Britain’s double Olympic champion of Beijing claimed the first global crown of her career and the first world freestyle title by any British woman.
Payne’s victory over 10km came with a bonus: the first place on the British team for a home Games at London 2012. Adlington, Olympic and Commonwealth champion over 400 and 800 metres freestyle and European 400m champion, must stand and fight once more, at British trials in March.
The signs are good, not only for trials but the bigger battle next summer after Adlington won a boiling stroke-for-stroke 800m freestyle battle in Shanghai with Lotte Friis, the Danish defending world champion of 2009.
The naked eye was barely able to split the difference by the close. Friis’ 0.31sec advantage after 14 of 16 laps of the Oriental Sports Centre pool was the biggest gap between them until Adlington demolished the Dane with a blistering last 50 metres to settle the argument 8min 17.51sec to 8min 18.20sec.
In a week that saw some of her teammates buckle under the pressure of tight racing in which Olympic, world and continental champions from several leading nations fell shy of even making finals let alone the podium, Adlington stuck to Friis like glue every time the Beijing Olympic bronze medallist tried to break away.
Whenever Friis gained from her superior turns, Adlington, coached by Bill Furniss in Nottingham, responded with superior swimming speed in tune to the thunderous support in the stands from parents Kay and Stephen, boyfriend Harry Needs and the Britain squad. They gave their heroine a standing ovation from the moment she walked out on to her blocks to the moment she climbed down from the podium, the gold medal around her neck.
By the final turn Friis was 0.21sec to the good. Adlington showed she was sick of her shadow with the fastest homecoming length in the history of 800m racing, 28.91sec, a split that even outshone the era of shiny suits: in Beijing in a 50 per cent polyurethane suit of the kind banned since last year, she had managed a 29.66sec final length on her way to setting a world record of 8min 14.10sec.
The private battle between Adlington and Friis, one of many since their days as juniors, had been a close clash waiting to happen since the Dane donned a 100 per cent poly suit in Rome two years ago to win a race in which Adlington, having refused to move up to full rubber suits, was locked out of the medals and left the pool distraught.
In Shanghai, the 22-year-old from Mansfield who had also finished second at 400m freestyle was all smiles: “I’m so happy. It’s absolutely amazing. It was thrilling. At the last world championships I got two bronzes so to come away from here with a gold and a silver is just amazing.
“It’s always been one does it one year and one does it the next year but I hope to God it’s me next year.”
On that score, pressure was something she thrived on, said Adlington, and she was looking forward to a home advantage with “the crowd on our side, no planes to get on, no jet lag, getting sick, big distances from the hotel to the pool”.
She added: “I’m the type of person that it doesn’t get me down when I have a bad swim, I just get more motivated. I’m quite resilient in that way.
“I have pretty much learnt to cope with that now, I think I’ve had to after the Olympics. I want to do well, I want to succeed, I don’t put all the hard work in and get up early in the morning just to come and not make it happen. A lot of people do that …”
Just a decade ago, the wider world of swimming would have laughed at the very idea of a British woman swimmer winning a world freestyle title. Adlington’s treasury of two Olympic, one world, one European and two Commonwealth crowns in the past three years is the proof that Briish swimmers needed, says head coach Dennis Pursley, “that they can be as good as if not better than anyone else in the world”.
The torchbearer of Britain’s hopes in the race pool at the London Aquatics Centre next year, Adlington is keen to note the competition now aspiring to her standard at home. “It’s so hard to make the team in Britain now. It won’t be the same as it was in 2008. Just to qualify is the biggest challenge. We’re all fighting for two places. It’s good that we have that depth . . . it makes us a nation that is noticed, even feared.”
SJA WORKING LUNCH: Baroness Grey-Thompson on the 2012 London Paralympics. Thu Nov 17: click here for booking details
- Who will you vote for as Britain’s Sportsman, Sportswoman and Team of the Year? See Ian Cole’s overview of the leading candidates by clicking here.
- Follow news of the SJA British Sports Award on Twitter with the hashtag #SJA2011
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- SJA members can cast their votes by clicking here.
- The awards will be presented at our gala annual lunch in London on December 7. Don’t miss out on being there – click here for a ticket booking form, with SJA members entitled to buy two tickets at half the usual price.