Rebecca Adlington might have been forgiven for declaring: "It doesn't get any better than this - I quit". She had just become the greatest Olympic swimmer Britain has seen since 1908, with two gold medals and a world-record performance that will go down in history as one of the most monumental of all-time. The 19-year-old from Mansfield had bigger things in mind: "London 2012, here I come - it's going to be fantastic. I wouldn't miss it for the whole world."
On Monday the first British woman to lift an Olympic crown in the pool since 1960 and the first of either sex for 20 years when she won the 400m freestyle, Adlington crashed into uncharted waters as one of the greats of distance freestyle swimming in a world record of 8mins 14.10 in the 800m. The standard, which had stood at 8:16.22 to the legendary American Janet Evans since August 20, 1989, was the last to survive from the last millennium.
The impact of the British teenager's tactics was devastating: by the end of 16 lengths at a pace few have dreamt of let alone imagined possible, the result sheet showed that six of the eight finalists had swum slower than their heats time. Adlington, who before the race had to lie down on the floor and ask teammates to talk to her to avoid "standing up and being sick because I was more nervous than I've ever been in my life", dealt a killer psychological blow by racing through a timewarp: the first turn was the last at which she was led; by 100m she was travelling as fast, at 59.37sec, as the speed in which Johnny "Tarzan" Weissmuller won his first Olympic 100m freestyle title, in 1924; at 400m, on 4:05.72 her time would have won the silver medal in the straight 400m at the 2004 Games in Athens; and by the end she was 2.12sec inside a standard that was set when she was six months old.
Bill Furniss, her coach at the Nova Centurion club in Nottingham since she was 12, summed up the enormity of what had just unfold: “It's an awesome achievement. This has been an awesome Olympics. It's frighteningly fast but I think that Rebecca’s performance is right up there with all the best swims. That's got to be one of the all-time great swims. It's such a magnificent record and to take it down by so much - and in the morning ... The other girls couldn't repeat, couldn't back up on their heats swims. She just destroyed the record - and destroyed the field.”
When Britain's Kelly Holmes won two golds on the track in 2004, honours came flooding in, including the ultimate one from Her Majesty. Will it be Dame Becky by Christmas? “No! I’m only 19,” said Adlington. “It would be an honour, of course. But that’s not why I came here. I came here to do a job, to race for what I’ve worked for. It wasn’t about anything that might go with it.”
The odds on the teenager lifting Britain's BBC Sports Personality Award shortened as soon as Adlington broke away from main rivals Camelia Potec, of Romania, and Alessia Filippi, of Italy, at the 150m mark. By 400m, the British champion had established a clear lead and was 2.20sec inside Evan's world record pace. Her metronomic excellence was never in question from that point on: Adlington opened up a stretch of clear blue water that left no room for her rivals to hope of striking back. Filippi ended with the silver on 8:20.23 and was the only other swimmer to improve on her heats time. The bronze went to Lotte Friis, of Denmark, in 8:23.03, while the winning margin has only been greater on one occasion in history, the 1968 title at altitude in Mexico going to American Debbie Meyer, a legend of the pool and the first woman ever to win three titles in the pool, by 11.7sec.
Adlington has joined the league of swimming legends in Beijing. The first British woman since Anita Lonsbrough in 1960 to reach the top of the Olympic podium in the pool. Lonsbrough was also the last to hold a world record in an Olympic event. Up in the media stands, the 1960 champion said: "I'm delighted that the records I held for being 'the last British woman to ...' are finally gone - and they could not have gone to a more lovely or deserving athlete." Adlington was the fifth woman to win the 400m and 800m double after four Americans: Meyer (1968), Tiffany Cohen (1984), Evans (1988) and Brooke Bennett (2000).
"I can't believe it, I went out so quick. It's fantastic that all the hard work over the years has paid off, I'm so pleased," Adlington said. “At 400m, I thought ‘that's ony half-way’.” The pain set in sometime between 500 and 600: "It just hit me how fast I'd gone out. I just stuck with it, just tried to go with it. Just kept thinking about what I had to do. When I realised I was on my own I just went for it.” Adlington punched the air, waved to teammates, slapped the water and sought out the place in the crowd where mum Kay, who gave up her career as a PA when her 12-year-old daughter’s talent shone through, and dad Steve, co-owner of a steel manufacturing company, had been standing for the last 200m of the race, Union flags flying, voices scorched with passion.
“We are the proudest parents in Beijing,” said Kay through floods of tears. “Mrs Phelps must be pretty proud too but we are just overjoyed. It’s just unbelievable.” When Kelly Holmes won two golds on the track, she was showered with honours. Will it be Dame Becky by Christmas? The odds on the teenager lifting the BBC Sports Personality Award have shortened considerably but Adlington would have none of it. The offers, along with the Christian Louboutin and Jimmy Choo kitten heels, are flooding in.
“To be honest, anything that has come in is going to have to come second to swimming, no matter what it is. My swimming comes first. I'm still going to have to go training, between 6 and 8 in the morning and 5 and 7 at night. I couldn't have done it without my mum and dad. And Bill’s been like a second dad. If it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t be here today” said Adlington, a tear in her eye as she recalled the roller-coaster ride from being European junior 800m champion in 2004 to failing to make the England Commonwealth Games team in 2006 after a bout of glandular fever had laid her low. The recovery was long and slow but by late summer of 2006, she had won her first senior international medal – a silver in the European Championships in the 800m. “Others would have walked away – but Bill stuck by me,” said Adlington.
Furniss said of his charge: “Talent comes in different ways. She had physical takent and I've coached swimmers who've had great physical talent but she's got a psychological talent as well. She's got an inner strength. She just hates to lose, and she's driven. She's been under such pressure. She was nervous today. Really nervous. But I told her that's just human and its your body just getting you ready for what you have to do. If you can embrace that and it doesn't throw you ... and she did just that. There's a lot of swimmers who can stand on the block and under the most intense pressure they just crack. And there's a few swimmers who stand on the block and they get better. She's one of those. That's the main talent. She's just a winner.”
His first words to her after the 400m were “Rebecca Adlington – Olympic champion” because he wanted to be the first to speak the honour. Yesterday, he said: “What have you gone and done?!” Taken an axe to expectation, that’s what. “When she turned in 2mins 01 at the 200m, I was standing with the other coaches and they said 'that's a bit fast'. I said 'no, its not, because she just looks so easy'. She just floated to 2minutes 01. She has an awesome technique. Everyone talks about the work that swimmers do. And we do have a punishing regime. But we do as much work on technique. The limiting factor is technique. The thing that will make the difference is technique. The thing that will win it is technique.”
Consistently training near to world-record pace helps too. “When you work with someone day in and day out and you see some amazing things and sometimes its difficult to keep your mouth shut because its just amazing what you're seeing. She swims four of five sessions a week at world-class pace. People have been asking me if I'm surprised,” said Furniss. “Yes, I'm surprised but part of me is not. It's only a surprise in that you don't expect it all to come together in that point in time. But I knew she was capable of doing that time. I think that down the line there's more to come.”
Within half an hour of the race, Furniss had taken Adlington aside to prepare her for the impact of success. "I said to her, 'look, your life is going to change'. I've protected her pretty much in the run-up to this and I'll do my best to look after her. I've told her 'what you need to do in the next four years is remember that you're performance comes first. It's a home Olympics in London 2012 and to actually repeat this [Beijing result] there in London is our target. We are very much trying to focus on that objective and try and fit the other stuff around it.
Adlington would now support her open water marathon teammates before going off on holiday with boyfriend Andrew Mayor in Scotland and taking a Mediterranean cruise. In October, she would return to training and a slow build up towards her next big target: a repeat performance in London 2012.