Rebecca Adlington, double Olympic champion over 400m and 800m freestyle, announced her retirement from racing at a press conference at the Intercontinental Hotel in Westminster, London, this morning.
There will be no comeback for the most decorated British swimmer in history. "It's such a hard decision and all the harder when you're not fully ready," says Adlington. "So many make comebacks because they have regrets over things that they left unfinished or because they quit too soon. I had to be ready in my heart, mind and body and I had to make sure it was coming from me. I've thought about it long and hard because I didn't want to be one of those with regrets. I'm 100% certain: I'm definitely ready to go and will move on with no regrets and no reason to make a comeback."
Adlington will remain at the core of the world in which she excelled as an athlete, her vision to have every child able to swim 25m by the time they finish primary school. It is, she says, "my biggest challenge and greatest legacy".
"I love swimming but as a competitive element and elite athlete I won't compete any more," said Adlington this morning. "I have achieved everything I wanted to. Some people want to milk it all they can. I've always said I wanted to finish on a high, despite my love of the sport... I did feel old at 23, female distance swimming is going a lot younger as was evident in London. I can't compete with that and can't do the same level of work. I need a lot more rest and recovery. I think it was the perfect time."
She added: "I'm very proud of what I have achieved so far, but my journey is not finished yet. My vision is that every child in Britain will be able to swim 25 metres by the time they leave primary school. Being able to swim is such a wonderful life skill, and I see this as my greatest challenge in swimming."
Adlington has spent the past few months thinking hard about what to do next, often swimming alone in an attempt to avoid being influenced by others when it came to the big question: to quit racing or not?
She had come to the conclusion that the right time was ripe to move on, her body no longer able to do the work required to keep pace with a younger generation of swimmers, such as Olympic 800m free champion Katie Ledecky (USA), 15.
"I hate the word retire," Adlington said. "I love swimming but as a competitive element and elite athlete I won't compete any more. I'll always be swimming even when I am 90 years old."
She added: "I certainly can't compete with that (younger swimmers). I can't do the same level of work, I need far more time for recovery. It's time. Beijing changed my entire life, everyone wanted to learn about me. It was the best moment of my entire career."
After posting a tribute on her website to those who helped her along the way, Adlington said: "I couldn't have done it without my family. Even my sisters, they helped me with my homework. Bill [Furniss] is the biggest thing ... he has helped me as an athlete as much as a person."
Among the first to pay tribute to Adlington, the greatest Olympian of all-time, Michael Phelps (USA), said: "Our paths have crossed many times over the years - at meets and through a shared sponsor. Her accomplishments speak for themselves, she has been a great representative for British Swimming and the sport overall. I congratulate her on a fantastic career and wish her all the best in the future."
Lord Coe, chairman of the London 2012 organising committee, hit the perfect note when he hinted at a personality that won the heart of her country: "Becky Adlington's unforgettable success in Beijing inspired a generation to get in the pool and swim. Her down to earth personality and remarkable career achievements have made her a national treasure. Becky's vision for the future of grass roots swimming in this country will create a wonderful legacy from one of our greatest Olympians. I have no doubt this vision will be pursued with the same drive, dedication and determination as Becky consistently displayed in the pool."
Sir Chris Hoy, Britain's superstar track cyclist, weighed in with: "Becky and I have become great friends over the years since the Beijing Olympics. The sheer scale of what she has achieved, not only for herself but also for swimming in this country, is amazing. She's been the standard bearer of her sport for a long time now and I expect that to be the case for many years to come.
One of the greats of freestyle swimming among men, Ian Thorpe (AUS) said: "Becky has been an invaluable asset to British swimming and has been a huge inspiration to young people taking up the sport. She can look back on her career with huge pride and satisfaction. I'm delighted that she's decided to create her own legacy, establishing swimming as a 'life skill' is such an important crusade."
To read those the first tributes and details of Adlington's plans, including the Becky Adlington's SwimStars' initiative, go to her official website.
The 800m freestyle world record holder retires "from racing" 12 days before her 24th birthday, 11 years into a full-on career as an elite swimmer and seven years beyond her international debut for Britain. The 8mins 14.10 that delivered Olympic gold over 16 laps at the Beijing Olympic Games and, together with victory over 400m, made the 19-year-old a household name in Britain, confined to history a standard that had stood to American Janet Evans since Adlington was 6 months old, in the summer of 1989.
Guided by Bill Furniss, who yesterday was elevated to Britain head coach, Adlington has a lofty place in the pantheon of distance greats. When Furniss described her 800m performance in Beijing as one of the finest swims in Olympic history, he was right: his pupil had delivered a display of technical brilliance backed by an exceptional level of fitness forged in what the coach called "a punishing regime".
She could, Furniss once told me, tolerate physical pain like no other swimmer had ever coached. "It is brutal and she can do that,” he said. Adlington had always shown “steel” and had been a “perfectionist ... someone who is very willing to pay the price that’s required in terms of physical pain and psychological concentration and the application that’s required”.
If that “punishing regime” explained her success, so too did skill, noted Furniss. “The limiting factor is technique ... the thing that will win it is technique." The aesthetic matched the efficient in Adlington at full flow.
If her two gold medals of Beijing made her the first British swimmer since Henry Taylor at London 1908 to win more than one gold medal at a Games, it also made her the first British woman to stand aloft the highest podium in the sport since 1960. More success was to follow.
If Martha Norelius (400m) and Brooke Bennett (800m, 2000 - and making her competitive comeback at the Orlando Grand Prix from February 14 to 16) remain the only swimmers besides fellow American Evans (800m) ever to retain either the Olympic 400m or 800m freestyle title (none have ever retained both), then Evans, a triple champion in 1988 and winner of gold once more in 1992, is the only distance swimmer with a treasury that exceeds Adlington's tally: two gold among four medals in all at the Olympic Games, two world titles, one long-course, the other short-course, and the world long-course record over 800m, plus three crowns at European and Commonwealth (for England) levels.
She belongs to an elite club, alongside those named above and the likes ofAmerican Debbie Meyer and Australian shooting star Shane Gould and record holder still to this day (only woman ever to win five solo medals at one Games), women who stood a very clear head and shoulders above contemporary world-class swimmers.
Adlington has left the fast lane but will remain in swimming: her goal in life is to ensure that "every child in Britain learns to swim at least one length". A Swim Stars learning programme is to be set up in her honour.
World Championships (LC)
World Championships (SC)
European Championships (LC)
Commonwealth Games (LC)
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