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Adlington Cracks 4:03 With New-Age Marker

Mar 5, 2011  - Craig Lord

Manchester: British Gas Championships and world-championship trials, day 1 finals:

Women's 400m freestyle

That there is danger for double Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington in domestic waters cannot be denied but on the strength of a storming victory over 400m freestyle at British Gas national championships in Manchester last night, the rest have some catching up to do yet.

In 4mins 02.84, the 22-year-old from Mansfield booked her ticket to Shanghai for the last world championships before the London 2012 Olympic team is assembled next year. Alongside her in China will be Jazmin Carlin, the 19-year-old giving chase on a Welsh record of 4mins 05.51.

Adlington, through on leading splits of 59.67, 2:01.77 and 3:02.88, her final 100m a sizzling 59.96, said: "It was such a difficult race. I've been a bit ill this week, had a few niggles (a cold an a spasm in her back but nothing serious)... but that's unbelievable." A hand inside her Olympic winning time of 2008, she added: "To get back down to that time in a textile suit  is just fantastic." Non-textile booster suits were banned from January 1 last year.

That Adlington's swift time is best in the world this year reflects the timing of events: Britain is the first major nation to hold selection trials for Shanghai and the first to race rested for peak performance. More pleasing for swimmer and her coach in Nottingham, Bill Furniss, was the way she raced: commanding from go to gold, her technique a model of efficiency, her pacing not far short of perfect, her decisive third 100m blistering as she pulled away from the pack.

In textile suits, only these three efforts are faster:

  • 4:01.53 Federica Pellegrini (ITA) European Championships, March 2008 (the swimmer herself says that she wore textile - and just one suit for that magnificent effort in Eindhoven and there is no reason to doubt her)
  • 4:02.13 Laure Manaudou (FRA) European Championships August 2006
  • 4:02.61 Laure Manaudou (FRA) World Championships March 2007

The swiftest in the world last year was a 4:03.12 from Pellegrini in Pescara in June.

Times are times, of course, winning something else. In Beijing, Pellegrini finished fifth after making a tactical error, while Manaudou, as defending champion from 2004, finished 8th and well off the pace in the last big race of her first career. Pellegrini, Manaudou (first time round), Katie Hoff and others are among proven winners capable of stepping up when it counts most. What a race it will be.

The 2010 European and Commonwealth champion's splits compare to these winning moments in Beijing: 

  • 59.36; 2:01.56; 3:03.36; 4:03.22 (59.86 last 100m)

The two swims are not far from being a match, the latest comparing to a 4:04.55 textile best she established in 2010. Good progress too for coach Bud McAllister's Swansea charge Carlin, on 4:06.19 in March 2010 when the shine was on, and 4:06.41 a year ago, while marathon Olympic silver medallist and 2009 world champion Payne, coached by Sean Kelly at Stockport, had a best of 4:12.12 and will surely have gone back to her home near Manchester tonight knowing that her work is paying off.

Results in full

The champion's effort confirmed that her escape from a British winter for six weeks of summer-sun training in Australia before Christmas was a wise choice. Now, the Olympic champion hopes to repeat that exercise in the last winter before she aims to become the first British swimmer since Henry Taylor in 1908 to defend two Olympic titles.

The question is not only if Britain can place one woman on the podium at a home Games over 400m but two women, as it did in Beijing. Bronze last night went to Kerri-Anne Payne in 4:07.93, while Joanne Jackson, who shared the Olympic and world-championship podiums with Adlington over 400m in 2008 and 2009, finished fourth in 4:08.91, her recovery from the setback of severe asthma last year not yet complete. Miley finished fifth on 4:09.59, Eleanor Faulkner, 17, sixth on 4:10.34.

If the race hinted at the quality of field building behind Adlington, the picture was not quite complete: fourth not far behind Adlington and Carlin at the Commonwealth Games last year, Anne Bochmann, 17, had no wish nor need to race at a disadvantage and opted to bypass  Manchester  after sustaining a back injury earlier in the season. She is now on the mend and in full training once more, aiming to make further progress in junior waters this summer.

With a nod to the challenge she faces to make the Britain team, let alone defending her Olympic crowns, Adlington said: “It makes it really difficult with young ones coming up. I'm an old one now and I feel like a veteran. Everyone wants to beat me and I'm like, 'Oh God, go away'."

How they measure up:

  • Best of Britain, spring 2007: 4:07.42
  • GBR championships top 3 2009: 4:00.66; 4:00.89; 4:06.19
  • GBR best 2010: 4:04.55 Rebecca Adlington
  • 2011 Nationals: 4:02.84; 4:05.5; 4:07.93
  • GBR record all suits: 4:00.60 Joanne Jackson 2009
  • GBR textile best: 4:02.84 Rebecca Adlingtion 2011 (4:04.55, 2010)

Best GBR podium result at world titles: Joanne Jackson, silver in Rome 2009, with Federica Pellegrini (ITA) taking gold and Rebecca Adlington giving Britain a second place on a world titles podium in the same women's race for the first time in swimming history.

On the eve of nationals, Dennis Pursley, head coach to Britain, said that “2011 is all about putting hay in the barn for 2012". Adlington is on the right track. Wary of the Ides of March this year and next, Adlington spent six weeks in Australia at the end of last year in search of new ideas and a ‘flu-free winter of daily outdoor training in Olympic-sized pools that she cannot get in Britain at any time of the year. At home at Nova Centurion in Nottingham with coach Furniss, she relies to some extent on self and the boys in the squad to provide challenges in training. During her southern summer camp, she joined coach Michael Bohl’s squad at St Peters Western in Brisbane on the Gold Coast to work alongside triple Olympic gold medallist Stephanie Rice and rival freestyle ace Bronte Barratt.

“I love outdoor training - apart from when its windy and you have to fight to get your arms over,” said Adlington. “It’s just so much easier to get up in the morning in Australia. We’re up at 10 to 5[am] and it’s a breeze. At home you always feel really tired when its time to get up because it feels like the middle of the night. Here we get up, leave the house at 5.15 and there are lots of people cycling and running along the river outside.”

The weather was not the only thing that blew her south. Adlington, an ambassador for British Gas with a sponsorship deal beyond the £15m being invested by the energy provider in British swimming, saw her Australian adventure as both a means of escape and a chance to re-establish a sense of independence and even uncouple, for a while, the Olympic crowns she tows so well.

“Sometimes you just need a change and its great if that can be something everyone benefits from. It’s been a learning process on the way to another Olympic Games and I really want to enjoy the journey and the process this time. I don’t want to get to trials and not make the Games and then look back and say ‘Oh, I wish I would have done this or that’. I went looking for a different coaching outlook one that will benefit both me and Bill. There’s so much I can improve on … someone at training [in Australia] said ‘put your foot back further on the track start’ and it felt much better."

Adlington e-mailed Furniss regularly from Australia and in one of his first replies he asked for tips with words to the effect of "is there anything that we can learn from them ... what could we do better". The swimmer-coach relationship is also a model of good care and nurturing of the kind champions require. Read more on that here.

“I’ve been coached by Bill since I was 12-years-old and its hard to make changes in the same environment all the time at Nova. It also gave Bill some time off from his commitment to me, which has been endless,” said Adlington, who last month at British University Championships warmed up for trials by setting the fastest 800m freestyle time in the world so far this year, an 8:23.85 and an indication that an Australian summer had done her good. 

When we spoke to Adlington from Brisbane late last year, she hinted at the relief she felt at having home pressures diffused.  “Every time I got in the water after Beijing I was expected to win. When you’re younger you say ‘oh my God, I’m so inexperienced’ but now its just the same feeling but for different reasons. I just needed to get away from all of that and midway to the London 2012 Olympics seemed a good time to escape the British winter. It’s so nice here. We went out with Steph (Rice ) for a meal the other night. She’s huge here and it was great to be on the other side of things. Some girls walked past Steph and went like ‘oooo, hey, look, its Steph Rice...’ They wanted her photo and it made me aware of how it is in sometimes for me in Britain and not just for me. The people with me have to wait sometimes while I'm done with it all.”

Down Under, Adlington met Susie O'Neill and heard some sound advice: "She was just like 'be excited about it, it's a great opportunity, just really enjoy it. Don't get caught up in it so much' and hopefully that is what I'll do. It's such a rare opportunity, I know everyone says 'oh, the pressure, the pressure' but it's an opportunity. Not many people get the chance to race at a home Olympics. I just hope I qualify."

Right now it seems unlikely that she could fall shy. This week Adlington is back in the limelight as heroic successor of Taylor’s London 1908 legacy. If that seems a long time ago, so does 2008 for Adlington: “It's scary how quick three years can go by. But I can remember everything and so at the same time Beijing trials feel like 10 years ago. So much has happened to me and yet so much has stayed the same."

Her fear of the sea is among conquests new. On a November day at the beach with Australian swimmers, sprinter Eamon Sullivan stepped in. “He took us stand-up paddle boarding and surfing. I’m terrified of the sea and they were all shocked by that. I managed to go in and I think he’s cured me,” says Adlington through laughter. “I said to him ‘I swear I’ve just seen a fin’. He said ‘Shut up - there are no sharks round here’.”

The only sharks Adlington needs to be wary of await her in Shanghai in July.