“Oooo… difficult question,” says Rebecca Adlington, deep in thought. “What is it about swimming that I love? Well, the first thing is it’s not the winning. It’s more about the way I feel in the water. It feels very natural. There’s nothing in this world as great as moving through the water and ‘catching it’ just right. I feel like I’m where I should be.
“And when I don’t swim for a while, the opposite happens. I don’t catch the water properly and it’s all really unnatural, forced and mechanical and swimming becomes a chore. I hate that, and I have to train like crazy to get myself feeling the water properly.”
So, there you go. That’s what it feels like when you’re the best long-distance swimmer in the world. Adlington, 22, is one of the country’s greatest sportswomen and is about to enter one of the most exciting periods of her competitive life.
She races this week in the world aquatics championships in Shanghai (from Saturday British Eurosport; Sunday BBC2, Radio 5 Live), where she’s going for gold in four events, and in just over a year it’s London 2012 and the chance for her to defend the two titles she won in Beijing three years ago.
"That’s if I compete in London,” she says sternly. “People automatically assume I’ll be in the Olympic squad. If I’m not, I’ll be devastated, but I won’t know for definite till next year. Right now I have to concentrate on the worlds, which will be great. Good fun!”
Adlington talks with a sing-song smiley voice, and comes over as full of joy and friendship. She talks about how much she loves the relay because “it’s about a team, and I love being in a team and screaming for the others to do well,” but there’s no question that beneath the warm exterior beats the heart of a searingly committed competitor.
She trains at 5.30am every morning, beginning on Monday with a couple of two-hour swims and a run, and adding in gym sessions, longer swims, more intensive swims, sprints and long runs as the week progresses. She has just one day a week off. Does she never tire of the sheer relentlessness of it?
“No, never,” she says. “No one’s going to believe this, but I have never once switched the alarm clock off and gone back to sleep, I never even press ‘snooze’ – I just get out of bed and get on with it. I never need motivating. It’s like someone saying, ‘Do you tire of buying nice shoes?’ Er... no. Never, I never tire of it. I get out of bed when the alarm’s done an even number of rings and get myself ready for training.”
Hang on... even number?
“Always. I’m a control freak with numbers. I’m really funny about them – I hate odd numbers. Odd numbers are just peculiar to me. I don’t want anything to do with them. The volume on everything has to be even, and not zero. If I click my fingers or clap my hands once, I have to do it again, so it’s even, then I have to do it on the other hand, so it’s two hands, two clicks/claps. I feel that odd numbers are a bad omen.”
OK. Any other strange habits?
Adlington thinks for a while then announces, “swimming costumes”. She says she’s very particular and has to change her costume for every race or she doesn’t feel right. Unless she wins. “Then I have to wear the same one that I won in. In Beijing, I wore the same one all the way through. I had to – it was lucky after I’d won gold once.”
After the “lucky” swimming costume swept her to two golds in Beijing, everyone expected Adlington to keep winning, and defeats in 2009 and 2010 were met with dismay by sports fans who thought her moment in the sun was over.
“The whole idea of sport is to peak for the main competitions; you can’t win everything all the time. My first big race after the Olympics was in the 400m at the world championships in 2009. I had an amazing race – I swam faster than ever – but came third. People thought it was the end of my career but I did a two-second personal best.”
But then she came fourth in the 800m, her favourite race, and it hurt. “I was devastated by that. That really did hurt. I was in tears and no one knew what to say or do.”
A year later, again in the 800m at the European championships, she finished seventh. “Once again, it was hugely disappointing, I was losing confidence and people were starting to doubt me. I felt pretty low and wondered whether I’d lost it. What was I doing? Why wasn’t this working?”
She admits that she took time out to celebrate after winning double gold in Beijing. There were parties to attend, functions to go to and plaudits to accept. The time away from training started to show. “I find it hard enough to keep my weight down anyway, but it was particularly difficult after all that time off. I’d lost my feel for the water and felt uncomfortable and unfit. It was a very difficult period of my life.”
It was at this time comedian Frankie Boyle criticised her looks on Mock the Week. “I’d be lying if I said that didn’t hurt, but I’m not a model, I’m not an actress, I’m a swimmer. I don’t look perfect. He’s a comedian, comedians tell jokes and I’m someone who laughs at them, so when you’re the butt of them, you just have to take it.
“It’s hard being a woman and taking criticism of your appearance though. I don’t think any woman would like it. I’m body-conscious because I spend so much time in a swimming costume in public. I’m size 12 with big shoulders, for God’s sake. How many people that size would be seen in front of millions in a swimming costume? It’s bound to make you paranoid.”
But Adlington has bounced back from the difficult years. Spending a few months in Australia, getting super-fit and injecting some calmness into her life have led to her feeling in better shape than ever. She says she is “very very confident” about the world championships, and her calmness has come from being more settled in her private life.
Having split from her previous swimmer boyfriend Andy Mayor, she’s now going out with another swimmer Harry Needs, 19, and says the relationship is “just great. We train at the same time so see each other a lot, and understand that neither of us wants late nights out or to drink alcohol. That can be hard when you’re dating. The guy wants to pick you up at 8pm, and you’re thinking, ‘I can’t, that’s my bedtime.’
“Harry and I go for dinner and to the cinema. We do normal things, but things that don’t get in the way of all the training we both have to do. He understands my life; we are with the same coach and we do the same training.
“He’s a bit like me, but he’s really tidy and organised. He always dresses with everything matching properly and colour-coordinated and I’m just chaotic about things like that – I put on whatever’s there. I’m not very good about coordinating. But then Harry’s not very good with phone rings. He’ll answer on the third ring sometimes. Can you believe that?”