“What Becky’s achieved is beyond anything we imagined” We chat to Rebecca Adlington and her parents

Britain's 2008 double Olympic gold medallist and her proud mum and dad Kay and Steve on the making of a swimming star

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What has Rebecca inherited from you? 

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Kay: Steve’s stubbornness!
Steve: Definitely, and my determination.
Kay: Everyone says we look exactly the same. Luckily she has inherited my looks. We’re both also quite laid-back – although Becky more so than me. Neither of us worries too much, we deal with things as they come.
Rebecca: The determination I got from Dad has definitely helped me. And the laid-back thing helps when it comes to a race. Obviously I do get nervous, but if you get too worked up, you’d drive yourself insane. I can remain pretty chilled before a race – I’ve never been one to throw up everywhere. Some people are just not natural racers. A lot of people are good in training, but when they get to race day they can’t deal with the nerves. I’m really lucky I don’t get too bad.

Why did you first take Becky swimming?

Kay: We always wanted Chloe, Laura [Rebecca’s older sisters] and Becky to be strong swimmers so that on holiday they were safe in the pool. My mum can’t swim and is petrified of water. And we really didn’t want them to be like that.
Steve: We took them to Disney World in Florida, and all the girls wanted to do was be in the pool.
Kay: I remember flapping about, blowing up water wings, and Becky just took one jump, straight into the pool.
Rebecca: And you just waited for me to come back up. You didn’t actually jump in to help me!
Kay: We stood there frozen, then she came back up laughing and got to the side on her own, and we thought, “Swimming lessons for this one!”

How old were you when you realised you wanted to be a swimmer?

Rebecca: About 13 [she’s now 23]. I started swimming lessons with my sisters when I was three. Chloe must have been eight then, so she could swim fully, and I always saw what she was doing and wanted to do it as well. I only wanted to do it because my sisters did it and I wanted to be as good as they were.
Kay: We set out as a couple to let Chloe, Laura and then Becky learn to stand on their own two feet and become whoever they wanted to be.
Rebecca: I wasn’t as clever at school as my sisters. I remember getting told off all the time for talking or not concentrating. But I was quite relaxed about it, because Mum and Dad didn’t shout at me for it, although Mum would always tell me off for not tidying my room.
Steve: Idle. Still is.
Rebecca: I would say that’s true. I’d never tidy my room. And I never used to make my bed, because I’d come back from training and get back in. So I was always like, “Why do I need to make it? I’m getting right back in it in a second.” I was a little brat.

So how do you have the discipline to train so hard?

Rebecca: I think that’s why I’m like that at home, because I’m so disciplined at the pool. I come home and I have to switch off. Dad’s the same – when it comes to his business, he’s the boss, he’s the man, but when he comes home, Mum’s the boss.

Kay, you had to give up your job so that you could take Becky to training every day… 

Kay: It was a huge commitment making sure that Becky could fulfil her potential. Steve had his business, so I had to make that sacrifice. We all had to adapt to accommodate Becky. A big milestone for me was when Becky learnt to drive. It was bliss not having to be up at 4.30am every day and walking around all day feeling like a zombie. I still don’t know how she managed to wake up, drive to Nottingham, train for two hours, go to the gym, go back to the pool and then drive back home. It was about four hours, every day, just driving backwards and forwards. It was hard, as parents, letting her go through that, but we knew she had to in order to succeed.

When have you been proudest of Becky?

Steve: I’ve got to say Beijing, but when she qualified to get to the Games in 2008 was also amazing. Your daughter going to the Olympics is extremely… well, it’s unreal. But then to get there and do what she did…

Were you expecting her to win two gold medals?

Kay: No, to be fair, we weren’t. We had hopes of a medal in the 800m, but not in the 400m. She was third-fastest in Britain going into the trials, so to come out winning it… I was obviously incredibly proud of her in Beijing, but the way she’s handled herself since then has also amazed me. She’s handled all the attention brilliantly.

Has she had any diva moments?

Kay: I think the only time was when she was lying on the sofa right after Beijing and said, “Mum, can you get me a drink of water?” I went out of the room, stopped, came back in and said, “No. You know where the tap is. Get your own”.
Rebecca: I sometimes have my diva moments, but it’s normally when I’ve had a long day, when I’ve been up since 5am doing my training, then done media stuff and more training. I sometimes get ratty; I don’t mean to, but I’m so tired. And I think sometimes people forget that I’m still training, I’m putting in a lot of work and there is still a huge goal in sight. Sometimes I can’t help but get a little bit angry and just be like, “No. Leave me alone. I’m tired.”  

Do you think you would have been successful without the help of your family?

Rebecca: No, I don’t think anyone can be. My family were the ones in the early years who took me to training and financed it. Some people’s parents pressure them too much, so I was lucky they trusted me and my coach and let us get on with it. Most of all, they just believed in me.
Kay: We were never the parents at the side of the pool checking her times and pushing her to go faster. It always came down, for us, to enjoyment. We believed in Becky’s potential, we thought she had something, but I think it’s fair to say – sorry, Becks – we never thought she was going to do what she did in Beijing. And now we can’t wait to see what she does in these Games.
Steve: We’ve had different roles over the years – cook, chauffeur, cash machine – but it helped us that her sisters swam and got to national level and we could see a little bit more in Becky.
Kay: It wasn’t just the talent, though. The other two were quite talented, but if you had tried to get Chloe up for early-morning training, she’d have thrown the alarm clock at you.
Steve: Whereas Becky was waking me up.
Kay: She wanted to work at it. She was quite prepared to make the sacrifices. She never once said she didn’t want to go to training. She didn’t go out. She’s had a different life and friendships in swimming, but I think the bulk of it was made easy because Becky wanted to do it. And what she has achieved so far is beyond anything we could have imagined. It still hasn’t sunk in yet; I don’t think it ever will. To me, she’s just our Becky who swims.

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Watch Rebecca Adlington in the Women’s 400m Freestyle on Sunday 29 July – heats at 11:33am, BBC1, BBC Olympics 2. Final at 8:15pm, BBC1, BBC Olympics 6