Body shaming and online trolls: Rebecca Adlington reveals the dark side of Olympic fame

Despite fame upturning her life, the Team GB swimming legend says she's never been more confident

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Not many get the privilege of listening to the innermost thoughts of some of our greatest sportsmen and women. But in my programme On The Sporting Couch, I aim to achieve, as near as possible, a 50-minute on–air therapy session as I talk to sports stars about their struggles with mental health.

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Rugby referee Nigel Owens talks about coming to terms with his sexuality; cricketer Marcus Trescothick explains why being on tour led to depression and anxiety; footballer Keith Gillespie discusses his gambling addiction; darts pro James Wade explains what it’s like to be bipolar; and rugby international Duncan Bell talks about the “beast of depression”.

But among the most revealing of my interviewees was Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington, who invited me to her home in Stockport to talk about body image, motherhood, heartbreak and the emotional damage caused by trolling… 

What does fame feel like?

It does bring a lot of amazing things. It’s given me my career after sport and an opportunity to raise the profile of swimming, so it has a lot of great things. It’s given me sponsorship deals that have made me able to buy my own house. 

But what has it done to you?

When you’re a sportsperson, it’s different from being an actress in terms of fame. I’ve been around actresses and everyone comes up and calls them by their character’s name, so they always have this escape. People don’t actually know them, whereas when you’re a sportsperson, all they get to know is you. You get people coming up to you and saying, “Becky!” And I’m, “I’m sorry, do I know you?”

 There are times when it is really tough. I don’t like it when people grab me. That upsets me. I’m like, “You wouldn’t do that to somebody you don’t know.”

 It’s the comments about the way I look that have nothing to do with what I’ve achieved in my sport or what I’m trying to. It’s not like I’ve said, “I want to be a model.”

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Rebecca Adlington on series three of C4’s The Jump

It’s got nothing to do with my career and yet people think they can judge me on that. It’s the same when you go through a divorce, which I have, and people want to comment on it. That was probably one of the toughest, actually, because your heart is broken anyway. Then to add everyone’s comments on top of that, the criticism…

You go, “For all you know, I could be getting beaten up,” do you know what I mean? I wasn’t at all, I want to make that clear, but it baffles me that someone thinks they can comment on someone’s life they know nothing about.

A lot of that I still struggle with even now. Although I haven’t cried from a comment in about eight years.

How does it affect you when people make personal comments about how you look?

When I was younger, it definitely upset me. This is where it’s really difficult. I am confident in myself. I know who I am. I’m very comfortable swimming. When I say I’m insecure, I’m not insecure about myself. Most women look in the mirror and go, “Why isn’t this tighter? Why isn’t this smaller?” I’ve never met somebody who’s 100 per cent happy with the way they look.

When I got my OBE, I wore a green dress that so many people commented on afterwards, going, “Why did you wear that? You’re fat. You can’t wear that.”

It ruined that experience for me. I now don’t like looking at the photos because I think, “I shouldn’t have worn that.” It tarnished the memory of a special day. I’ve never worn that dress again.

Did you like yourself at 18 or 19?

I’ve always been very comfortable in my own skin, as well as mature for my age. I’ve got two older sisters, I was always around older people when I swam. So I’ve always seemed a lot older. Everyone thinks I’m nearly 40 and I’m like, “No! I’m 28.” I do act a lot older than I am. I’m a lot more grown-up than most people my age.

How difficult is it when you meet somebody and you wonder, “Are they with me because of who I am?”

That’s what [ex-husband] Harry had to do at the start. He was younger than me, he saw Beijing and really idolised me. We were dating for a long time and Harry had to step back and say, “I have to figure out whether I like you or whether I like you because of everything you’ve achieved.” He wanted to make sure he was with me for the right reasons.

This morning my friend told me about Bumble, this dating app, and I was like, “I can’t go on that,” because every guy’s going to go, “I just want to go on a date so I can say I’ve been with Becky Adlington.’’

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Adlington on the podium at the 2008 Olympics

What would you say to other people who feel pressured to look a certain way?

What helped me was finding something I love. Swimming was my confidence; it stopped me feeling terrible about myself. Even when I stopped swimming, being a mum helped. I love being a mum. There’s always something that can fill that void. I’m not saying you have to go and win an Olympic medal to stop feeling terrible about yourself; just find something you love and enjoy it. That’s your peace. Even now, the living room we’re in now is my happy place. I think finding that really helps.  

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On the Sporting Couch is on Saturday 9.00pm on Talksport