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Rebecca Adlington: "There was a period of my life when I said no to everything"

The inspirational Rebecca Adlington on her triumphs in the swimming pool, drowning out the trolls and using therapy to conquer her anxiety

Rebecca Adlington is one of our greatest athletes. The swimmer famously won two gold medals for Team GB in the 2008 Olympics, as well as numerous others across a glittering career. (Including World Championship gold in 2011.) 

Yet away from the pool, Adlington has been relentlessly attacked by online trolls (combined Olympic medals: 0) due to her appearance. It's a sickening trait of modern society and one that we still seem unable to control. 

"I was constantly worried," recalls Adlington. "Even when I was going to an event, I didn't want to be photographed because I was so worried what would get written about me or said." 

Thankfully motherhood helped her drown out the noise and therapy further alleviated her anxiety. 

Enjoy our conversation with a truly inspirational woman.

On the 2002 Commonwealth Games

My parents bought me tickets to the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. I was only 11, 12 years old and didn't see myself doing it professionally. It was the first time I'd ever experienced live sport – my dad had taken me to a football game but that's it. I sat there and I got goosebumps on my arms. It was that first moment that drove me to be way more dedicated to the sport.

On the atmosphere

As a swimmer, you're massively aware of the atmosphere. Yes, I can't make out specific things that people are saying but you can hear the volume of noise. It's like an aeroplane: you put on those awful headphones but you can still hear everything else. It's exactly the same in the water: you can hear the atmosphere, the crowd. It massively makes a difference; as soon as you hear that elevation in noise, it gives you that extra 1%.

On drowning out the trolls

It was so based on my appearance, I was constantly worried – like, what am I wearing? I would kind of want to hide. Even when I was going to an event, I didn't want to be photographed because I was so worried what would get written about me or said. There was a period of my life when I just said no to everything. Having kids definitely help – a couple of years ago, I just stopped caring. I was like, I want to go to an event – if you don't like my dress, if you think I look fat, if you think I look ugly, that's on you.

On coping with her divorce

The press was so negative: it was all, you're a mum and you're getting divorced, how dare you! I was so scared what they were going to write about me and things like that. That was the moment that I really doubted myself because I was going through something incredibly personal and incredibly heartbreaking. When you go through something like that, you don't know where to go next.

On the press

The press get 99.9% of things wrong. They can spin it any way they like, put a spin on it, exaggerate your words. A lot of stuff being reported was just total lies. Even now it still happens. It was reported that I spent lockdown with my ex-husband. Totally did not! Not even a day. We were co-parenting, dropping the daughter off so she could spend time with both of us. We didn't live together through that period!

On conquering anxiety

I went to therapy for eight months for having panic attacks and anxiety, going through that whole process. I stopped having panic attacks within a few months of having therapy but there's still so much you want to work on, develop the tools that you need. I felt like I graduated when both of agreed in therapy that I didn't need to come back. I loved the direction that I was on in my life – the worried, anxious feeling that I had all the time started to disappear.

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