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Pressure just too much as Adlington exits early

When Britain's most successful swimmer, Rebecca Adlington, announced last week she was hanging up her goggles and retiring from competitive swimming at the ripe old age of 23 it seemed remarkably premature.

Rebecca Adlington wants to bow out at the top   Photograph: Getty
Rebecca Adlington wants to bow out at the top Photograph: Getty

Every athlete knows they will face the decision to retire long before they can claim their pension, but Adlington has called it a day sooner than most, even taking into account the fact that female distance swimmers usually peak while still in their teens – the winner of the 800m freestyle in London was 15.

After winning her two Olympic bronze medals in London last summer, she said she felt like she was past her best and that she wanted to go out at the top – not drag her career out for as long as possible.

The physical demands of training for any elite athlete are exhausting and for a swimmer it is even more brutal. The 5am alarm calls, the 70,000 metres in the pool each week for 50 weeks a year ... it is not surprising it takes its toll.

For Adlington however, the mental demands of being one of Britain's most successful athletes have been just as strenuous. Before the London Games, she had already won everything there was to win in her sport, with her gold medals in the 400m and 800m freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Olympics the pinnacle. She had also been World, European and Commonwealth champion and today still holds the 800m freestyle world record.

But such success brought huge levels of expectation which she found difficult to cope with, admitting that everything had caught up with her in London. While Jessica Ennis thrived on the pressure that comes with being the favourite for gold in a home Olympic Games, Adlington visibly struggled to cope. It was most apparent when she felt the need to apologise for "only" winning bronze in the 800m freestyle and she failed to hold back her tears when she was on the podium to collect her medal.

There was no need for tears. The swimmer has been a fantastic role model. In these times when every sport appears to be mired in stories of doping and cheating, it should be remembered that Adlington refused to wear the polyurethane swimsuits introduced in 2009 because she considered it to be technological doping. This put her at a significant disadvantage against rivals wearing the new suits, but it is heartening to know that a moral compass still guides some of our top sports people.

Adlington will now focus on developing the next generation of swimmers in Britain with her SwimStars programme, with which she aims to ensure that every child can swim 25 metres by the time they leave primary school. At only 23, she certainly has plenty of time to repay the sport that has given her so much. Makes you feel old, doesn't it?

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