London. Rebecca Adlington has an army of followers on Twitter but, as the golden girl of British swimming recently revealed, not all of them are fans.
The double Olympic champion’s response to being taunted by one online ‘troll’ was typically forthright, repeating the offensive message for everyone to read and ridicule the sender.
“I can’t help the way I look or who I am. People are not always going to like me but that has nothing to do with my swimming,” the 23-year-old said in going public with some of the abuse sent her way.
The support for her was massive but the incident reflected just how much life has changed for the teenager who left Mansfield, a market and colliery town with a population not much greater than her 53,000 Twitter following, in 2008 to compete in the Beijing pool and returned home as a sporting phenomenon.
Four years ago, the social network was fast-growing but still in its infancy and Adlington, tall and blonde, was a virtual unknown outside national swimming circles when she won Olympic gold medals in the 400 and 800 metres freestyle.
She remains refreshingly down to earth, still happy to gush about shoes, food and fashion, but the difference between now and then is that she goes into her home London Games as a celebrity bearing a weighty burden of expectation on her self-admittedly broad shoulders.
If there is a downside to her status as a public face of the Games, as she discovered, it is nothing she cannot handle.
She has lucrative sponsorships, an aquatics center named after her in her home town and the media attention will only intensify, but her focus is unwavering and her place in the nation’s heart assured.
Britain — a country that has more often excelled at Olympic sports that are practised sitting down such as cycling, sailing, rowing and riding — was totally unprepared for her Beijing exploits four years ago.
A 19-year-old sensation (who learned to swim at the age of four) arrived in Beijing below the radar — although she had won the 800m freestyle world short-course title — but will not be doing that again. Britain now expects her to deliver.
Her titles in Beijing made Adlington the first British swimmer to win two golds at a single Games since 1908 and the country’s most successful Olympic swimmer in a century.
The last British woman to win an Olympic swimming gold before her was Anita Lonsbrough in 1960 and Adlington won the 800, her favorite distance, in a world-record time of eight minutes 14.10 seconds.
The previous record of 8:16.22 had been set by American Janet Evans in 1989, the year Adlington was born.
When the champion returned home from Beijing, she was given a victory parade around Mansfield on an open-topped bus and presented with a pair of golden Jimmy Choo shoes.
Adlington also had the five interlocked Olympic rings tattooed on her lower back and a Chinese water symbol on her right ankle.
Her coach Bill Furniss, who has been working with her for more than a decade, has called her “honest, hard-working and trusting to a fault.” In the pool, she is single-minded and utterly focused.
There was a slump in the post-Beijing euphoria of 2009 when she won only bronze in the 400m free and 4×200 relay at the Rome world championships after refusing to wear a bodysuit of type which is now banned. Determined not to be a one-hit wonder, she came through it.
“I hadn’t done the hard yards and I got found out in Rome. I learned so much more out of losing in 2009 than winning in 2008,” she said.
In 2010 she collected two Commonwealth Games gold medals as well as two bronzes. Last year, she won world championship gold in the 800 to become Britain’s first freestyle world champion as well as silver in the 400.
In March Adlington was again in dominant form in the British trials, despite some pre-event nerves, when she clocked an 800m time nearly four seconds faster than her previous 2012 best.
“I think she is in the best shape of her life,” British swimming’s performance director Michael Scott declared at the time.
Adlington will need to be, at least in the 400m where Italy’s Federica Pellegrini is both world champion and record holder, but she has maturity and experience in her armoury now.
In the 800, she remains very much the favorite.
She was a girl four years ago and now she is a woman, matured and forged in top-level competition.
“Talent comes in different ways. She has a psychological talent as well, an inner strength. She hates to lose and she’s driven,” Furniss had said after the Beijing success and his words still ring true.
“Some crack under pressure and a few get better. She’s one of those. She’s a winner.”