Mon, September 23, 2013

Becky Adlington battles back

By JAMES LAWTON, Special to QMI Agency


Britain's Rebecca Adlington holds her bronze medal during the women's 400m freestyle victory ceremony during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre Sunday. (MICHAEL DALDER/Reuters)

LONDON - Canada doesn’t need telling how it is to host a Summer Olympics and then wait, day after day, for that first touch of gold, and there will probably not be too much sympathy for a mere 48 hours of British frustration.

However, if anyone wants to know there was quite a bit of pressure last night on “Our Becky,” the sporting superstar Adlington about whom it has always been a little easier to think of in such familiar terms. She couldn’t break Britain’s gold fever, at least not at the first time of asking here last night, but she surely made the country feel a whole lot better about itself.

Also, after two days of fruitless pursuit of that top place on the podium, she also gave reason to believe that if her spirit of resistance, her sheer physical and moral courage at a point that might easily have been one of a cruel breaking, could be distributed just a little more widely at this critical point, there will be no reason for even a whisper of national self-reproach.

Adlington of Nottinghamshire produced a bronze to go along with the silver won by her countrywoman Lizzie Armitstead in the cycling road race, but if some saw this as a pale reprise of her stunning double gold in Beijing four years ago they perhaps have an imperfect grasp of the pressure of the years and the expectations she carried to her work yesterday.

England’s doubt seemed entirely justified at the half way point of the 400-metres freestyle final. Camille Muffat of France and the American Allison Schmitt were driving through the centre of the pool with withering strength. And what of Adlington?

She was in sixth place and her fans must have been fearful of an even longer fall from the Olympic pinnacle. But she didn’t acquire the habit of quitting in the face of unpromising circumstances and Sunday she produced a performance which showed her absolute refusal to accept defeat.

As she moved past three of her rivals and finished the last length of the Olympic pool in something that could be described as one long, defiant charge, it was easy to remember that this was the race she wasn’t supposed to win in Beijing.

It was NOT Adlington’s event, everyone said so, but it was her opportunity to make something of all that work and pain.

Now it is the most inviting speculation that when she comes to the 800-metres final on Friday night. She certainly has reason believe that she has built, in terms of understanding of her world and her competitive nature, on the events that in 2008 so profoundly changed her life.

Some of the change was painful, not least in the first rush of celebrity that came with the best performance by a British swimmer in 100 years, but if sometimes she was buffeted by the pressure of fame, no one questioned her essential nature. She saw one of her local Mansfield hostelries change its name to the Adliington Arms, then, when the glory of 2008 began to ebb, change it back.

Fortunately, Buckingham Palace didn’t call for the return of her Order of the British Empire and if she did complain recently about the random cruelty inflicted by some Twitter warriors, including the excruciatingly tasteless comedian Frankie Boyle, she also had reason to be grateful for the fact that she had grown strong.

“I’m in a totally different position now than before I went to Beijing. I have grown as an athlete, grown as a person. In Beijing I was just bobbing along under the radar. This time it is so different.”

These were prophetic words, it was evident enough, when she made her fifth turn Sunday and contemplated the choice between fighting back for some of that status and pride she gained in Beijing or the less demanding one of watching Muffat and Schmitt stroke their way into the distance. She said, as they tend to do around Nottinghamshire, to bloody hell with that and then she worked her extraordinary length of stroke into a coherent, bronze-winning rhythm.

It wasn’t the triumph the nation — and not least the watching organizing committee leader Lord Sebastian Coe — craved but it was a performance of inspiring passion and grit.

You could see it as a statement that the gold will be panned soon enough and that one of the nuggets might yet be collected by the star of Beijing who Sunday night was ready to settle for a spell of the purest fight for survival.

— James Lawton writes for The Independent in the U.K.