“I’ve never suffered pain like that – it was worse than childbirth,” says the 27-year-old, who’s still recovering after she lost control hurtling off an icy 100 metre slope at more than 30mph while practising an air jump.
She dislocated her shoulder so badly she required an operation two weeks ago, and she’s one of six celebrities forced to quit the show because of injury.
“I lost my balance and flung my arm out awkwardly to right myself as I sailed through the air,which dislocated my shoulder. Landing on it made it worse,” explains Adlington wincing at the memory of what she went through.
“It was such an unlucky, fluke accident, but I have a lot of mobility in my shoulders due to years of swimming, so they’re my vulnerable point. It still makes me feel funny thinking about that pain. The medics rushed up immediately to try and push the joint back into place and couldn’t. I had to have gas to help me cope with the excruciating agony I went through until I could get to the hospital and have it done there,” she says.
“Later, an MRI scan revealed damage around the joint and two weeks ago I had surgery to repair it and ensure the shoulder stays in place.”
She’s still wearing a sling, cannot lift her eight-month-old daughter, Summer, or drive, and will need six weeks physiotherapy before she’s fully fit again.
Nothing, however, stopped Adlington, who lives in Manchester with her husband, former swimmer, Harry Needs, 24, heading back to Austria for The Jump final, even though she would miss Mother’s Day with their little girl.
“I don’t regret taking part at all because I love challenging myself and learning new skills and I’m determined to ski again one day. This hasn’t put me off testing myself either – I’m used, as an athlete, to overcoming blows like injury – so I’d happily compete on another show like this if the opportunity came up. I think all those injuries on this year’s series have just been down to bad luck because professionals on the show are so careful and conscientious about keeping people safe.”
Her recovery’s being boosted by acupuncture, which she’s using to help relieve pain and swelling.
“I first used it during the run-up to the London games when my shoulders were a nightmare. Training four hours every day, six days a week, as I did throughout my competitive life, was punishing and I suffered years of shoulder and back pain, but you just get used to it and accept it,” explains Adlington, who won two gold medals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and two bronze at the 2012 London Olympics.
“The legacy of that though is that my shoulders still flare up and ache if I exercise too much or carry Summer around all day. Regular acupuncture helps with that and I had it after giving birth to help rebalance my system.”
Happily, it seems she’s enjoying an enviable balance in her personal life three years after retiring from sport, although emerging from the pool into the public spotlight hasn’t always been easy.
The down-to-earth Mansfield-born girl was cruelly targeted by Twitter trolls, who made jibes about what they dubbed her ‘fishy lips’ and ‘dolphin nose’ in 2012, shortly after her Olympic glory. It was hardly surprising that by 2013, when she competed in TV’s I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, that she appeared insecure about her appearance.
A year later there were unconfirmed rumours, which she still refuses to discuss, that a few months before her wedding in 2014 she had surgery on her nose.
Adlington credits motherhood for transforming her confidence and confides with a smile: “Your mindset changes when you become a mum and so do your priorities. All those doubts and worries about my appearance don’t even enter my mind now. When I’m with my daughter, she’s all that matters, and I have a different perspective and see all that other stuff for what it is – petty and totally irrelevant.
“Before she arrived, I’d think, ‘OMG, do I look good in this or that?’ and get concerned about what other people thought about me. Now, like most mums with a little one, I actually feel lucky if I manage to shower and do my hair and make-up!”
She combines commentating on sport for TV – she’s going to Rio as part of the BBC team for the Olympics – with running her nationwide Swim Stars swimming classes for children. Her husband runs a personal training business and is studying graphic design.
“It’s busy for both of us, but we’re a team. He’s my best friend and we’re totally in tune with each other and share the same views on pretty well everything, including parenting,” she says.
“Of course, I feel guilty when I’m not with Summer, but Harry’s such a hands-on dad who absolutely loves his time with her that I’m as happy as I can be when I’m away, even though I miss her loads.”
The strength of her maternal feelings initially came as a shock to Adlington who’d spent years as a driven, disciplined athlete, relishing being in control as she battled to achieve the highest sporting prizes.
“Summer’s massively changed me as a person. I was never particularly lovey-dovey or maternal before I had her and for years had been this self-centred athlete. You have to be pretty selfish and focused on yourself if you’re going to succeed,” she says.
“Suddenly, overnight, you feel this overwhelming love for this little baby who totally becomes the priority and is someone you very definitely can’t control. It was quite a shock at first to be honest, but I learnt very quickly that a baby rules everything!
“It’s certainly not been easy at times, no new parent can say that, but it’s been amazing. Just hearing her laugh melts my heart. She’s also turned me into a worrier, which I never was before, whereas these days I’m always thinking, ‘Is she OK?’ At night I wake up even when she doesn’t just to check the baby monitor and reassure myself she’s fine.”
Her daughter’s already a water-baby – the couple took her swimming from three weeks old – but while Adlington’s relaxed about whether she’ll ever compete, she’d love her to follow in her parents’ sporty footsteps.
“Summer must follow her own path, of course, but I’d love her to be part of sport in some way because it’s given me so much,” she enthuses. “I’ve travelled the world, met incredible people, and gained so much from it.
“Even now people still come up to me because they recognise me from my swimming days, and have a chat, which is lovely. I feel I’m the same Becky I always was and don’t ever think of myself as a celebrity. I’m just someone who achieved in something I loved and have gone to have a life which is just as fulfilling and exciting. You can’t beat the thrill of being a parent.”
- Rebecca Adlington is supporting Acupuncture Awareness Week (March 7-13) by the British Acupuncture Council. To find out more about traditional acupuncture visit AA week