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Becky Adlington on overcoming battles with anxiety and fame

Double Olympic champion and British swimming legend, Becky Adlington, has revealed how an almost lifelong struggle with anxiety hindered her career before it ended at just 23 years of age.

Following the launch of Rugby League World Cup 2021’s Mental Fitness Charter earlier this year, the interview, which is the third and final piece in the RLWC2021 x Movember mini-series, aims to offer an insight into why positive wellbeing is important for everyone.

The charter details how RLWC2021 aims to educate every player, team official, match official, teammate and volunteer to look after their own mental fitness and of those around them, as well as delivering mental fitness workshops to 8,000 young Rugby League players and their parents.

Speaking with former Sky Sports presenter, Simon Thomas, Adlington opened up about the issues, including fame, that hindered her career.

“At the start it [fame] was great, it was amazing. I got to go to Strictly Come Dancing and it was really fun stuff,” admitted Adlington. “But with that came a lot of negativity, trolling and being open a lot more as I didn’t have as much privacy.

“I was also the one in the pool that everyone wanted to beat. I much preferred being the underdog, so it came with a lot of changes throughout my entire life.”

In addition to struggles with fame and trolling, anxiety was a challenge that Adlington regularly had to face up to, without recognising it as a problem until after her swimming career.

“I didn’t realise it was anxiety. When it’s happening to you and you’re going through it, it’s just your normal. No one ever sat down with me and said ‘Beck, I think you’ve just had a panic attack’ and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago I thought that this isn’t right, it is anxiety, it is panic attacks and so what can I do about it.

“But no one spoke about this stuff, it was all tactical and physical, but you need to be physically and mentally healthy. I just wish more had been done and we had the support and had been open and honest with each other, even from player to player.”

It was in 2013, just five years after bursting onto the scene by winning two Olympic gold medals, as well as breaking an Olympic Record in the 800m freestyle, that Adlington decided to retire.

“It [retiring] was so bizarre because one day I’d feel fine and I’d be really excited and then the next day I’d just be crying my eyes out all day. I knew London was going to be my last Olympics and that’s why I couldn’t stop crying on the podium. I cried myself to sleep that night until about 2am.

“And then I went through this stage of ‘what’s next?’, I’d never guided my own path before and without the structure I had, I became a little bit lost.”

Adlington would go on to launch a media career with the BBC and other outlets as an expert pundit at a string of high-profile events, including the Olympics and World Championships, and has changed her perception on mental health as a result of conversations with her sports psychologist.

“My coach was the first one to say I should get a sports psychologist and I thought there was something wrong with me. I took it really personally and thought it was because I was weak. But as soon as I sat down with my sports psychologist I thought ‘wow, this is only aiding me’.

“There was definitely that stigma to it in sport and I would never tell other athletes that I was sitting down with my sports psychologist and it was the same with my therapy.

“But after three or four months it got to the point where I felt proud to say where I was going and that I was working through it, and I now have simple little tools which just massively help me.”

To hear more from Becky, the full interview can be found at rlwc2021.com/mentalfitnessbecky, while if you’ve been affected by anything you’ve read, there is more information on what guidance and help is available at Movember.com.

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