This article originally appeared in Future Sport magazine. Click here to read the 2021 edition.

Double Olympic gold medallist at 19, retired athlete at 23. The role of a professional athlete is famously short, but few have achieved what Rebecca Adlington did in such a short period of time. Four Olympic medals, not to mention a host of world, European and Commonwealth achievements, meant that when Rebecca said goodbye to the pool she did so with ease. Here, Adlington tells Future Sport what her aspirations are now away from professional sport and how going back into education is aiding that…

The transition from professional athlete to a “second career” for an athlete is a road long travelled with huge variants of success. For some, nothing compares to the buzz and adrenaline of elite competition. For others, letting go of strict routines and beginning a “normal” life comes as something of a relief.

For Rebecca Adlington, it’s somewhere in the middle. By the age of 23 she’d won countless Olympic, world, European and Commonwealth medals, making her one of the most successful athletes in British history. So what did she do? She retired from professional swimming shortly after winning two bronze medals at the London Olympics in 2012.

For most people at 23 their career is in its infancy. For Rebecca she was about to start something she described to Future Sport as “more rewarding” than any of her Olympic medals.

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"To be honest I found it really easy [the transition] compared to other athletes I’ve spoken to”, she tells us. “I feel bad for saying that and feel like I probably should have found it a lot harder.

“But then I’m involved in something that is massively rewarding – I get to go to all of these venues seeing these little kids overcome their fear and jump into the water. Seeing them learn a life skill is so rewarding and it has been such an amazing journey for me to be a part of that.”

Rebecca is talking about Swim Stars, her programme whose mission is to see every child in the UK leave primary school being able to swim 25 meters.

“London just inspired me so much, and being at that Olympics and talking about legacy and inspiring a generation, I knew I wanted to set up my own learn to swim programme because that’s something which I am so passionate about – the grassroots side of sport rather than the elite side.”

“For me to be part of that [setting up Swim Stars] as a director, it’s been incredible to be involved in that process, but now I’m at the stage of my life where I’ve had amazing opportunities but I want to really get stuck into my business a lot more.”

Rebecca burst onto the scene when she claimed two golds at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in the 400m and 800m freestyle, becoming the first British swimmer to win two Olympic golds since 1908 – not to mention breaking a 19-year-old world record along the way. She backed this up with a number of further world and Commonwealth medals before London 2012.

Since 2012, and as well as Swim Stars, Rebecca has also dived into TV work and become a patron of Women in Sport. However, eight years after setting up Swim Stars she’s ready to take it to the next level and continue that transition from Olympic athlete to business leader. That’s why in 2019 she joined the CEO of a Sports Organisation programme, ran by VSI Executive Education.

Explaining her decision to go back into the classroom, Rebecca told Future Sport: “I didn’t go to university and like most people in competitive sport their career as an athlete takes over the academic side. I wanted to focus on my swimming career because I knew I only had that small window to achieve. I’ve since set up my own business but I want to better that and have some training under my belt.”

Rebecca added: “I needed to go away and know that I’ve got the education and I’ve learnt, not just taken advantage of having that status or role within a company. I want everyone to know that I’m really serious and I’m passionate about it and trying to better myself and be the best leader that I can possibly be.”

Now fully immersed in Swim Stars and the VSI programme, Rebecca has noticed first hand the skills that are transferable between being a professional athlete and the world of business, as well as what she had to adapt to the quickest. She admits not having a coach and a mapped out daily structure was difficult at first, however, her finely tuned drive and work ethic more than made up for that.

“The things that I learnt in sport also work in business – how fundamental communication is, trusting your team, discipline and dedication” she says. “Business isn’t easy; you’ve got to have that drive and purpose to have that clear vision. I’m very lucky that sport has given me all of those things.”

At first she inspired a generation in the pool, now she’s inspiring another out of it.