London 2012: Rebecca Adlington ready to conquer Olympic nerves

In the latest part of our weekly #olympicthursday  series profiling leading British hopes, BBC Olympic sports reporter Nick Hope meets double Beijing gold medallist Rebecca Adlington.

With Olympic, world, European, Commonwealth and British titles to her name, Rebecca Adlington is already Great Britain's most successful swimmer of all time.

In London she will stand on the brink of greatness, but her biggest challenge might lie in the mind rather than in the pool.

"Nerves can be brilliant because it gets your adrenalin going and it means you care and want to do well," Adlington told BBC Sport.

"There's a fine line, though. Getting too nervous can ruin a race and that's happened to me."

Thorpe on Adlington

Ian Thorpe

"I think she has done an incredible job by following up her results in Beijing with some strong consistency. Becky is similar to the great distance freestyle swimmer [four-time US Olympic champion] Janet Evans and when we speak of an athlete in the same breath as Evans, we're speaking of one in the highest regard."

Ian Thorpe, five-time Olympic champion

The first high-profile case of this came at the 2009 World Championships in Rome, when the world-record holder finished fourth in her favoured 800m freestyle event.

"It wasn't a complete disaster and it wasn't a bad time, but I just let the pressure get to me a little bit too much," reflected Adlington.

"It was the first major meet after Beijing and everyone thought 'oh, she's going to go and win two gold medals'. At 20, I wasn't ready for that level of expectation. "

A year later, at the European Championships in Budapest, the situation worsened as she finished a surprise seventh in the 800m.

"After Beijing the 800m took a bit of a dip and it became this challenge," she said. "I just got so nervous and so worked up that I literally dived in and I completely stiffened up.

"I'd never experienced it before. The whole way through the race I didn't feel myself and it was that moment where I learnt I had to relax.

"I realised there was no point in harming myself, getting that nervous, and that I had to just chill out and enjoy the experience."

Working with sport psychologist Simon Middlemas has certainly helped and, since the low of Budapest, the Mansfield-based swimmer has claimed two Commonwealth titles, a maiden world gold and qualified for the London Olympics.

"I used to think I don't need any help and I'd be fine, but it's nice to just speak to someone who's completely non-biased and is separate from swimming who'll say 'man up - you're just diving into a pool', so I love how honest he is."

Adlington swims to Beijing Olympic double

Sporting anxieties are not the only obstacles Adlington has had to conquer.

At the age of 15 she was diagnosed with glandular fever and around the same time her eldest sister, Laura, was admitted into intensive care with Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain tissue).

"That was a really, really tough year," admitted Adlington.

"My coach Bill [Furniss] knew to really ease down my training. I was upset coming to the pool because I wasn't well and it was also taking me away from home and my sister, so he knew to make it enjoyable."

Furniss,  who spotted Adlington's potential at the age of 12, added: "People watch her doing really well and think it must have been an easy ride, but it's not.

"Glandular fever knocked her back for a good 18 months and when she came back she had the disappointment of missing the [2006] Commonwealth Games team by a fraction of a second, and then just a few months later swam a time which would have won it, so that was obviously very difficult.

"But I've coached over 30 years and I've never coached anyone who has the drive that Rebecca has.

Payne on Adlington

Keri-Anne Payne and Rebecca Adlington

"Becky is my best friend in swimming and one of the most grounded people I've ever met. She always smiles and despite all of the press and attention, manages to take it all in her stride."

Keri-Anne Payne, two-time world open water champion and 2008 Olympic silver medallist

"She's drawn strength from the difficult times, which has made her more resilient, and that's why she's such an awesome competitor."

That competitive spirit was harnessed at home.

"We are really, really close as a family," said Adlington. "The support that I get from them is just amazing and I never see them as just my medals, I see them as ours.

"To them, I'm just their baby sister or their daughter, though, and I love that there's no special treatment."

She added: "I've always been very competitive. My older sisters could swim pretty well when I was younger and I can just remember hating being the baby.

"I always wanted to be in the fast lane like them and that's how swimming began really. Even when playing cards with my dad, I just can't let someone else win."

She has the drive to attain further honours, but can Adlington repeat her Beijing glory in London this summer?

Athens bronze medallist and BBC Radio 5 live swimming presenter Steve Parry believes so, saying: "A lot of people tell me I'm crazy, but I have the ultimate confidence in Becky Adlington and I think she will do the 400m and 800m double again."

Adlington herself is more cautious.

"I was using Beijing as a stepping stone to gain experience for London and then it turned into something completely different that I never expected, and that I still can't believe now," she said.

"But the same people don't win all the time in sport: nobody expected me to go to Beijing and get two gold medals and there's going to be someone else like that coming through.

"I just want to improve and whether I come away with gold, silver, bronze or whatever, as long as I've done my best then I would be happy."