COMMENTARY | In a sport that has seen women competing late into their twenties and thirties, swimmer Rebecca Adlington has made it official and decided to retire at the age of 23.
At the 2008 Olympic Games, the British swimmer won the 800-meter freestyle and set the world record, and at the 2012 Games, she returned to win a bronze medal in the same event in front of a hometown crowd. She did the same in the 400-meter freestyle, winning a gold in Beijing and a bronze in London.
Adlington decided to retire because she's "past her best," she said. Following a long break after the Olympic Games, she realized she wouldn't be able to compete with the fastest swimmers in the world anymore.
In recent years, swimming has seen older athletes such as Dara Torres, Natalie Coughlin and Kirsty Coventry compete at the Olympic Games, but in truth, women's elite swimming has remained rather young. At the 2012 Olympic Games, 10 of the 13 total events were won by swimmers aged 22 or younger. Six of those events were won by teenagers.
When the 2016 Olympic Games begin, Adlington will be 27 years old.
The 800 freestyle was one of those events won by a teenager in London. In fact, it's been largely dominated by young swimmers for years: Fifteen-year-old Katie Ledecky won in 2012, and when Adlington won in 2008, she was 19. Ai Shibata of Japan won in 2004 at the age of 22, and American Brooke Bennett won it twice -- at the age of 20 in 2000 and at the age of 16 in 1996. Before that, distance queen Janet Evans won the event at the 1998 and 1992 Games, at the ages of 17 and 21, respectively.
I could continue, but by now you get the point. Adlington knows her sport well enough to realize that, at 27, she's not likely to be able to compete with the young stars who generally dominate the long-distance events.
"Swimming has become a very 'young' sport for females.," Adlington wrote on her website. "…My body simply can't do what it used to be able to do when I was in my teens. It seems right to focus on my other passions and set myself new challenges. I would love to stay involved in the sport at both an elite level and grass roots level as swimming is what I know and love."
For Adlington, staying involved means working toward a new vision -- a vision that would teach young children to swim 25 meters before leaving primary school, she said. Adlington knows the goal is ambitious, but that isn't going to stop her from working toward it.
After all, five years ago, she never expected to have four Olympic medals, either, she said.
Adlington has always been one of the classiest athletes in the sport, and she's once again shown her class in retirement. It's always difficult to walk away from something you love, but she's able to recognize that it's time to move on and use her talents in a more productive way.
Sandra Johnson was a competitive swimmer for more than 15 years before she began coaching. She has covered three Olympic Games, and while working for the United States Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs, Colo., she had the opportunity to immerse herself in the Olympic Movement. Follow her on Twitter: @SandraJohnson46
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