Ask double Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington what it is that makes her so fast in the water, and for once the chatty 20-year-old is lost for words. "I can't really explain what I do as it comes naturally, like second nature," she said. "Likewise if you asked me how I walked down the street or how I drive my car I wouldn't be able to answer that either. I just get in the pool and swim, and that's it."
And Adlington is very good at it. A year ago, the then Mansfield teenager was a virtual unknown when she arrived in Beijing. She left as the darling of the British team after winning gold medals in the 400-metre and 800-metre freestyle and went from casually going shopping without being recognised to being mobbed wherever she went. There were all manner of award ceremonies and awards, a raft of endorsement offers, a whirlwind of adulation.
For all her success she has not changed a single bit. Asked if she has had any diva moments and she laughs at the suggestion. "When you get up at 5am for training you can get tired and have the occasional strop but I've not had any diva moments," she said. "Well, I hope not anyway." Adlington faces her first real test since Beijing at the World Swimming Championships in Rome. She will compete in the 400m, which starts today, and 800m freestyle, in which she is the world record holder after her swim of 8 mins 14.10 secs in Beijing.
The signs are that she is up to the challenge. She comfortably won the 800m at the British national trials, and admitted she had surprised herself with her speed against teammate Jo Jackson. "I wouldn't have managed that without Jo who brings out the competitive edge in me," she said. "But yeah I was genuinely shocked that I swam that fast ... pleasantly so, mind." Expectations in the UK will be massive for Adlington following her exploits in China. Every time she gets in the pool, she knows the British public will expect her to win.
"I know that's the case and people probably expect me to break the world record every time I compete," she said. "But that's just not going to happen. I'm sadly not going to win everything - as much as I'd like to. Sport just doesn't work like that. The simple fact is that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. It just so happened that I won in Beijing but who knows what will happen in Italy." There were concerns raised about Adlington's fitness at the nationals in Glasgow. She pulled out of her second event of the meeting - the 400 - with the media widely reporting that she had done so because of her asthma.
But the star of the British swimming team insists there are no concerns going into the Worlds. "The papers got that all wrong," she said. "I had some slight asthma but a lot of other competitors were complaining about the same thing - it's not uncommon. I just decided to pull out of the 400m as I'd already got the qualification time and felt my time could be better spent on training for the Worlds instead."
A normal training week for Adlington involves 10 two-hour swim sessions and three or four spells in the gym. To fit it all in, her alarm clock goes off at 5 o'clock every morning. In the build-up to Rome, she cut back on training in preparation, as she does for every big event. But she believes that, while not in the shape she was in Beijing, she is not far off. She does admit to being as unfit as she has ever been during her career towards the end of 2008 after taking five weeks off to recharge the batteries.
"When I swam in Beijing, that was definitely the fittest I'd ever been," she said. "And in the space of five weeks I went from the fittest to the least fit. And the fitness wasn't the worst of it. I almost had to learn how to swim again. "Getting back in the water was fantastic - it sort of felt like this is where I belong - but I really had lost the feeling for swimming. It's another difficult thing to describe but it didn't quite feel right. It almost felt a bit alien but thankfully that didn't last for long."
With the "post-Beijing craziness" as she calls it now over, Adlington has already started focusing on the defence of her two Olympic titles, even with three years of swimming to go before then. "You have to think that far ahead a little bit," she said. "It's crazy to think it's been a year since Beijing - that's flown by - and the next three will fly by as well. I've got the Worlds to think about and a lot of other swimming but I'd be a complete liar if I didn't say I was thinking about 2012 a little bit."