Olympic champion opens up on anxiety ahead of ACE wellbeing event

It’s more than a decade since Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington retired from professional swimming. 

Since then, the 34-year old mum-of-two has been busy establishing her own businesses. But she has also been working hard in another area, to remove the stigma around mental health, after suffering from severe anxiety herself. 

Adlington will be sharing her story at the Wellbeing Risk: Setting The Industry Standard event which is being held in London on September 21.

Organised by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) in partnership with Mott MacDonald and International SOS, the event aims to make a positive impact on wellbeing risk and better understand the challenges facing industry. 

Adlington’s mental health struggles came after she retired from professional swimming. 

“I was in my day-to-day business life running my swim company,” she said. “I was a mum, a single mum at the time, and I didn’t know what was going on as I was having panic attacks and struggling with anxiety,” she explained.

“That’s why I went to therapy, it really helped me. But I always highlight this, therapy isn’t the answer for everyone, there’s so many different routes you can go."

She added: “I’ve not had a panic attack since leaving therapy back in 2019, it gave me some amazing tools.

“That doesn’t mean I don’t suffer from anxiety. Of course I have anxious days, and there are days when I think ‘I just don’t feel right’, but I stop myself from getting to that really bad panic attack stage.”

Adlington says being open about mental health is crucial – a message she’s keen to get across at the Wellbeing Risk event.

“I’m really open about mental health now. I would like to start the event by saying 'let’s talk about it in a normal way', there doesn’t have to be stigmas about it. 

“I can go into work now and openly say to my MD, ‘I’m feeling a bit anxious today’ – which can seem a really strange thing to do because sometimes people hide that side of themselves.

“For me, I think if you show vulnerability, they show vulnerability back and actually it creates much better understanding and support.”

She added: “I’ll be sharing my story, what I’ve been through but also making people understand that it happens to everyone. 

“There’ll be people in the room thinking ‘I’d never expect that from someone who has been to the Olympics’, and actually that’s what it’s meant to do. Every single person in the room will suffer from some factor of mental health. 

“Everyone gets a cold or a stomach bug, and mental health is exactly the same. We’ve all got to look after ourselves and support each other.”

Those attending the interactive event will be part of the creation of a wellbeing standard for the consultancy industry and have the opportunity to connect with and learn from experts.

Adlington competed in four Olympic finals, over two games, winning two gold and two bronze medals in Beijing and London respectively.

She used a sports psychologist during her time competing – but says it wasn’t commonplace as it is today. 

“There’s a sports psychologist on most teams now, especially elite teams,” she said. “Fifteen years ago it wasn’t a thing. I didn’t know any elite swimmer that used a sports psychologist at the time and there was quite a bit of stigma about it. 

“When my coach suggested it to me I was a bit like ‘why is there something wrong with me?’ It genuinely wasn’t perceived the way it is now.”

She said people’s wellbeing needs were also constantly evolving. 

In the decade since her retirement from swimming, she has been busy in the world of business - setting up Becky Adlington’s SwimStars which teaches more than 8,500 children to swim each week and Becky Adlington Training, which aims to get more accredited teachers poolside with the right qualifications.

Adlington, who recently announced she is expecting her third child, added: “The challenge with wellbeing is it’s ever-changing, what I used to like five years ago isn’t what I like now.

“Now in pregnancy my wellbeing is more important as I’m growing a baby. But it’s really difficult because the things I used to love I just don’t have the energy for. It’s about accepting that too.”

She said perceptions regarding wellbeing and mental health can differ depending on age – and can be more of a challenge in industries that are still male-dominated. 

“Growing up I never saw my parents being really vulnerable or see their struggles,” she said. “My daughter is eight and she sees me cry all the time. 

“I think the younger generation is much more open to discussing mental health and emotions. 

“I also think men do struggle a bit more to show their vulnerability.”

When it comes to taking care of your own mental health Adlington says it’s so important to normalize it. 

“Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Find the help that suits you. Everyone has something that is completely unique and individual to them.”

Other guest speakers at the ACE Wellbeing Risk event include Dr Rachel Lewis, occupational psychologist at Affinity Health at Work and Dr Jonathan O’Keefe, chief medical officer at Schlumberger. 

Adlington said she hopes people attending the event will come with an open mind and embrace new ways of thinking. 

“Everyone has different experiences, everyone goes through different stuff. I’d like the day to start with people thinking ‘OK we’re all going to be a bit vulnerable today, we’re all going to keep an open mind, we’re all going to listen, we’re all going to learn and we’ll going to see what the day brings’.

“I’m really looking forward to it.”

The Wellbeing Risk event takes place from 9.30am-4pm on September 21 at De Vere Grand Connaught Rooms, Great Queen Street, London.

Please note that invites are limited to two participants per organisation for capacity purposes.

Click here to register for the event.

If you would like to contact Karen McLauchlan about this, or any other story, please email