INTERVIEW WITH REBECCA ADLINGTON OBE
You have used your unbelievable successes as a professional swimmer to build three incredible businesses that are helping thousands of children throughout the UK learn to swim. Tell us a bit more about those businesses and at what point in those businesses did you become a mum?
“We have three learn to swim businesses under one umbrella; we have swim!, Becky Adlington’s SwimStars, and we also have Total Swimming Academy’s. Swim! is the business that is growing the most. Swim! is our own building, where we control that customer journey and we can make sure that they have a purpose built venue that is just for kids. Swimstars are set within gyms, so we are effectively in somebody else’s house, we have to be respectful to its other members, and total swimming is in schools, so we use school pools, so that’s the difference between all three. And they are all at different stages, total swimming is the oldest that’s 12 years old, Becky Adlington swim stars is 10 years old and swim! is 5.
My daughter Summer is 7, and my youngest is only one. He was a complete surprise, myself and my partner weren’t married at the time, we hadn’t even really planned on having children, so it was a bit of a shock but a beautiful one. Albie was a lockdown baby as well, I think most people said you either got divorced or pregnant in lockdown – and we got pregnant!” [She laughs] “Summer was still off school, and I was really freaking out about whether or not Andy would be able to come in with me because of all the restrictions at the time. I had heard so many stories about people having to give birth on their own and I just couldn’t even imagine how that would feel and so I didn’t end up going to the hospital until I was 8cm because I was so paranoid about it. I was like, ‘I’m not going to the hospital yet, because I don’t want to be by myself’. When we got there, they asked Andy to wait outside, but it was for only like 5 minutes because the head was coming out and so then they got Andy straight back in. I was so relieved because I can’t imagine going through labour without that support!”
Because of the industry of your business, the whole Covid period must have been incredibly difficult and full of challenges that no one could foresee, how did you cope with that alongside having a new baby?
“It was so horrible, we had shut every area of our business down because obviously pools weren’t allowed to be open. When I look back to the first lockdown we had all taken bets as to how long it would last and nobody said anything past 8 weeks, and then it was like 6 months later and we were still in lockdown. So it was really, really difficult for us, we nearly lost the business, because swimming pools were one of the last things that were opened up. I remember when they opened up pubs but still wouldn’t open pools and I couldn’t believe that the government wasn’t seeing that choosing people’s mental and physical health and learning a life skill such as swimming as more important than some other things. I understand of course that the hospitality industry was important too, I just couldn’t understand why they didn’t open swimming pools when it was scientifically proven that chlorine killed covid within 30 seconds, so if you had it or even if it was on your skin as soon as you were in the water, within 30 seconds any of those germs would have been killed? When they came out I think they should have made more noise about that as it’s so important for people to understand that and understand that was actually one of the safest sports to do during covid. Physiologically, it was really hard as you were open, then closed, then open, then closed again. It was just horrible and it felt like an absolute mindfield for us and all of the team who work with us (and for our customers!) One minute their children could come back to swimming then they had to stop them again, it was so stop and start for the kids and a lot of people lost interest or developed fears. We nearly didn’t survive that.”
Amongst the struggles that your business was going through and preparing for a new baby, you also had Summer at home, how did you deal with the demands of that and homeschooling?
“I didn’t really homeschool, I’m not going to lie. Summer was only in year one at the time, so we did things that she wouldn’t normally get to do with me instead, like exercising, for example as normally I would go to the gym and do that whilst she’s at school, so it was the first time she had really seen what exercise was. She learnt what a press up was and what a squat was etc not that she was doing them! She also helped me with washing and household chores and things that are actually fundamental to getting through life. Now I can say Summer, ‘can you turn the oven on to 200 degrees’ and she now knows what that means, and she can chop veg like a master!” [We all laugh] “So there are good things like that that came out of it as I didn’t know that at her age. So I was very relaxed about that in lockdown, my main challenge in the first lockdown was to teach her how to ride a bike – that was the main goal for me and she did it! So I was more than happy with that! I think everyone was under enough pressure without worrying about homeschooling as well.”
How did you manage to bounce back from the brink of losing your business to now seeing such incredible growth?
“I think one of the main factors was that parents were desperate to get their children to swimming lessons and back in the pool – so we were really lucky that the demand for our service was there. Also in terms of our swim! centres, so many other pools never reopened as they didn’t survive covid and a lot of councils had shut down their pools, I think it’s something like 160 swimming pools shut down in the UK following all the lockdowns so that’s a huge amount of pools up and down the country that people can no longer go to, so for us to be able to open up new pools in areas where there aren’t any, people are keen to come in and use them because parents just want their children to learn to swim, and it’s been a real pleasure to be able to provide these facilities where communities had lost out on access to pools for their children all together. It’s been a huge relief and a really nice feeling to get back to business properly again. It was a huge challenge to get the funding together after going through such a difficult couple of years, and finding the buildings isn’t easy and going through all of the logistics of setting up a swimming pool isn’t an easy process. But they’re not 25m swimming pools, they are teaching tanks for children so it’s easier than if we were building full leisure centres. We’ve also recently partnered with JD Gyms so to have them as our funding partner and such an established and well respected brand like JD involved, has been an absolute pleasure for us as a business to have that support. When we think that we started out as a little learn to swim programme started by three olympians (Becky’s business partners Adrian Turner and Steve Parry) who love the sport and now we are working with such an industry leader such as JD it’s amazing to think how far we have come!”