There is something slick and sleek about Driving Force (Sky Documentaries), a juicy series of interviews and profiles in which Judy Murray meets British women who have ascended to the highest levels of their sports. Murray uses her own life experiences to tease the good, the bad and the horrifying out of superstars of their fields, from Victoria Pendleton to Kelly Holmes, Christine Ohuruogu to Steph Houghton. It is lit and shot like a classy American documentary and, in parts, reminded me of HBO’s Serena Williams series Being Serena – though not quite so earnest.
In tonight’s episode, Murray meets Rebecca Adlington, the most successful British swimmer of all time, a double Olympic gold medallist, a double Olympic bronze medallist and a world record-breaker. Adlington is a good talker. Late in the interview, she explains that she benefited hugely from working with a sports psychologist, and that having therapy was “the best decision I ever made”. It seems to have given her a wise and considered perspective on life before and after her spectacular performance in Beijing.
Murray is a friendly face and offers an empathetic ear. She doesn’t fling difficult questions at Adlington. Her approach is soft (“Who instilled your love of swimming?”), but as you might expect, she gets results. But Murray isn’t doing this to elicit personal confessionals or exclusive reveals. Rather, she understands the world of women and sport intimately, and finding common ground is her path to getting a revealing interview with her subject.
As someone with insider knowledge of professional sport, Murray can cut to the most pressing issues. They discuss the economics of professional sport, with Adlington pointing out the common misconception that swimming is cheap; that all you need to do it is a costume and goggles. Once you get to a certain level, it becomes expensive: racing costumes sell for more than £100; club fees are costly; travel, accommodation and race fees add up. If you’re not from a wealthy background, you need to be very good even to get near the kind of support that’s necessary to build a career. Adlington eventually got backing, but had to win two Olympic golds first.
Murray and Adlington chat frankly about puberty and periods, and the fact that this felt rare is shocking. Adlington says she started her periods when she was 10, and went on the pill young to avoid having a period when she was due to compete. The show recounts astonishing stats and facts about how young female athletes feel their performance is less good at a certain point of their menstrual cycle, yet most have never bothered to discuss it with their usually male coaches. For a world so concerned with minutiae of the body and its performance, to not even discuss periods is an incredible omission, and largely comes from awkwardness. Even Adlington, who appears to have a truly lovely relationship with Bill Furniss, who coached her to her Olympic triumphs in 2008 and 2012, admits that it was too difficult to talk to him about the subject.
Sports fans will love the depth and detail here, and non-sports fans will be amazed by the otherworldly dedication that excellence of this level requires. Fittingly, there is a lot of jubilance and joy in Adlington’s story. We hear from her parents, who give an honest account of the sacrifices families must make if one of the children enters sport at a professional level. Her mother talks about picking her daughter up from the pool at 10pm, and having to get out of bed at 3.30am to take her back there in the morning. Adlington recalls her mother collapsing with exhaustion. “Any athlete who says they’re not selfish is lying,” says Adlington.
Some of her stories are painful, and she is a public figure who has had it particularly rough. She talks about being bullied online and targeted by trolls, who chipped away at an already fragile sense of self-esteem. “The better you are, unfortunately, the bigger the target on your back,” says Furniss, sadly. Adlington talks about her OBE, and how the green dress she wore to collect it became a target for malicious comments. The day is so tarnished in her memory that she doesn’t have any photographs of it. But this is not a bleak interview. Rather, it is a solid psychological insight in to what it takes to be the best – especially as a woman.