Driving Force review – Judy Murray dives deep with Rebecca Adlington

The tennis coach skilfully interviews sports superstars in this interview series, beginning with the Olympic swimming champion on her successes and struggles

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.

Judy Murray.
An empathetic ear ... Judy Murray. Photograph: Karl Bridgeman/Getty Images for Battle Of The Brits

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.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Devil’s Advocate review – a mind-boggling tale of a real-life grifter
This documentary looks at the rise and fall of the ‘lawyer’ Giovanni di Stefano, whose list of clients reads like a Who’s Who of criminality – from Saddam Hussein to Harold Shipman

Lucy Mangan

15, Feb, 2022 @11:00 PM

Article image
63 Up review – documentary marvel makes all other reality TV look trivial
Michael Apted’s groundbreaking seven-yearly series returns, seeming more dreamlike than ever as it follows its subjects into retirement and beyond

Lucy Mangan

04, Jun, 2019 @9:00 PM

Article image
Thursday’s best TV: Who Should We Let in?; Host the Week; Riviera
Ian Hislop unearths some surprises in a history of Britain’s response to outsiders. Plus: Scarlett Moffatt is the first celeb to Host the Week; and revelations on the riviera for Julia Stiles

Ben Arnold, Phil Harrison, Paul Howlett, Ellen E Jones, Andrew Mueller, John Robinson, David Stubbs, Hannah Verdier

22, Jun, 2017 @5:10 AM

Article image
TV tonight: the tortuous tale of Castro's Cuba
Norma Percy’s two-parter on the communist state is immaculately sourced and assembled. Plus: How to Beat Pain. Here’s what to watch this evening

Phil Harrison, Hannah Verdier, Hannah J Davies, Ellen E Jones and Paul Howlett

11, Aug, 2020 @5:20 AM

Article image
Is Uni Racist? review – disturbing accounts of discrimination on campus
Linda Adey’s documentary considers the piecemeal response of higher education providers to race-related incidents, and explains why some students are afraid to speak up

Lucy Mangan

28, Apr, 2021 @10:25 PM

Article image
TV tonight: Ken Burns chronicles the life of Ernest Hemingway
The celebrated film-maker returns with Lynn Novick to study the great man of letters. Plus: podcast spinoff Limetown. Here’s what to watch this evening

Ammar Kalia, Jack Seale, Ellen E Jones, Graeme Virtue and Paul Howlett

29, Jun, 2021 @5:20 AM

Article image
TV tonight: the return of sister act Sharon Horgan and Aisling Bea
Horgan co-stars in a new series of This Way Up – as Bea’s sibling in her delightful comedy drama. Plus: Craig and Bruno’s Great British Road Trips. Here’s what to watch this evening

Ammar Kalia, Graeme Virtue, Phil Harrison , Jack Seale and Paul Howlett

14, Jul, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Screen queens: the funny, fearless women who revolutionised TV
Phoebe Waller-Bridge exploded into our living rooms with Fleabag, her vicious comedy about an angry, awkward woman. As it returns, Guardian writers pick their TV heroines

03, Mar, 2019 @3:00 PM

Article image
TV tonight: David Dimbleby confronts a history of BBC scandals
The broadcaster remember the days that shook the corporation. Plus: Hogarthian scenes in Night Coppers. Here’s what to watch this evening

Hollie Richardson, Danielle De Wolfe, Phil Harrison, Jack Seale and Simon Wardell

30, Aug, 2022 @5:20 AM

Article image
Serengeti review – the Made in Chelsea of nature documentary
Stunning footage of wild animals is twisted into soap-worthy storylines – from baboon threesomes to lion paternity battles. What a ludicrous way to yank on our heartstrings

Rebecca Nicholson

04, Jul, 2019 @8:00 PM