Thank You Alex Danson-Bennett

It’s always sad when one of sport’s greats decides it’s time to step away.

But Alex Danson-Bennett doesn’t want us to be down. She wants us to celebrate what she achieved across 18 incredible years.

However we don’t want to just applaud her career, one that yielded at least 17 international medals, 115 international goals (the joint-highest for an England and GB international) and created countless special memories for thousands.

We want to thank her for it too.

On the pitch, her tremendous ability helped England and Great Britain rise from a mid-table outfit to Olympic champions in the space of just a few years.

Off it, she played such a crucial role in transforming views of the sport across the country.

Following the announcement on Thursday, countless accounts were shared of people who have taken up or returned to the sport after watching her. One woman even named her daughter after Danson-Bennett when she was born shortly after that incredible evening at Rio 2016, where GB won their first ever women’s hockey Olympic gold.

Personally, I was lucky enough to witness just how much of an affect Danson-Bennett had in both areas throughout my time working with her.

I was there when she scored her 100th international goal against the Dutch in 2017 and her record-equalling goal against the USA a year later, in front of 10,000 people at a home World Cup (and on her 200th England appearance).

On both occasions the crowd roared louder and for longer than on any other occasion I have experienced at a home event.

She had a galvanising effect on the team and supporters; you just knew that even when things weren’t going for England/GB, she had the ability to produce something out of nowhere and turn a game on its head.

It made perfect sense when Danson-Bennett was appointed captain on a full-time basis in late 2017; she was a natural leader. Not necessarily in terms of being the loudest or biggest character in the dressing room but the way she carried herself and the respect her team-mates gave her.

In interviews as well she had that knack of knowing exactly the right thing to say without being dull and always tried to sign as many autographs as she could after a game, even when the support staff were dragging her away!

For me, that’s what makes GB’s hockey players stand out from everyone else; they are so willing to give their time to others at every opportunity and Danson-Bennett was the perfect example.

She always ensured she spent time with the fans after a game, interacted with her supporters on social media and gave her all in any appearance she made. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone not have a beaming smile on their face after spending time with the 34-year-old.

It’s all well and good being fantastic on the pitch but many athletes will only truly capture the hearts of the public if they show them how much their support means. Danson-Bennett did that and then some.

 

I remember one particular occasion in the build up to the 2018 World Cup where we had arranged an appearance with the Hampshire-born athlete and Maddie Hinch. The agreement was that they would be doing some filming for Newsround, giving a training session to some youngsters from a local club and answering their questions.

A mix up in communication had meant that the date of the appearance hadn’t been made clear to either so when we approached them both, tired and slightly frazzled after a tough training session, they weren’t immediately forthcoming.

But there was no drama, no fuss. They just got themselves ready and then put their full energy into ensuring each child left with memories that they will never forget.

In addition to all of this, the mark of a true great is just how much respect they are given by their opponents. Never before have I seen so much outpouring of love and affection for one athlete from so many of the players they’ve come up against.

Argentinean, Dutch, Irish, Australian, Spanish, New Zealander – greats from all of these nations joined together in sharing their own memories of playing against Danson-Bennett.

This wasn’t a player who just touched British hearts; this was one who was held in the very highest regard across the world.

I had the opportunities to say a few words to Danson-Bennett in the office this week but could never find the right words.

What can you say to one of the greatest sporting stars this country will ever know?

But I know now:

Thank you Alex. Thank you for being one of the athletes who inspired me to get into hockey. Thank you for being such a pleasure to work with and treating us all with so much respect. Thank you for everything you have given this country.

Heat, storms & goals – McCallin reflects on first tour of 2020

Shona McCallin looks back on an exciting tour for GB Hockey to Australia and New Zealand and how it felt to make her FIH Hockey Pro League debut, score her first GB goal and make her 50th appearance.

It’s crunch time for a lot of athletes at the moment. 2020 is here and for many of us that means only one thing… It’s Olympic year!

Time to dot the i’s, cross the t’s and make sure you, and your team, is the best prepared you can be. Everything just becomes that little bit more important.

Within the GB Hockey squad, the above certainly applies. Competition for places is at its highest for the first time in a long time – players are fit, performing well, pushing each other forward and, ultimately, giving the team the best shot at medalling in Tokyo this summer.

The year certainly started as it means to go on – fast and furious! The first week back saw us undertaking plenty of fitness testing which produced a solid set of results – just reward for the time and effort we put in over Christmas.

The second week involved getting back on the pitch and pushing for selection for the FIH Hockey Pro League trip to Australia and New Zealand, for which we jetted off on 19 January.

We arrived in Brisbane for a few days of acclimatisation (it was 33C or more every day, vastly different to what we’d left behind at home!) and training before heading to Sydney for our opening games of this year’s tournament.

It was my first experience of the league with GB and one I thoroughly enjoyed. One victory, one late defeat defeat, one shoot-out win and one match cancelled [GB were 1-0 ahead in their second game against Australia before storms curtailed the match and, because they’d won the game before, the hosts were awarded double points]. It was a good start for us and personally for me too as I played my 50th game for GB and scored my first goal.

 

Our coach Mark Hager gave the trip an 8/10 overall and that’s definitely something I would agree with. Our performances were good and the players coped well in the heat. Of course there are still areas in which to improve but we also have plenty of time to do so.

We’re now looking forward to a couple weeks back at Bisham training before heading away to South Africa on a training camp at the end of March, which should also be quite warm.

After a trip to The Netherlands in late April, the FIH Hockey Pro League will then return to London as we welcome Argentina, China, USA and Germany across various weekends in May and June.

It’s already been an exciting start to the year and I can’t wait for what’s to follow!

Forget the Nike controversy, can we just accept Jemma Reekie for the exceptional talent she is?

Photo credit: British Athletics

Jemma Reekie is a track and field superstar in the making.

The middle distance runner has shot to prominence this indoor season, smashing three records in the last month. She also took 1500m victory in the Glasgow Indoor Grand Prix on Saturday and is a strong candidate to repeat the feat at the Indoor British Championships next weekend.

From seemingly nowhere – at least for those who aren’t regular athletics followers – this 21-year-old has fast become one of the nation’s most exciting sporting talents and looks set for a hugely successful career.

Yet the first story I saw following her win on Saturday was not one lauding her performance; instead it was one in which she’d had to deny that her recent upturn in form was down to her shoes.

It’s a sad indictment of the society we currently live in – and the history surrounding athletics – that we can’t simply celebrate an athlete’s achievements.

Instead it feels as though there is a constant need to find some form of scandal to discredit a performance, as though we no longer believe that a human is capable of pushing their body to the absolute maximum, running times faster than anyone else before, without cheating.

Fortunately, a broader search of Reekie’s name turned up a plethora of positive articles, ones that rightly applaud her success and talk about the European U23 double world champion in very positive terms.

Indeed this piece I saw is one of a small minority pedalling this angle. It’s just a shame that it comes from such a major source that will be seen by millions of people.

The implication was that this ‘upturn in form’ from the Kilbarchan AAC runner could be attributed to the fact that she is wearing Nike’s Vaporfly shoes, which have been the topic of many debates in recent weeks.

A study by the New York Times, who analysed results from more than one million amateur races, suggested that runners who used the shoes set times 4-5% faster than they would in generic running shoes.

Both Eliud Kipchoege – who became the first athlete to run a sub-two hour marathon – and Brigid Kosgei, who broke the women’s marathon record in October, were wearing variations of the shoes when they achieved their extraordinary feats.

All of this has encouraged World Athletics (formerly the IAAF) to tighten their regulations surrounding the shoes, which will come into force in April.

And while Reekie is one of the athletes who wear the Vaporfly, there are two clear factors that explain just as easily – and more plausibly – her rapid improvement.

The first one is her age. At 21, she’s still getting better as a runner. She is continuing to develop physically and still has a number of years left before she reaches the ‘prime age’ for middle distance athletes.

It’s therefore no surprise that she’s getting quicker. In fact, it would be worrying if she wasn’t.

Not only will she improve physically but Reekie and her coaches will also continue to learn about how to best prepare her for competition the more time they spend together. Already they have worked hard to optimise her diet and rectify sinus issues she was having last year and the results are immediately clear to see.

The second factor is that if you look into her history, these results are no surprise at all.

She won the 1500m title at the European U20 Championships back in 2017 before finishing third in the same event at the 2018 Athletics World Cup, less than two seconds behind winner Sofia Ennaoui of Poland who would claim European silver the following year.

Reekie then won the 800m and 1500m U23 European titles in Sweden last summer and represented GB at her first World Championships in Doha back in October.

While perhaps few would have predicted such an explosive start to the decade – breaking Laura Muir’s British 1500m and mile records while also running the world’s fastest indoor 800m time since 2006 – there can be no doubting the talent has always been there.

 

Muir’s comments at the weekend about her fellow Scot and training partner were indicative of how much she respects Reekie but also showed how important it is to her that her training partner is treated properly at such an early stage in her career.

Speaking to The Guardian, Muir said that she believes Reekie is ‘capable of doing very, very special things’ but also made it clear she wants to ensure that she is able to enjoy her running and not have too much undue pressure put on her too early.

That should include not having to answer questions about whether or not her improvements are solely down to her trainers.

At the end of the day, she is doing nothing wrong. The trainers are currently legal, she is allowed to run in them. End of.

And, as we have stated, there are far more logical reasons.

We are just months away from Tokyo 2020 and, given her current form, Reekie could well find herself on the plane come July. Muir even believes they could win medals alongside each other.

For once, let’s not get bogged down in controversy.

We have one of the most exciting British athletes in decades emerging in front of our eyes. We should be relishing what is to come from Reekie, not looking for reasons to put her down before she’s even begun.

Georgina Roberts: Cancer and transforming a ‘neglected’ sport

Photo credit: Georgina Roberts

Georgina Roberts talks to Alasdair Hooper about a difficult 2019 for her and her family, learning to accept who she is and why she wants to ensure shooting becomes more accepted as a sport.

I am Georgina Roberts; I shoot Olympic Trap and I am going to take over the world.”

It’s taken a lot for Georgina Roberts to get to this point.

This is a woman who knows what she wants – to change the state of play for the better and take her sport to new levels.

This is an athlete who wants to rewrite age-old gender-based stereotypes. Shooting is not just an activity for men smoking cigars and pulling a trigger. It’s far more than that.

Having these ambitions, however, is one thing. Having the confidence and belief in yourself is something else.

Following a rollercoaster of a 2019 this is where Roberts is now. After taking time away from her sport she’s been able to focus on herself and concentrate on the reasons why she fell in love with shooting in the first place.

It all comes down to her dad and his ongoing fight with cancer.

“My dad was diagnosed with cancer – he had cancer for a few years so that was nothing new – but his cancer had spread,” explained the 22-year-old in an exclusive interview with SportSpiel.

“I got myself a full-time job, which is a real eye-opener for anyone.

“But in terms of trying to fund my own shooting, I wanted to take that weight off my parents because I’m an only child and shooting is still a very expensive sport.

“My mum’s a headteacher, so she’s got a big full-time job that is very stressful. She’s doing an amazing job and doing the best she can.

“But there’s still only so much that you can do.

“Hopefully she sees it anyway, but I’ve been trying my best to ease the stress a little bit. I moved back home, got a full-time job and tried to help support my dad.

“He’s had brachytherapy, radiotherapy, hormone therapy and now he’s on chemotherapy so he’s doing an amazing job.

“He sees it more as an inconvenience but watching someone go through that whole process is really quite hard.”

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO ROBERTS’ EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH SPORTSPIEL

Roberts is in the fortunate position where she has received endless support from her work and also from British Shooting throughout a tough year.

Ultimately it has meant that, while she’s been supporting her dad through everything, she’s also been able to look at herself.

“Not that many people know what’s actually been going on behind closed doors, so it’s been an eye-opener,” she said.

“It’s also been really good for me because I took some time out to focus on me.

“Seeing someone go through that makes you more aware of, you know, there might not be a tomorrow.

“Just do it now. There might not be a next year.

“I focussed on myself and my fitness – obviously I signed up for a half marathon – which has been really good for me.

“Running has actually completely changed my mindset. It’s working on little goals that add up to a bigger picture.

“Then, all of a sudden, you’re there at your end goal and you need to set another one. As cringey as it sounds it has changed my life actually.

“Having some time away from shooting has made me fall more in love with shooting because now when I go shooting it’s ‘I’m having such a good time’.

“’I am so happy to be here, this is not a really hard training day, I am so excited to be here’.

“This is more than just shooting. This is me in my happy place.”

The Mintridge Foundation ambassador may have represented Wales and Great Britain in Olympic Trap since the age of 17 but there’s much more in her armoury these days.

As well as being a competitor, Roberts is also a board member of the Welsh Clay Target Shooting Association, a columnist in Clay Shooting Magazine and is a blogger for BASC news and British Shooting.

But what she takes a huge sense of pride in is her coaching of the younger generation and her role as a development coach on the Talent Pathway.

“That’s definitely built my mindset for my own shooting and it’s kept me busy, which is definitely something I needed at this point of my life,” she said.

“It’s kept me going and it has really helped.

“Earlier this year, the end of January 2020, I went to my first international competition – the Malaga Grand Prix.

“I made my first international final and I won gold.

“For the first time I’ve been in an international senior final, it was a bit twitchy bum if I’m honest and I was very nervous, but to come out with a gold medal was something really special and it meant a lot for my dad as well.

“He feels like an inconvenience to a lot of people. He doesn’t want people feeling sorry for him and he doesn’t want to feel like ‘you don’t need to take me to chemo’.

“Now he’s like ‘it’s ok because looking after me hasn’t stopped her from doing what she wants to do’.

“He would never ever want my shooting to suffer as a result of helping with his cancer.”

One of the keys factors in helping the sport-mad 22-year-old be who she is now is accepting herself.

It has taken time, but it’s been well worth it.

“In terms of sport I remember reading a quote – I can’t remember who said it – but if you’re not truly happy with yourself you’re already on the backfoot,” she explained.

“If you stand on the peg next to someone who is truly happy within themselves, they’re always going to have that edge and that advantage.

“There’s going to be no second-guessing. Am I good enough to be here? Do I deserve to be here?

“It’s going to be I deserve to be here. I am happy. I have put in the work. I am ready for this. This gold is mine.

“It’s always going to be that battle so until you’re like ‘I am Georgina Roberts, I shoot Olympic Trap and I am going to take over the world’ there’s always going to be that difference.

“It’s the same within business. You need to know who you are and you need to be happy with who you are.

“I cannot scream and shout enough about taking care of yourself.

“It’s not just drinking enough water and getting enough sleep at night. It’s ‘I am Georgina and I like sport’.

“I don’t need to pretend to be someone I’m not. This is who I am. People need to accept me for who I am and if they don’t then I don’t care.

“It’s a battle but it’s a battle worth having.”

 

Roberts’ passion for her sport is evident from the very start, something that saw her win the sport category at the Women of the Future awards 2019.

At the forefront of her aims and ambitions lie two key objectives – pushing more women into shooting but also changing the public’s perception of her ‘neglected’ sport.

“It [shooting] is really popular with hen dos at the minute because people are starting to understand that there’s so much more to it than just men smoking cigars and pulling a trigger,” she said.

“We need up-and-coming women or else, the level of women that we have at the minute, we’re going to get to a point where we don’t compete anymore and there’s going to be no one to replace us, which is a really scary prospect.

“One area we need to target the most is female juniors. They have so much to offer us in terms of – obviously they’re still juniors – but they’re going to have access to the world stage at a junior level.

“Then they can work up into senior level and hopefully one day become Olympic champions.”

She continued: “I think shooting is a very neglected sport.

“I know a lot of people think guns are dangerous, and shooting is dangerous, and they don’t see it as a sport.

“If you left a shotgun standing in the corner of the room it wouldn’t jump up and shoot itself.

“It wouldn’t go off – someone needs to pull the trigger.

“Shooting isn’t dangerous as long as the people who are safe, capable and responsible are the people that are competing and shooting.

“As long as people understand that, they’ll know it’s not a dangerous sport and they’ll be more willing and interested in taking part in it.

“I think it’s just how we convey that to people.

“But it’s stopping them from introducing their children, or their wives, to the sport potentially.

“Actually, shooting is a sport that is under threat because double trap was taken out of the Olympics because of equality – there was no women’s event.

“The women’s event was taken out of the Olympics because there wasn’t enough participation.

“We didn’t just lose a women’s discipline; we lost the men’s discipline.

“We can’t let that happen again otherwise we’re going to have no sport.”

Sugar hoping for sweet success at Tokyo 2020

Laura Sugar is one of those athletes you can’t help but be jealous of.

Many of us can only dream of being skilled enough to play for our country in one sport. Sugar has represented hers in three.

She made her debut for Wales’ hockey team in September 2012 and made 11 appearances in total, playing alongside current GB stars Leah Wilkinson and Sarah Jones.

However just weeks before her debut Sugar, who was born with a club foot and as a result has no movement in her ankle, had been watching the London 2012 Paralympics and suddenly realised that there was potentially another sporting avenue she could pursue.

“Hockey was my main sport. I thought this was me and this was my career; it one of the sports I tried at school and the one I was really good at,” she recalled in an exclusive interview with SportSpiel.

“But unless you’re in the full GB set up you can’t be a full-time athlete, you have to pay to play, so I became a PE teacher. However my dream was to become a full-time athlete and be involved in sport.

“I watched London 2012 while working at a kids camp – I think I was sat making clay models of alien athletes because it was space-theme week. I was watching the discus and they always go quite close up on the feet in the circle and I realised ‘I’ve got that foot’.

“I knew I was quite fast, I certainly wasn’t the slowest in the hockey world, and that’s how I went and tried it out.”

 

Since then she has gone on to represent Great Britain as a sprinter at the Rio 2016 Paralympics and won several European medals.

She has also successfully transitioned into para-canoeing too, winning European bronze and World silver last year after just a few months of training.

As a result Sugar is in with a strong chance of being on the plane with Paralympics GB to compete in at least one, if not both, of her sports at Tokyo 2020.

But having grown up never letting her foot hold her back and with a condition that isn’t as obvious  to see as others, the 27-year-old admitted she was nervous about initially transitioning into para-sport.

“I knew I could never stand on one leg or some things but because it was my foot I always found another way to get around it. I just always had the attitude that it was never going to hold me back,” she said.

“When I was born my parents were told I’d be absolutely fine as long as I didn’t become a sportsperson. But it was only when I got into para-sport that my parents told me what the doctor said.

“I knew I was quite fast, I certainly wasn’t the slowest in the hockey world, and that’s how I went and tried it out.

“I was terrified, especially from the identity change of being the hockey player to the disabled athlete when I’d never thought that my whole life.

“That identity change was weird and I went along feeling a bit of a fraud because I didn’t have as bad a disability as some other people.

“That was the only thing holding me back that day but I’m so glad I went out to that event and I’m very thankful for London 2012 because otherwise I may never have known I could compete at a Paralympics.”

Less than four years later, Sugar was pulling on the GB vest at the Rio 2016 Paralympics and outperforming her expectations by finishing fifth in the T44 100m and 200m finals.

While she didn’t win a medal on that occasion, to see how far she’d come in four years made it an event she looks back on very favourably.

Recalling the 100m final in particular, she said: “I was so nervous because I put so much pressure on myself. You do it because you enjoy it and then you turn up and in the cool room you think ‘why am I doing this?’

“You literally hate yourself before every race, ask why and then you get out there and you race and you love and you think ‘I want to do it again!’

“The 100m final was the last race of the whole Paralympic Games on the track. It was about 9pm at night, a packed stadium and I remember standing on the start line. I just stood there and smiled.

“It was the 100m; a massive race; a full crowd; the ‘Blade Race’ for the women and I just went ‘I’ve done it’.

“I ran a PB, came fifth, beat the reigning champion and that was the only time I’ve appreciated what I’ve done while I’ve raced.”

With just a handful of months left until Tokyo 2020 Sugar could well be representing Great Britain once again in both athletics and para-canoeing, having made an incredible start to her career in the latter last year.

Her KL3 silver medal at the 2019 Sprint World Championships followed on from a European bronze just three weeks before and was a huge statement of intent, showing just how good she could become with even more training under her belt.

But she’s not letting herself get carried away.

While it may be easy to dream of securing that first Paralympic medal, Sugar knows there’s a long way to go yet that includes being selected as Great Britain’s representative in the event.

Most of all though, she just wants to ensure that she continues to enjoy the career she has worked so hard to turn into a reality. That, for her, is more important than any medal.

“We’ve got goals set out and obviously it being a Games year the ultimate goal is to go to Tokyo and challenge for a gold medal,” she said.

“But there’s loads of little baby steps along the way so I just need to keep progressing, keep giving my best each day and hopefully the pieces will come together.

“It’s also about enjoying the journey along the way. If you put all the pressure on getting that one goal and it doesn’t happen you’re left with nothing. I’ve spoken to loads of gold medallists who have had mental health issues because it’s not been as good as they thought it was.

“You’ve got to enjoy the journey we have on the way. So I’ll be enjoying my sport, trying to get better in both sports and see where that takes me.”

Okoro hoping for Tokyo swansong as she prepares to give her all in 2020

It was upon belatedly receiving her Olympic bronze medal in 2018 that Marilyn Okoro realised she still had more to give athletics.

Ten years after being part of the 4x400m quartet that initially finished fifth in Beijing, Okoro – alongside Christine Ohuruogu, Kelly Sotherton and Nicola Sanders – was finally presented with her medal at the 2018 Muller Anniversary Games after the Russians and Belarussians were subsequently disqualified.

And it was while standing alongside her team-mates on the podium – all of whom have now retired – that Okoro, who was once touted as the next Dame Kelly Holmes, decided to give it one final shot and try to reach Tokyo 2020.

Recalling the occasion in an interview with SportSpiel, the 35-year-old said: “I’ve had three medals given back in retrospect and that was probably the most powerful one.

“I stood on the podium alongside Chrissie, Nicola and Kelly and they’ve all retired whereas I thought I want to still go back out there, I still can compete, I haven’t changed my lifestyle so much where it’s not realistic anymore.

“It’s the only one where I’ve been given my medal and I was really emotional because I was like ‘I was good enough!’

“I was in that place where I was questioning what I had to show for the last 10 years or so of service. And then this was like being told to believe in myself because whether you’ve got a medal or not, I am the same me, I still ran that time. I just needed to look back at my journey and appreciate what I’ve done.”

Had she been awarded that medal at the time, Okoro’s career could have been so much different.

Just one year before she had also been part of the team that won 4x400m bronze at the 2007 World Championships and looked to be approaching the peak of her powers, leading to the comparison with Holmes.

But a combination of factors, including injuries, saw her controversially not selected for the 800m at London 2012. That was despite having achieved the ‘A’ qualifying standard and reaching the final of the 2009 World Championships and the semi-finals two years later.

Shortly after London, Okoro was one of several high profile athletes to have their funding withdrawn. However, despite threatening to quit the sport, something within her told the Shaftesbury Barnet Harrier that she should continue with athletics, a feeling that was ignited further upon finally being handed her Olympic medal.

“It was my selfish moment and I remember Jeanette Kwakye came to interview me and I said I couldn’t speak because it took me back to getting kicked off funding – you get a letter and it says ‘you’re not a global medallist’ and I actually was,” she said.

“It was just about rallying around the people that really wanted to support me and trusting that my body could do it and I needed to lead with my mind, which was lagging behind.”

However since making that decision a year-and-a-half ago, Okoro has once again been plagued by injuries that have severely limited the amount of time she has spent on the track.

She again seriously considered quitting the sport before a chance meeting with former team-mate Jenny Meadows provided her with an opportunity to train in Wigan.

It’s been an unsettled few years for the London-born athlete, who has spent time training in America, but this provided her with an opportunity to really knuckle down, get herself fit and give everything she has got leading up to Tokyo.

All of these experiences have also taught Okoro that reaching an Olympics isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. While the opportunity to once again race on sport’s biggest stage is an enticing prospect, she also wants to make sure she can truly enjoy the sport that has dominated her life.

“I’m really proud that I’m still in sport and that I’ve managed to turn around the last 18 months and have not given up,” the 2010 European 4x400m silver medallist explained.

“I’ve found an amazing training group, an amazing coach who really has compassion for his athletes and has given me a lot of ownership over my training because what I’ve learned is that I do know me better than anyone else.

“I’m just trying to avoid a lot of the pitfalls I’ve had in the past and trust my knowledge, trust my experiences over the years and get back out there.

“The goal has always been to get back after 2012 and bounce back from that. Life doesn’t always go in the trajectory you think but I’m healthy – I had to remind myself this is where I wanted to be, healthy with no injuries, because the last five/six Decembers there’s been a niggle.

“I’m training a lot smarter, enjoying it because that’s what this next season is about and definitely still on that road to Tokyo. We’re still eight months away so I’m not going to jinx myself but I’m in a happy place and happy athletes perform well.”

 

When the Olympics come around this July, Okoro will be less than two years older than Holmes was when she achieved her amazing double in Athens.

That Games was the first time Holmes had been injury-free before a major competition. This forthcoming event could be the first major competition Okoro has entered injury-free for a long time.

Despite the challenges she’s faced over the last few years, the similarities between Okoro and Holmes are still very much evident.

She couldn’t could she?

The 52’s Favourite Moments Of 2019

At the end of another groundbreaking year for women’s sport, The 52’s Will Moulton (WM), Alasdair Hooper (AHp), Alex Horowitz (AHz), Ollie Godden (OG), Julia Cook (JC) and Shona McCallin (SMc) have collated their favourite moments of 2019.

And in case you missed it, you can also read Tess Howard’s excellent review of her top moments from the year here.

Attendances soar & will only grow more
WM
: It’s been incredible to see how many attendance records have been broken this year. And it’s not just the international teams but also domestically too. Of course many of these figures had previously been low and were there to be broken but to generate such great numbers already is a good start.

It is proof that the appetite is there; people do want to watch women’s sport.

The level of innovation implemented in football and rugby – moving into ‘men’s’ stadiums, creating a Women’s Football Weekend etc. – is certainly a different approach but it seems to be working. It will be interesting to see if/how this changes going forward.

It’s been a privilege to be a part of many of these crowds – including part of the 77,000 roaring on the Lionesses on at Wembley and the 10,000 watching the England Rugby’s Red Roses thump Italy at Exeter’s Sandy Park – and I can’t wait to see how these figures progress further next year.

SMc: I think 2019 has been a big year for women’s sport. Attitudes and perceptions seem to be finally changing and, more crucially, being maintained.

One of my favourite moments of the year was seeing the Lionesses filling up Wembley on the back of a whirlwind World Cup campaign which I was certainly gripped by. The previous record home attendance record for the team was 45,000 – set five years ago – which just shows how much interest has grown.

AHp: This summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France was the competition where the world finally realised the potential and the appeal of the women’s game.

Overall 1.12bn viewers watched the tournament on TV at home, on digital platforms or out-of-home. The final was seen live by more than 260m viewers and the average live match audience more than doubled from 2015.

While marketing and attendance levels in France itself were far from perfect – there were some record crowds but also plenty of empty seats – in several countries many people tuned in for the first time and stuck with it.

We’ve seen that here in the UK. England’s semi-final defeat by the US attracted a TV audience of 11.7m, more than the Gavin & Stacey Christmas special and a new record for women’s football in this country. Follow that up with the record attendances and the renewed interest we have seen in the WSL and it tells you women’s football is here to stay.

The game has got coverage like never before, attention like never before and it really is about time. We have athletes demanding equal pay and the players are continuing to break down barriers. France 2019 was a large part of showcasing the product to a new audience and for that it has to be seen as a landmark tournament for women’s sport.

Dina’s Doha Delight
AHz: My first standout moment has to be Dina Asher-Smith’s historic achievement as she became the first British woman to win 200m gold at a World Athletics Championship. It was an event that brought huge tears of joy to my eyes despite being sat on the sofa 6,000 miles away.

JC: From studying history to making it, Dina Asher-Smith had another sensational year, setting a new British record on her way to 200m gold at the 2019 World Athletics Championship.

Having been a kit carrier at London 2012, she will now head into Tokyo 2020 as a medal favourite having also secured silver medals in the 100m – where she was only beaten by multiple World and Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce – and 4x100m events. 

Her time of 21.88s in the 200m final was leaps and bounds ahead of the rest, finishing 0.34s ahead of Brittany Brown as the American claimed silver.

From winning the European youth title in 2013 to becoming Britain’s first senior female sprint world champion in Doha (and obtaining a First Class degree from King’s College London in between), it has been a remarkable rise for Asher-Smith over the last few years.

If she continues like this, she looks set to add more Olympic medals to the relay bronze she won in 2016.

SMc: Dina Asher-Smith taking medals in both the individual 100m and 200m at the World Championships was pretty special. Until Dafne Schippers of The Netherlands came along, those fields had been notoriously dominated by Jamaicans and Americans. To medal at a major event just one year before Tokyo 2020 is a pretty exciting prospect for any sports fan and will ensure we’re all watching her next August.

OG: Dina Asher-Smith took arguably the greatest leap in terms of sporting achievement this year with her efforts out in Doha.

She looked stunned at the end of her 200m title winning run, as shown by her emotional interview to BBC Sport after clinching the gold medal. However, in truth, it wasn’t a shock to most, so good had her form been leading into the event.

Importantly, it was not just her athletic exploits which made her such an inspirational figure but also the way in which she carried herself off the track. A relatable role models for girls and boys alike, she showed the rewards of hard work and dedication with beaming enjoyment along the way. 

I think she characterised selflessness and gratitude during her interview at Sports Personality of the Year where she praised the impact of her parents and Coach of the Year John Blackie. In Asher-Smith and Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Britain have found new age heroines who truly can inspire a generation.

Biles cements legendary status

AHp: An incredible year for an incredible individual. At the 2019 Gymnastics World Championships, Simone Biles secured gold medals in the individual all-around, vault, balance beam and floor to go along with a team gold for the USA.

She now has 25 World Championship medals to make her the most decorated gymnast in the history of the competition. Of those medals, 18 are gold.

She’s 22 years old.

What really defined her star turn this time round was inspiring the way she continued to push her sport to new levels. She became the first woman to perform a triple double (two flips with three twists) on the floor and she also added another novelty – a double-double dismount off the balance beam (watch it on YouTube – it’s incredible!).

This is not just Biles continuing to stay as the world’s best gymnast. In 2019 she bettered even herself. Couple that with the way Biles continues to carry herself in the wake of the Larry Nasser scandal and it’s clear we are looking at a sports star who will be remembered for generations.

You have to ask yourself just how far she can go? And what on earth are we going to be seeing in Tokyo next summer?

Bowing out in Petter-fect style
OG:
Few, if any, events this year came close to matching the drama of the Solheim Cup. I’m not usually a massive golf follower but the circumstances surrounding Suzann Pettersen as she sunk the winning putt in her ninth Solheim Cup gripped even the tamest of sports fans. 

Originally selected as a vice-captain after taking time out of the game in November 2017 to have a baby, Norwegian Pettersen returned to playing and was a surprise pick by captain Catriona Matthew. But her selection was vindicated on the final day.

With the American’s leading 13.5-12.5, Europe needed to win both the matches remaining. Bronte Law, playing against Ally McDonald, holed a magnificent 15-foot putt on the 16th to half the hole before securing victory in her match on the 17th.

That created a tense finish for Pettersen; with the scores between her and Marina Alex level after 17, she could secure the victory by beating her opponent on the final hole.

The American missed an eight foot putt for the win, meaning Pettersen was left on the verge of a birdie that would see Europe win the trophy for the first time since 2013. The 38-year-old personified coolness and used all her experience to knock in a tricky putt that sent her team-mates and the Scottish crowd into a frenzy.

Pettersen then announced her retirement from the sport, a decision that wasn’t planned but after the game she admitted to the BBC that it felt like “the perfect stage to say goodbye to professional golf.”

Gallagher hits new heights
WM:
Many people know how much of a fan I am of GB trampolinist and fellow The 52 writer Laura Gallagher. Since being fortunate enough to earlier this year share the incredible story surrounding her comeback to the sport, I have followed her exploits with keen interest.

Heading into this year’s World Championships, the British team knew that a place at Tokyo 2020 was up for grabs. And while most eyes were focussed on Rio silver medallist Bryony Page, it was Laura who produced the goods as she reached her first ever world final and secured GB a quote spot for next year’s Games.

After everything she’s been through, to watch Laura produce such a spectacular routine in the semi-final – she qualified for the final in third place – was not only fantastic to witness but also proof that on her day she can mix it with the world’s best.

Her place at Tokyo is not yet guaranteed but she’s currently in a strong position to make the cut. I cannot think of anyone else who would deserve to appear on sport’s biggest stage more. One of the nicest people you’ll meet and a brilliant athlete, she’s one to watch out for in 2020.

KJT finally reaps the rewards on the big stage
JC: After years of struggles and disappointments, Katarina Johnson-Thompson finally put the demons behind her to win her heptathlon gold at the 2019 World Championships medal in Doha, her first ever medal at the competition.

In an interview the morning after taking gold, KJT was moved to tears thinking about how she almost quit the sport after a disappointing performance at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Despite her unquestionable talent and potential, much of her career had been defined by heartbreak, especially at the major events where she never seemed to be able to unleash her potential. 

After the Rio heartache, KJT made the life changing decision to leave everything she knew and loved behind and moved to live and train in Montpellier, France. 

It’s a decision that’s certainly paid off so far as she has gone on to win golds at the World Indoor, European Indoor and Commonwealth Games alongside a silver at last year’s European Championships.

This performance was by far her best yet though. Not only did she overcome reigning Olympic champion Nafi Thiam – widely regarded as one of the greatest heptathletes of all time – she set four new PBs on a way a British record score of 6,981pts (more than Jess Ennis-Hill ever achieved), the sixth score highest of all time and a total Thiam has only beaten once. Their battle at Tokyo next year is going to be electric.

Teenager wreaks havoc at Wimbledon
AHz: Another stunning moment for me was Coco Gauff’s superb performance at this year’s Wimbledon. At just 15-years-old, she not only became the youngest player to qualify for the women’s singles draw, she then beat Venus Williams on the way to reaching the fourth round. And even then she was knocked out by eventual champion Simona Halep in a close encounter.

She showed superb style, strength and tenacity throughout both this tournament and her run to the third round of the US Open, which was proof that Wimbledon was no one-off performance. I am sure she has inspired many girls across the globe.

Taylor becomes the undisputed Queen of the Ring
AHp: We’ve all known about Katie Taylor’s talent for a long time but in 2019 she proved beyond doubt just what an incredible figure she is. 

The 33-year-old fought three times this year and won on each occasion. Furthermore all three of her opponents were world champions.

In March she knocked out Rose Volante in the ninth round to add the WBO title to the IBF and WBA belts she already held. On 1 June she became undisputed lightweight champion when she added the WBC belt after winning a majority decision over Delfine Persoon.

But that wasn’t enough for Taylor. She moved up a weight division and on 2 November beat Christina Linardatou on a unanimous points decision to claim the WBO super-lightweight title in Manchester.

Taylor now has 15 wins in 15 bouts as a professional boxer, which follows up brilliantly on an amateur career that ended with a record of 175-10-1 (including 34 knockouts), appeared in two Olympic Games and won a gold medal in 2012.

Furthermore, according to our research, she is the only woman to currently hold world titles in two different weight divisions (alongside only three men – Canelo Alvarez, Jermall Charlo and Leo Santa Cruz) and is the only professional boxer (male or female) to currently hold all four belts (WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO) in the same weight category.

The best bit is that there is a whole lot more to come from this sporting star.

How one tweet began a promising career
OG: Imagine a video of you training going viral on social media; a professional outfit seeing it, signing you and then turning you into one of the country’s brightest young starlets. Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it?

Yet that’s exactly what happened to 16-year-old Phoebe Litchfield this year.

Litchfield was picked up by Sydney Thunder after a tweet of her netting at New South Wales Breakers’ training went viral. She made her Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) debut for Sydney Thunder against Sydney Sixers a week later and infiltrated social media once again as she ramped Hayley Silver-Holmes with just her tenth ball in elite cricket.

In her second appearance, the left hander from Orange scored her maiden WBBL fifty with a plethora of elegant shots, guiding her side to victory against eventual tournament victors Brisbane Heat. 

We have become used to Australia perpetually producing cricketers of such ability but Litchfield has made a bigger splash than most. The prodigious talent seemed mature beyond her years on and off the pitch.

Furthermore many, including Australian legend Alex Blackwell, believe she has a massive future in the sport. That is if she chooses it over hockey, where she has represented her country at age group level.

Cox continues to defy the odds
JC: Kadeena Cox’s 2019 Para-athletics World Championship 400m silver medal was a remarkable feat. Not just because she once again battled through the multiple sclerosis that affects her every single day but also because just three days before competing, Cox wrote an honest and thought-provoking blog post detailing the seriousness of an eating disorder she has.

It was in April of this year that Cox opened up about the topic, saying that she no longer knew what normal eating was. This wasn’t something new either; it has affected her for a long, long time.

Add in a career-threatening knee injury, it is a miraculous feat that Cox made the start line at all. To walk away with another global medal, in what was only her second 400m race since winning the world title in 2017, was incredible.

Less than a month later she was back in the velodrome claiming gold medals at the Manchester Para-Cycling International.

Cox, who developed MS after suffering a stroke in 2014, told of how being at the World Championships had caused her to relapse with her eating disorder, feeling all of the attention was on her. She has explained how she hopes to get her eating disorder under control in time to defend her Paralympic titles in both cycling and athletics. 

Sometimes winning medals isn’t the most important thing.

Hockey creates yet more special memories
WM: It has been a tumultuous year for British hockey for a number of reasons but there have still been plenty of brilliant occasions too. This includes making history at The Stoop, seeing GB qualify for Tokyo 2020 and Scotland’s women and Wales’ men producing sensational European performances.

However it was one small moment that stood out for me.

Tess Howard burst onto the international scene at the 2018 Champions Trophy, scoring in just her third game and bringing a new lease of life to the team. Come this spring she was making her home debut against the USA in the FIH Pro League, a game that went to a shootout on a dreary April afternoon.

Not only did the 20-year-old have the bottle to step up and have an attempt, she casually approached the ‘keeper before slotting the ball between her legs, much to the delight of the home crowd.

It was cheeky. It was brave. It was absolutely brilliant and an early sign of how seriously talented Tess is, something subsequent performances have only further proven.

A tough, fierce and determined competitor, expect her to be at the forefront of GB’s charge for a third consecutive Olympic medal in 2020.

 

A mention must go to Shona too. Having worked with her for more than two years and being one of the first athletes I got to know, it was so tough to see her out of the game for 17 months. But she never gave up, showed a brilliant attitude throughout all the rehab and finally got back onto the pitch this year. It was so great to watch her as GB overcame Chile in a highly pressurised two-legged Olympic qualifier and I cannot wait to see even more next year.

SMc: I may be biased but my personal highlight of the year has to be qualifying for Tokyo 2020. More specifically, it was when the moment Izzy Petter scored the opening goal in the first leg. Once that went in, we were able to relax a bit more after a nervy first half and play our proper game. We came away with a 5-1 aggregate win clinching our spot at Tokyo and boy it felt good!

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The 52’s Shona McCallin & Will Moulton celebrating after GB’s women qualified for Tokyo 2020

AHz: Being half-Scottish, I felt great pride seeing the women’s team produce five fine performances on home soil to secure EuroHockey Championships II gold and earn promotion back to the top tier for 2021. Seeing the likes of GB internationals Amy Costello and Nicki Cochrane, who I have volunteered alongside over the years, enjoy such success was hugely rewarding. 

Fallon Sherrock is making PDC history but darts has a long way to go yet

Following Fallon Sherrock’s two historic victories at the 2020 PDC World Darts Championship, Ollie Godden explains how darts still has a long way to go when it comes to encouraging women to play the game.

As Fallon Sherrock stepped up to the oche on 17 December 2019, she had three attempts at double 18 to make history. Cheers and whistles reverberated through TV screens as the fans at Alexandra Palace (or ‘Ally Pally’) rose in tandem.

The first dart nestled outside the wire, enough to hush the rapturous crowd into tense silence. The second pierced the centre of the red sisal fibre and sent the crowd – and social media – into overdrive.

In overcoming Ted Evetts, Sherrock became the first woman to beat a man at the Professional Darts Corportion (PDC) World Darts Championship since it began in 1994.

Evetts was gracious in defeat while Sherrock, after taking a few moments to compose herself, showed wisdom beyond her years: “I feel really happy. I’ve made something for women’s darts. I have proved we can play men and beat them. Fingers crossed that puts us in the right direction.”

The win sent a shockwave through the sport and sparked a media frenzy, with people from all corners of the sporting spectrum hailing a performance of such magnitude.

It had been a case of when, not if, this landmark moment would happen but that didn’t mean it had any less magnitude.

Then came Sherrock’s second round victory over world number 11 Mensur Suljovic, proving the previous performance was no fluke. A plethora of leg-deciding darts were thrown with coolness. The Austrian became just another victim in Sherrock’s path to relative stardom.

She was already fairly well known in darts circles but these two wins have thrust the 25-year-old into the national spotlight.

She will go onto face world number 22 Chris Dobey on 27 December with nothing to lose, a multitude of new fans in her corner and history already made.

Women’s Darts – The Journey
The PDC World Championship has always allowed women to compete in its 26-year history, with Canadian Gayl King the first to do so when the event was held at Essex’s Circus Tavern in 2001. She lost in the first round.  

The same year the British Darts Organisation (BDO) launched their Women’s Championship which allowed them to compete for a prize pool of £6,000 – a figure which has now risen to £25,000. The winner of the men’s championship pockets £100,000. 

Between King’s appearance and last year’s tournament, no female player appeared in the  major draw of the PDC World Championship. Russian Anastasia Dobromyslova was handed a wildcard entry in 2009 but lost in the preliminary round.

There we no technical barriers preventing women from entering but a lack of equitable prize funds and limited provisions meant growth in the women’s game was stunted.

Despite Trina Gulliver’s 10 BDO Women’s Championship victories she was, and is, a relative unknown in the sporting world. The PDC did attempt to respond to the lack of female exposure by creating a Women’s World Championship in 2010 but this was discontinued after one running.

Things changed in 2018 when PDC Chairman Barry Hearn stated that the organisation would expand the World Championship competition from 72 to 96 players and guarantee two places for women.

This was an important move.

Two qualification tournaments were run to determine the athletes, with Dobromyslova and four-time BDO Women’s World Champion Lisa Ashton the two who won their events to reach one of the sport’s biggest stages.

This year Sherrock, who has had to also overcome the adversity of kidney disease following the birth of her son in 2014, was joined by fellow qualifier Mikuru Suzuki of Japan. She almost made her own piece of history, taking Englishman James Richardson to a deciding leg before losing 3-2 in the first round.

Following her first victory, Sherrock suggested that more places should be guaranteed for female participants. However Hearn’s response was that a pathway is now visible and said it is up to the female players to create more opportunities by proving their worth.

Still a way to go
It is important that Sherrock’s win doesn’t mask the progress that still needs to happen in darts. She has taken her opportunity with aplomb but things aren’t all rosy in the women’s game.

Whilst the prize pots remain small and competitions at a premium, they will remain semi-professional and this is an inherent barrier to growth.

Moreover, there is still a shift required in the cultural position of women’s darts. In an online Q&A in 2018, Michael van Gerwen – a three-time PDC World Champion – said: “You can’t compare woman darts and men’s, [I] don’t have a reason for it but [it] just doesn’t happen for some reason.”

The word number one wasn’t wrong for saying so. It was, and is, correct that few comparisons have been drawn but with little justification.

Two-time PDC Grand Slam of Darts champion Gerwyn Price joined the debate on Sherrock’s successes after his own first round victory this year, stating: “She hasn’t beaten a man, she has beaten a young boy with the crowd on his back.”

This was a startlingly regressive comment from a leading light in the sport.

Price himself beat Suzuki on his way to a second Grand Slam title a year ago but maintains the crowd impairs a player’s ability to perform to their potential and cited this as the reason for Evetts’ loss.

The comment from Price was not only patronising to Evetts, a young player with a very bright future, but undermined the success of Sherrock, who scored six 180s and nineteen 140s.

Similarly, Sherrock appeared on Good Morning Britain the day after she beat Evetts for an interview with the infamous host Piers Morgan. In a hugely trivialising stunt, Sherrock was tasked with beating Morgan in a three-dart challenge. As he swaggered over to the board, Sherrock looked understandably bemused before comfortably beating the presenter as he joked it was up to him to ‘restore pride in male darts playing’.

After her subsequent victory against Suljovic, Morgan stated that she was his ‘female empowerment role model’, but until such a point that we can take an achievement at face value without feeling the need to turn it into a gimmick, we are failing to truly celebrate the sport and those within it.

 

To continue the growth, fans must ensure that their appetite for the women’s game remains or even broadens, whilst organisers must reward women appropriately and broadcasters have a duty to televise events.

We can see the potential for development with the Women’s Super League in football this year, where exposure and sponsorship has contributed to a boom in the game. The same must occur here and there is no reason why it shouldn’t.

A quarter-final berth is not beyond the realm of possibilities by any means for Sherrock but, regardless of where she finishes in this year’s competition, the point has been made.

Women have a place in the upper echelons of the sport but they must first be given a chance. The onus is now on Hearn and his team to ensure the strategic progression of the sport which will, in time, effect the cultural beliefs about females in the sport. 

“Hockey is a flagship team sport & pioneer for athletic equality”

In her first piece for The 52, England and GB international Tess Howard reviews her favourite hockey moments of 2019 and explains why they show the sport has a blueprint for gender equality that all other should follow.

To legitimise women’s sport, it is often perceived as an add-on to its male-counterparts: ‘rugby’ and ‘women’s rugby’; ‘cricket’ and ‘women’s cricket’ etc. But hockey, whether you’re a man or woman, is simply just ‘hockey’.

It is a flagship team sport and pioneer for athletic equality.

Our world of hockey is a game of 50-50 representation. We move towards equality without the need to separate the sport in events, media or communication. There is no need to artificially construct a social hierarchical divide.

We appreciate the game for the sake of the game; a meritocracy. Viewed in this way, our sport separated by gender becomes a categorization much like weight classes in boxing; not a tool for prejudice.

As a human geographer, studying remotely with Durham University, my degree addresses the symbolic, historical and political cultures which influence our society, economy and environment. I am fortunate to be situated in elite sport whilst studying the academics of feminist movement. This has inspired me to critically reflect on highlights for women’s sport and, for me personally, revealing how sport can be a deeper indicator of contextual social progress.

The first two of my ‘women’s sporting highlights’ should probably be reworded as ‘greatest GB Hockey moments of the year’, where hockey is appreciated as the game where both men and women compete equally in their respective competitions. Perhaps a sport marking a movement ahead of its time.

1) Making history at The Stoop
This was an unprecedented event. A crowd of nearly 12,000; an enclosed and covered stadium; a hockey pitch laid down over a rugby field. And two wins, the men with a 2-0 victory over New Zealand (securing their spot in the FIH Pro League Finals) and the women then recording a 3-1 victory over the same opponent.

I was lucky enough to play in this and it was doubly special as the team put in one of our best performances in the FIH Pro League and showed that despite a tough year, we were evidently growing.

2) GB secure their places at Tokyo 2020
That feeling – to be part of that moment in our squad’s journey, helping secure our spots at the Tokyo Olympic Games – is easy to essentialise and reduce it to a single word, either ‘relief’ or ‘elation’.

But in reality it is extremely difficult to give an honest, straightforward account of what it means. Overwhelmingly, it was a feeling of achievement: successfully completing a job we simply had to complete. Happy, but realising we were always going to qualify because there was no way we couldn’t.

Within the squad there was a steady calmness, a conviction to stick to our game plan and deliver what we believed would unfold. To share the event with a rallying crowd, our fans and supporters at Lee Valley, reminded us it was more than just a match we had both won.

The reality of the event inspires reflection. A lot was shared. The huge pressure felt by both teams, the understanding that both men and women had to independently qualify. You share the relief, the elation, the experience, the event. We are grateful to GB Hockey and the FIH for hosting hockey in this way and hope this continues as we keep making positive steps to achieving true equality in events and operation. EuroHockey’s #EquallyAmazing campaign is one demonstration of how we empower athletes as athletes, nullifying performance discrimination based on gender categorisation.

 

3) The game that had it all
My final highlight is slightly unconventional. As well as England and GB Hockey, I also play for East Grinstead (EG) and one sodden October afternoon we found ourselves playing away to Hampstead & Westminster (H&W) in what was to turn out to be an all-time classic.

Given we went 3-0 up after the first quarter, it was a game we really should have won. As an EG player it was hard to concede three goals, score again to go 4-3 up but eventually draw 4-4. However, from a reflexive feminist standpoint, after the game I think my only comment to the media was “it was epic”.

The game was a clash of two top teams, fuelled by adrenaline and healthy rivalry. Both were coached by women excelling in their professional fields; H&W’s Kate Richardson-Walsh and Sarah Kelleher as well as EG’s Mary Booth.

What the H&W coaches or players said at quarter-time to ignite a three-goal comeback, the first scored by inferno-attacker Lily Owsley, we do not know. How the EG girls found it in themselves to score a flames-worthy goal, put in by Laura Unsworth, to go up 4-3 we do not know. And how H&W equalised in the last few minutes, we will never know. This game is an incredible advocate for women’s sport.

What sticks in my mind about this game is that we were able to share this moment. Standing pitch-side was not only a dedicated rain-saturated crowd, but more than 30 U12 schoolgirls from The Perse School. They had taken a school trip to play matches against a local school and then to watch elite level hockey. The Perse is my old school so afterwards it was fantastic to see them all, chat about the game and be intoxicated in their enthusiasm despite being drenched.

“Ohh my word, Tess, did you see there was Owsley, Unsworth and Bray playing… What a match – why didn’t you win?! They are all soooo fast… I wanna learn how to do that thing Bray did… Did you see Kate Richardson-Walsh is one of the coaches… You’re so muddy – are you playing rugby or hockey? When are you coming back to school to coach again?!”

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These were just some of the quotes I can remember when talking to them, my white kit soaked in mud from the horrendously slippy pitch.

Sharing that moment reassured me we are part of something greater than a scoreline when we play high level hockey.

As female athletes, we constantly challenge the patriarchal ideology upon which sport was originally based; we negotiate what athletic femininity means and we are part of discovering, as Dr Alison Enever asks, “how the modern girl attains strength and grace”.

Elite sport and their athletes afford the power to legitimise knowledge around their sport, and play a part in affecting culture for the benefit of equality.

As athletes, we perform on a stage where our performance can be understood quantitatively: in the scoreline. But it is the qualitative, intangible meaning of our performance as an individual, with our intersectional identities and complex cultural tendencies, which continually construct the society we are part of.

The fight, bravery, determination, passion and excellence on display during these matches, led by brave and passionate women, and shared with young people discovering their own passion and bravery in sport is continuously contributing to the equal society we all want to live in. And I hope 2020 will bring many more moments like this.

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Cain’s allegations raise further uncomfortable truths for athletics

Julia Cook looks at one of the latest controversies dogging athletics after Mary Cain alleged abuse by banned doper Alberto Salazar during her time with Nike Oregon Project

Mary Cain shocked the sporting world last month with her allegations of abuse by Aleberto Salazar, a story that is growing in relevance everyday.

Cain, a former Nike Oregon Project runner and one of America’s biggest young talents, revealed how she was pressured by Salazar to lose weight, and broke five bones due to weight loss linked osteoporosis. 

Seen as the future of the sport, Salazar started advising Cain in 2012 and she reaped the rewards almost immediately, qualifying for the World Championships as a 17-year-old a year later. 

But instead of nurturing her talent, Cain was told by the all-male staff to get thinner and thinner.

Cain, now 23, told the New York Times: “I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete ever. Instead I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.”

Cain also detailed how she lost her period for three years and how the abuse led to suicidal thoughts and self harm. 

She says that her dreams quickly went out of the window.

“I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics any more, I was trying to survive,” she said.

This is just the latest scandal of many for Salazar, who has been banned from coaching for four years for doping offences. He is currently appealing the decision.

In an email to the New York Times, Salazar denied many of Cain’s claims and said he had supported her health and welfare. On 11 October, Nike announced it was shutting down the Oregon Project.

In a statement to the Times, Cain said that “after the doping report dropped that led to his suspension, I felt this quick and sudden release. That helped me understand that this system is not O.K. That’s why I decided to speak up now.”

Cain described the abuse within the project: “He wanted to give me birth control pills and diuretics [which are banned on anti-doping lists in athletics] to lose weight. I felt so scared and alone and I felt so trapped and I started to have suicidal thoughts.

“I started to cut myself. Some people saw me cutting myself. And nobody really did anything or said anything.”

Many within athletics have spoken out in support with Cain, including former Nike athlete Allyson Felix, who was dropped when she got pregnant, and current Nike athlete-turned-coach, Shalane Flanagan. 

Cain’s story raises important issues. When do we stop supporting Nike? And at what cost? Do we prioritise shoes that give us personal bests over fighting for clean sport, women and integrity?

Whilst Cain’s picture of Salazar and the Oregon Project may seem unbelievable to some, it is by no means the only toxic culture within athletics, or sport as a whole. It’s an extreme and high-profile example of the issues faced by countless others, raising questions about how athletes are trapped within a sporting system not fit for purpose. With no dedicated nutritionist or psychologist, and a culture that made athletes feel alone, where are they meant to turn?

There’s an undeniable truth that weight and performance are linked. But that should never come at the cost of an athletes mental or physical wellbeing. And that should never allow a culture of bullying and harassment to be created. 

What has to be considered is how and when an athlete’s weight is talked about, with nutritionists and psychologists, and how it should never come before the physical or mental well being of the athlete. Having an outside professional, whose sole job it is to act in the best interests of the athlete’s health, means that coaches can focus on what’s important, and don’t have to weigh in on issues that they don’t have expertise or experience in. 

Cain herself also offered a solution, suggesting that more women need to be involved within athletics. “I got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls. We have to protect them.” 

Women can’t do this alone. Men need to step up and be allies, calling out problems when they see them, and supporting women who do. 

Cain sharing her story has started an incredible debate within athletics and sport as a whole. It’s stories like Cain’s that change the world, and make it a better place for the women after.