#49) Emily Nicholl

Emily Nicholl is the true epitome of someone who never gave up on their dreams.

In just a few weeks’ time the 25-year-old will be hoping to step onto the court of Liverpool’s M&S Bank Arena as Scotland begin their Netball World Cup campaign on 12 July against Samoa, before facing hosts England the following day.

But not so long ago the prospect of representing her country on the world’s biggest stages looked fairly remote.

Despite having fallen in love with the game at an early age, Nicholl had not been able to break through into the national age group set ups, the route that has produced the majority of Scotland’s premier netballers.

Yet her sheer determination to prove herself, heading to Edinburgh University in order to continue playing at the highest level she could, saw her get the break she deserved as she was scouted by one of the country’s national coaches.

Just a few months later, in May 2016, she made her maiden international appearance.

Recalling her path to the top, the wing defence said: “I just believed in my own journey.

“I trialled for the U21 long squad but wasn’t selected and that did have a huge knock on my confidence.

“But I went away to university and really focused on making myself the best player that I can be and I realised that I shouldn’t really compare myself to other people, I should just focus on my own journey.

“I don’t think that if I’d got in when I trialled initially I’d be the player I am today because it’s given me such a huge amount of resilience and determination to show what I can do.”

Emily

LISTEN TO EMILY’S INTERVIEW IN FULL ON SPORTSPIEL’S NETBALL WORLD CUP SPECIAL EPISODE HERE

Nicholl is one of a growing number of professional athletes – including cricketer Tymal Mills, Rio 2016 gold medalist and hockey star Giselle Ansley and sprinter Reece Prescod – who have become some of their sport’s best despite an unconventional journey to the elite level.

This is something she is now keen to tell the future generation of Scottish Thistles, giving talks to younger age groups and using her own example to show that if you show enough care, commitment and dedication then you can achieve anything you want.

“Sometimes you come across young girls who, if they don’t get selected into the U17 squad or something like that, then think it’s the end of the journey for them,” she explained.

“I’ve done quite a few talks with the youth squads to tell them that there’s definitely more than just one route to the national team and it’s become something that’s so passionate for me.

“The girls always call me the netball geek of the team because I watch everything, I know everything.

“I knew everything about netball and about all the players in the national team so to actually now be in it, I sometimes still have to pinch myself.”

Not only is Nicholl now a full-time professional netballer with Strathclyde Sirens in the Vitality Netball Superleague, she also works in her spare time as a trainee solicitor.

And instead of the potential risk of detracting from her sport, Nicholl believes that having another job has actually made her realise just how much she loves netball and makes time on the court with her team-mates even more enjoyable.

She said: “This year, because I’ve got such a huge passion for netball, playing has allowed me to get distracted from any problems or worries I’ve had at work, which is good.

“It’s really shown me how much I do have passion for the sport because I just can’t wait to get to training.

“It’s such a good outlet, you get to see the girls and when your high fives and the overall team ethos gets going it’s a really positive environment.”

Already in her fledgling career Nicholl has been fortunate enough to play against the world’s best in some major tournaments – including last year’s Commonwealth Games – but a World Cup not far from home is something she sees as that bit more special.

And with more media attention surrounding both netball and women’s sport than ever before, she is relishing the chance to inspire a generation of young girls and boys that may not have been exposed to the sport not so long ago.

“I think it’s really cool for not only girls but boys as well to see these athletes on the screen, doing what they love and being able to compete at the highest level,” she said.

“It’s huge because for years I’d go to these websites, look at the sport news and it would upset me because it was always male faces and I would think ‘what about us?’ as there are so many amazing female sports and athletes across the world.

“So for a young girl or anyone to look up the news and now see women through this amazing platform I think will prove to be really inspirational.

“This World Cup will have such huge benefits and I can only see it growing and taking off from here.”

 

As for the fate of her team, Nicholl is confident they can spring a few surprises this year and win over the hearts of the watching public with their never-say-die mentality.

She also stated they are taking inspiration from the performance of England in the Gold Coast last April and are hopeful of creating history of their own this July.

“We always have a bit of an underdog mentality but we are really ferocious and passionate,” she proudly explained.

“A huge part of being a Thistle is your heart and soul – our coach always says as long as we play with everything and make our fans proud then that’s all we can ask for.

“We’ve got a lot of fire and grit and I believe that on our day we can take any team.

“The gap is really closing between all the nations and you can’t just lie down and think ‘this is an easy win’ – you’ve got to fight for every quarter.

“At the Commonwealth Games we got to watch England win gold and that was a really inspirational moment for us because we’ve played against some of these girls.

“Hopefully we can go out there and do our bit to get media attention and really make our fans proud.”

#48) GB’s Para-canoeists, Para-triathletes, Para-cycling & Wheelchair Tennis Stars

One of the best things about summer is the vast number of sporting events for armchair fans to indulge ourselves in.

The last week epitomised this perfectly – it seemed as though everywhere you looked there was a major international or domestic event happening.

Unfortunately this saturation does mean that some sports don’t get anywhere near the coverage they deserve, with para-sports often the first to be cut.

However that doesn’t mean their successes are any less impressive or important.

Great Britain has won a gluttony of medals over the last few days at the Para-canoe European Championships and World Cup, World Para-triathlon Series, Para-cycling World Cup and BNP Paribas World Team Cup.

And on pretty much every occasion it was our female stars who led the way.

Standing to at-ten-tion
Poznan has proved to be a very happy hunting ground for GB’s para-canoeists as they claimed a total of 15 medals on the Polish waters (at the time of writing).

First of all they bagged an impressive ten pieces of silverware – including three golds – at the Para-canoe European Championships before adding another five medals to their tally at the season’s first World Cup meet on the following days.

Of those medals, 11 have been won by four brilliant women – Emma Wiggs, Charlotte Henshaw, Laura Sugar and Jeanette Chippington MBE.

Wiggs and Henshaw claimed VL2 and KL2 golds respectively at both events, adding to the world titles they won back in August 2018.

We previously featured Henshaw after that victory as she became one of a very select handful of athletes to win major international medals in two sports, having also claimed Paralympic medals as a swimmer.

So impressive has she been since changing sports that she has become the only woman to ever really challenge Emma Wiggs in the KL2 category.

Wiggs has been almost unbeatable since she herself switched from sitting volleyball to para-canoeing and has collected a quantity of gold the Bank of England would be impressed with.

She added to that haul this week by defending her European VL2 title before emerging victorious in the same event at the World Cup, while also winning two KL2 silvers behind Henshaw.

Another to feature in that elite group of athletes with medals in more than one discipline is Chippington, who is quite simply a legend of Paralympic sport.

As a swimmer she won two titles and another 10 medals across five Paralympic Games from 1988-2004 before switching to para-canoeing in 2012 and adding a Rio 2016 gold alongside ten world and six European triumphs to her name.

She may not have appeared atop the podium this time but the 48-year-old proved she’s still right up there with the best as she secured another three medals.

As well as Henshaw, Chippington has now also been joined in the cross-sport medal club by Sugar as the former sprinter picked up an impressive European bronze at her first ever international event before adding a World Cup silver two days later.

Having only been training for a few months, the fact that Sugar was so close to claiming gold at the latter event is a sign that she has an incredibly promising career in the sport if she chooses to stick with it and that, if she does, it won’t be long before she’s regularly appearing on the top step.

With Tokyo 2020 on the horizon, the fact that these women are performing so well makes it an incredibly enticing prospect to see just how well they will fare on the world’s biggest stage in just over 15 months.

Anything you can do, I can do just as well
While her namesake was claiming a maiden world taekwondo title in Manchester at the weekend, Jade Jones-Hall was storming to her own success in Japan at the ITU World Para-triathlon Series.

The 2018 Commonwealth champion is yet another athlete who has excelled in multiple sports, having also claimed European and Commonwealth medals on the track and in marathons.

However it is in para-triathlon where she seems to excel as she claimed a superb PTWC title at the meet in Yokohama, beating 2016 world champion Kendall Gretsch by more than 30 seconds to add to victories at Gold Coast 2018 and the 2017 Europeans.

Given that Jones is only 23, you get the feeling that this is just the start of what will be a hugely successful career for her.

Yet another athlete who has successfully transitioned into a second sport is Claire Cashmore, who secured a second World Series silver at the meet.

Having won eight Paralympic medals – including one gold – as a swimmer, Cashmore converted to para-triathlon in early 2017 and has already become one of the world’s leading competitors in her category.

Her second-placed finish in Japan was the latest in an impressive run of results that also includes silvers won at last year’s European Championships and Grand Final, finishing behind Lauren Steadman in the latter.

Great Britain also won two more further medals at the event as Fran Brown finished second in the PTS2 race while Melissa Reid replicated her Paralympic bronze in the PTVI event.

As with the para-canoeists, this is a very exciting time for our para-triathletes – expect to see plenty more results like this over the next few years.

I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride it to the top
Great Britain is well established as one of the world’s most successful cycling nations and this was proven once again at the UCI Para-cycling World Cup in Belgium.

At least 14 medals travelled back over to our shores having been secured on the roads of Ostend, with nine of those claimed by our awesome female riders.

Katie Toft – competing as an independent racer – was the most successful, crossing the line first in both WC1 races, while Crystal Lane-Wright finished first and second in the WC5 road race and time trial respectively.

Rio 2016 individual pursuit champion Lora Fachie teamed up with Corrine Hall to pick up a silver in the WB road race and bronze in the time trial, while Karen Darke also brought home two silvers in the WH3 category.

There was also a bronze medal for Hannah Dines in the WT2 time trial, an athlete who shot to prominence back in March with her powerful article highlighting just how physically damaging racing with incorrect saddles can be for female athletes.

What was a huge shame though was that these results garnered perhaps the least media attention of all the events on this list.

For a nation that has such an obsession with cycling, we should be able to hear about the success of all our athletes in any major event they compete in, not just a select few.

The history makers
GB’s wheelchair tennis stars recorded their best ever performance at a World Team Cup last weekend by claiming three medals at this year’s event in Israel.

The most noteworthy result was a first men’s title since 2015 secured by Alfie Hewett, Gordon Reid and Dermot Bailey as they thrashed France in the final.

However the record-breaking weekend began with a bronze medal for the women as Jordanne Whiley and Lucy Shuker – who have won two Paralympic bronze medals as a doubles pairing – overcame their South African opponents with relative ease.

If anything the result was slightly disappointing for the women as the quartet – also featuring Cornelia Oosthuizen and Louise Hunt alongside ten-time Grand Slam champion Whiley — narrowly failed to beat second seeds Japan in the semi-final.

However there were plenty of positives to take from the tournament, including a dominant win over France and a sensational victory over China, who had reached the final in each of the last three years.

And with Ruby Bishop also part of the junior team that secured a superb silver medal, with future for British women’s wheelchair tennis looks very, very bright.

 

#47) #BeReady

Football fans were graced with three moments of genius in just 24 hours this week.

The first was that corner from Trent Alexander-Arnold on Tuesday, while the third was Dele Alli’s superb flick to set up Lucas Moura’s sensational winner the following evening.

Yet while both were huge game changers on the field, the example that fell in between was the most culturally significant as it proved that women’s football really has entered a new stratosphere.

Whoever came up with the idea behind of the #BeReady campaign announcing the Lionesses’ squad for next month’s World Cup deserves a standing ovation. It was utterly brilliant.

As someone who works in elite sport communications, I could only sit back and admire as celebrity after celebrity announced the 23 players heading to France for the game’s biggest tournament.

Of course the FA are the biggest and most influential national governing body this country have and only they would really have been able to pull this off due to their extensive network of contacts, but that’s besides the point.

The fact is that they have pulled off a masterstroke in getting almost the entire nation to take notice of women’s football.

There was no subtlety about it; this campaign was designed to significantly increase the pool of people aware of the tournament this summer and the players who will be featuring.

It contrasted hugely with the way in which the men’s squad was announced last year, where the focus was on highlighting the huge diversity of the sport and less on the athletes themselves.

While support and appreciation for the Lionesses and the women’s game has grown exponentially in the last few years, there is still a need to drum up support for the team in order to generate even a fraction of the national pride that swept the country for their male counterparts last summer.

And what better way to do this than by drafting in a host of high profile names?

By getting the likes of Emma Watson, James Corden and Prince William involved in their campaign, the FA have now potentially added millions upon millions of extra fans to their supporters list.

That might sound like a huge exaggeration but it’s true.

Due to their celebrity status, these fans each have an army of incredibly loyal fans who will get behind literally everything they are involved in.

We experienced this at England Hockey last year when we were fortunate enough to get Watson to appear in a video ahead of the 2018 Vitality Women’s Hockey World Cup.

The level of attention this received across all formats of social media was something we had never seen before and even now the views and engagements with it continues to grow despite the fact we aren’t doing much to actively push it.

While it’s difficult to tell how many people paid more attention to the tournament as a direct result of this, the fact was we opened up our sport to at least 80 million more people (Watson’s combined Twitter and Instagram following).

This is exactly what’s needed in order to push women’s football to the next level and silence those insecure little men who still feel the need to criticise anything and everything associated with the game.

 

Despite the wave of positivity surrounding the #BeReady campaign, there were still plenty of comments that at best belittled female footballers and at worst were outrightly sexist and highly derogatory.

Nearly all of the perpetrators seemed to fit the same basic stereotype: male, aged 20 and above and long-term fans of men’s teams.

What the FA has done here is recognise that there is going to be little reward trying to convert these fans.

Instead they’ve tried to reach out to people who may have previously shown little interest in the sport or those who perhaps weren’t aware of the tournament itself.

But without many, if any, pre-conceived ideas of women’s football – especially those in their teens or younger – they are much more likely to show an interest if their favourite celebrity thinks it’s cool.

And even if just 10% of those targeted individuals follow the tournament or even take up the sport as a result, that would still be a significant improvement and could have a massive knock-on effect.

Not only was the announcement a brilliant and different way of engaging a plethora of potential new fans with women’s football, it was also a sign of how seriously the FA are taking their female stars.

Not only were they promoting the team on a mass scale, nearly every celebrity delivering the messages also had a genuine connection with the squad or, in some cases, the individual whose place on the plane they were announcing.

In particular I loved the message from Kelly Smith to Beth Mead – not only is Smith one of the country’s greatest every players, she was also the current Arsenal star’s sporting hero when growing up.

Imagine having the person you looked up to most as a child telling you the best news you’ve ever wanted to hear? We can only imagine how special that must have been for Mead.

This wasn’t just a clever PR campaign; it was also the FA showing how much they care about the Lionesses.

The trick for them now is to not only continue this momentum into and throughout the campaign but also afterwards, particularly if England don’t live up to expectations.

But if this is anything to go by then this could be the beginning of a huge momentum shift in the way in which this country views women’s football and we for one can’t wait to see what the future brings.

#46) Danielle Brown MBE

“In order to get the most out of yourself as a professional you have to get the most out of yourself as a person.”

This is the type of empowering message those lucky enough to listen to a Danielle Brown talk can expect to hear.

Her ethos is simple – anyone can achieve anything they want, so long as they believe in themselves and have the right mental aptitude.

Brown speaks from experience too, as someone who has repeatedly had to endure and overcome some very difficult situations throughout her life.

From being diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome as a teenager to losing her status as an elite athlete overnight, the Mintridge Foundation ambassador has not only used her mental strength to come through these, she’s made her life better as a result.

Furthermore she thrives under pressure, not just in her current role of delivering motivational talks and educational classes to children and corporates, but also in her sporting career as an archer too.

This is the exact reason why she is, statistically, one of the greatest athletes this country has ever produced.

She won two Paralympic golds, held all 12 world records at the same time and was the world number one archer throughout her career.

She also became the first para-athlete to represent England in an able-bodied event at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, winning gold in the Women’s Team Compound event, and also won the British able-bodied title in 2013 by a single point.

The best example of Brown excelling under intense pressure though has to be her second Paralympic gold in front of a boisterous home crowd at London 2012.

She recalled: “It was so tense, not just the actual match but the whole lead up to it.

“A lot of people talk about a home crowd advantage but in many ways I thought it was a home crowd disadvantage.

“I was so proud and excited to be there but I ended up getting rid of all social media apps from my phone as when I’d get it out to look at the time I’d have hundreds of messages, which was amazing but it just piled that pressure on and on and on.

“The final came down to the last arrow and I was shooting against my team-mate. She’s very good under pressure – over the long distances I’d be miles ahead but with just 15 arrows in the matches it’s anybody’s game and you’ve really got to be on the ball.

“So when it came down to the last arrow it really could have gone anyway – ultimately it came down to who dealt with the pressure better and I sneaked mine closer to the middle. It was awesome but really, really nerve wracking.”

Despite having spent her entire sporting career showing mental resilience most of us can only dream of, it was nothing compared to what she had to delve deep to find after it was brought to an abrupt end just over a year later.

Shortly before the 2013 Para-Archery World Championships in Thailand it was announced that all athletes would be re-classified after the event.

Having always passed the tests previously, Brown was confident she would do so once again.

But against all expectations she failed and just like that her sporting career was over (an appeal against the decision was rejected in early 2014).

This alone would be extremely difficult to comprehend but Brown also had to deal with a horrendous testing process and the fact she wasn’t allowed to tell anyone what had happened.

“The test was really quite humiliating and horrendously painful,” she said.

“They were pushing and pulling me around and I was in so much pain and then when I was unable to walk away from the physio bed the classifiers asked me why I was pretending to be paralyzed.

“The next day I learned that I’d failed and it was one of those moments where you’re told that your dream, your life, your career is over and my first reaction was ‘what do I do now?’

“The national governing body wouldn’t let me ring my parents to tell them I’d failed – I was told that I couldn’t tell anybody until the UK media reported the story.

“I think I went through that whole grief cycle – I was stunned, I was shocked, I spent an entire plane journey bursting into tears.

“I didn’t know what to do, my whole identity was tied up in the sport.”

This sudden loss of purpose and direction was something Brown initially found quite hard to deal with.

But once again her sheer determination and mental strength shone through and before long she was already planning on how to make the best out of her situation.

“My whole identity had changed – I was an elite athlete and then I wasn’t, I’m a disabled athlete but I wasn’t disabled enough,” the University of Leicester graduate explained.

“The whole fundamental core of who I was wasn’t there any more and that was really hard.

“Understanding who I was away from the bow and arrows and really understanding that my identity doesn’t have to be so intrinsically linked to my disability and investing that time in myself, getting to know myself and getting to understand my values away from sport, was a big game changer.

“And then it was resetting that purpose – I had a mortgage to pay – and for me setting up my own business made the most sense.

“Here was something challenging and rewarding where I could push myself out of my comfort zone like I’d done in sport but I was also able to help other people which was a really important value for me.”

 

Not only is Brown now teaching the importance of having the right mental mindset and dealing with pressure to business people and students, she is also a huge advocate of inclusion and diversity across all walks of life.

As someone who has continuously disproven that having a disability is a major barrier to any form of success in life, she is now keen to spread this message far and wide and stop others similar to her from suffering discouragement, prejudice and discrimination.

“It’s important to not make assumptions that just because somebody can’t do something it doesn’t mean that they can’t do sport or something else,” the 31-year-old explained.

“You need to be creative in your approach and think outside the box and look at what you can do.

“And we need to be inclusive – there are lots and lots of ways that sport can be inclusive that you don’t have to segregate people with disabilities and have a disability-only club.

“I think everybody has the capacity to achieve great things.”

Danielle is currently in training for the Great East Swim and is raising money for the Mintridge Foundation – click here to donate.

#45) Elise Christie

Photo credit: Martin Holtom

It’s difficult finding a genuine reason to dislike Elise Christie.

Her quirky personality, motivational Instagram posts and relative humbleness despite her immense talent all serve to make the short track speed skater highly endearing.

She is a journalist’s dream too, with her often brutal honesty and willingness to delve into some of sport’s most challenging topics a refreshing change for many.

Nowhere was this more evident than her interview with BBC Sport earlier this week where she revealed the extent to which she has struggled with mental illness.

The 28-year-old has always worn her heart on her sleeve and has never been afraid to show emotion in front of the media, something which has unfortunately been evident at both the Winter Olympics in which she has competed.

In an interview with BBC Sport back in November 2018 she admitted feeling ‘very alone’ after a tumultuous year in which she suffered yet more Olympic heartbreak, saw her long-term coach forced to leave after funding cuts and was dumped by text.

But despite this the extent to which she had been suffering with anxiety and depression for a number of years – having taken antidepressants for two as well as admitting self-harming –  still came as a shock to many when she first announced it on social media before opening up to the BBC’s David McDaid in a subsequent interview this week.

Not that it is inherently surprising though given everything she’s had to deal with over the last few years.

Following last year’s Winter Olympics I penned a piece for SportSpiel in which I asked the question of whether we have forgotten that Christie is simply a human being with feelings, the same as the rest of us.

The pressure she faced going into both Sochi and Pyeongchang was unparalleled for a British winter sport athlete as the media, the fans, UK Sport and Christie herself all expected the triple world champion to walk away with gold medals.

Very few, if any, Winter OIympians from this country have ever had to deal with anything like this.

As a result when she was unable to deliver on what we expected, the scrutiny was harsh, sometimes unjustly so, from some corners of the media as well as the general public.

She has even had to deal with death threats on social media.

Of course Christie is in a profession where she is much more likely to experience this than the vast majority of us but combine all of the above factors and it’s no wonder that they took their toll on her.

What was very apparent from her interview with McDaid though was that she wasn’t looking for sympathy or anything similar; instead she wanted to share two empowering messages.

The first was that it’s ok to suffer from mental illness, that it’s nothing to be shamed about.

The second was that it is also possible to come out the other side, that there is always hope.

LISTEN TO SPORTSPIEL’S SPECIAL HOUR-LONG INTERVIEW WITH CHRISTIE

Speaking to McDaid, the Livingston-born athlete said: “I want to show people it’s OK to feel that way and that it’s OK to use medication.

“Depression is an illness, not just sadness, and I want people to think it is OK to speak about it.”

Whether you’re a fan of Christie or not, it is difficult to not admire her for being so open in speaking about something so personal to her.

She could have kept all of this to herself and very few of us would have been any the wiser.

But instead she chose to bare her soul and add her voice to a growing number of athletes – including Remi Allen and Laura Gallagher – who want to help grow the awareness and understanding of mental health not just in sport, but in society.

 

Her comments on self-harm are particularly noteworthy as this is an element of mental illness that still very few people are willing to talk about and continues to have a huge stigma.

In her interview with McDaid, she admitted: “At my lowest moment I did self-harm – not badly, but I was still doing it because I didn’t know how to cope without it.

“Because you have a physical pain, I guess it just takes away the emotional pain. I would never have shared that, I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to know.

“And that’s the point: you can get to these points and you can get out of it – because I have.”

The fact that Christie has already gone through so much in her career and is still touted as one of the best short track skaters in the world is testament not only to her sheer talent but also to the way she approaches her sport.

Even after the awful experience at Pyeongchang last year her focus immediately turned to trying to rectify the situation in Beijing at the next Games, focusing on the positives rather than the negatives.

And despite having missed a large chunk of the off season injured she still managed to surprise herself by winning silver and bronze medals at the recent European Championships.

Not that any of us following her progress were surprised though. The reason why?

Because Christie is one of life’s serial winners.

#44) Remi Allen

Remi Allen is a fighter.

Possessing a never-say-die attitude combined with plenty of natural ability, the Reading midfielder is someone you’d always want playing for your team rather than against.

No better was this proved than in the recent FA quarter-final win over Manchester United, where she scored one and assisted another during extra time to help secure a dramatic 3-2 victory.

However it’s not just on the pitch where Allen is forced to go into battle; it’s also with her own mental health.

While there is now much more acceptance and understanding of mental illness both in sport and society in general, often the discussion surrounding it refers to overcoming it as though it’s a one-off problem.

Yet for many, including Allen, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Mental illness can be a constant battle, a daily struggle to keep everything in check while at the same time trying to lead a normal life alongside everyone else.

And Allen is keen to point out that, just because she is doing a job so many people would see as the ultimate dream, professional athletes are no less likely to have their own problems.

“Something I’ve learned as I’ve got older is that it doesn’t go away,” the former Birmingham player said.

“Just because I have a great football career it doesn’t mean that I don’t have mental health problems, I don’t struggle, I don’t suffer.

“Football has been the biggest constant in my life and it’s something that has helped me through so many bad times but it can also be another reason why I struggle.

“But with mental health problems one of the best things to do is to exercise. Some days when I’m struggling and I’ve got training I think I don’t really fancy it because I don’t feel great but when I get out there and I come off I feel so much better. I

“Mental health is something I will always struggle with, it’s a lifelong thing and not something you just snap out of, but football a great outlet and release.”

Allen first opened up publicly about her mental health in an empowering interview with SheKicks magazine last year.

In it she recalls how the difficulties during her childhood not only had a huge impact on her at a young age but still affect her even today.

Despite the obvious hesitancy she felt about openly discussing an issue it took a long time for her to even realise she was suffering from, the England youth international said it was one of the best decisions she’s ever made.

“The project I did with SheKicks was actually something I came up with myself,” she recalled.

“I’d been thinking about this idea for ages, going into different clubs and speaking to different players and getting everyone to share their stories to help.

“But I just daren’t say it, I daren’t speak to SheKicks or anyone.

“Then I did it and the feeling I got was just unbelievable.

“I was thinking ‘will anyone else be struggling? Will they tell the truth?’ There are a couple of people I know who have so I went to them to ask them to pass it on to the rest of the girls in the club and they said they wanted to do stuff, they’d been struggling and I was like ‘wow, I didn’t know that.’ It was a liberating feeling.

“By the time it came to putting the stories out, mine was the first one and I felt sick. I was thinking ‘what have I done? I don’t want to do this.’

“But the feedback I got with people saying how I’d inspired them and helped them was unbelievable and I’m so glad I spoke out, even just a little bit.”

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH ALLEN ON SPORTSPIEL

Having taken this huge step, Allen now wants to help further mental health education in sport to make people not only aware that these problems exist, but also how to spot them and help others going through tough times.

The 28-year-old said: “It’s ok to have bad days. It’s ok to feel like you don’t want to get out of bed, you don’t feel good about yourself or you feel like other people are judging you constantly even though they’re probably not, that’s just how you feel.

“I recently had a period where I felt horrendous for about a week but then I woke up and had a lightbulb moment where I thought ‘I feel really good today, really positive.’

“You have to accept that will happen and you have to manage how you feel every day of your life and not beating yourself up about not feeling great.

“I still think it’s a massive taboo subject and I think some of the girls didn’t know how to approach me. I still think it’s really difficult for those who aren’t really that close to you to know how to react.

“I don’t know how we do it but I really want to kickstart making changes within clubs because they should be able to help a bit more than they are at the moment and I feel like that’s purely down to not being educated enough.”

It’s not just improvement in mental health understand and provision Allen is striving for; it’s also complete equality in the acceptance and coverage of football.

The drive to get more of the women’s version of the game in mainstream media has been noticeable of late, in particular given that there is a World Cup taking place this summer.

And while many more people are not only aware of the fact the fact that women also play football professionally, they also embrace and celebrate it.

But Allen knows just as well as anyone that there is still a long way to go, heightened by an unsavoury incident on the same day her side beat Keynsham Town in the FA Cup back in February.

Recalling what happened, she said: “We’d just won and there was a big men’s game on so we said ‘shall we go into the pub to watch the second half?’

“There was about six of us with our kit on and we had a couple of very respectful blokes asking us how we got on, about the game etc.

“And then one guy walks in who is a friend of them all and just rips into women’s football, saying we should never be playing football, it’s a man’s game, all of you combined couldn’t beat me and more and more disrespectful comments.

“You’re always going to get these people and you just have to handle it. But it was very insulting because I do this for living and, while I get the joy and the pleasure of doing that, I’ve also had to work really, really hard to get here.

“I have to work really, really hard every day, no less than any man who plays football, yet they don’t get grilled in that way.”

 

As the women’s game continues to grow, so will the level of scrutiny that Allen and her colleagues are put under, something she accepts as par for the course.

What she won’t tolerate however is people telling female footballers that their opinions are less valid than a man’s just because of their gender.

This is an argument that erupted earlier this year after Jake Humphrey took it upon himself to stand up in defence of female pundits such as Alex Scott and Rachel Brown-Finnis after the came under intense fire from a plethora of bigoted male armchair fans clearly intimidated by the fact that these woman had much more knowledge, expertise and class than them.

And while slightly frustrated that it took a man to make this into an issue everyone took seriously, Allen knows that there are more and more people on the side of female footballers and pundits and that ultimately they will always come out on top.

She said: “I can’t believe that me and you can sit at a table and discuss football and someone can say that you know more just because you’re a man. What gives you the right to say that you know more?

“In terms of knowledge, Alex Scott’s is spot on. She says the same thing as a Graeme Souness or any other male pundit. Yet because it’s coming from her mouth it’s not accepted.

“It’s just pure ignorance from narrow-minded people.

“All we can do is keep playing, keep performing, keep appearing in the media, doing our job and our roles.

“We’re the ones who are actually winning because we love what we do and we’re open-minded people who don’t judge women or men. We’re better people for it.”

#43) Emily Muskett & Zoe Smith

Despite being a nation full of gym buffs, when it comes to competitive weightlifting Great Britain’s record is remarkably average.

Since the rebirth of the Olympic movement back in 1896 we have won a total of seven medals – the last being a bronze from David Mercer in 1984 – and only a solitary gold, claimed Launceston Elliot in the ‘One Hand Lift’ back at those inaugural Games in Athens.

But this could be about to change thanks to two very powerful women.

GB created history at the European Weightlifting Championships by securing its highest ever medal count thanks to a silver for Emily Muskett and a bronze for Zoe Smith.

That in itself may not seem particularly overwhelming but when you look into the journeys both athletes have had to undertake in order to secure these medals, you soon see why this is a monumental achievement..

Pushing to reach the top again
Zoe Smith is arguably the most well known British weightlifter of this generation, having been tipped for international glory from an early age.

She broke the British record on her way to finishing 10th at London 2012 after becoming England’s first female weightlifting medallist at a Commonwealth Games aged just 16 two years before.

Smith then followed that up with a brilliant gold – and backflip celebration – four years later in Glasgow, setting new British and Commonwealth records in the 58kg category, and also claimed a maiden European bronze in the same year.

As a result it was hoped that she would be challenging for medals in Rio. But a serious shoulder injury suffered at the 2015 British Championships not only ruined her chances of that; it nearly ruined her career.

Forced to sit out of the sport for nigh on two years because of the injury, and with British Weightlifting’s funding being cut entirely after Rio, things seemed desolate for Smith.

Before she knew it Smith was working full-time in a coffee shop, returning to school to complete her A-Levels and only able to train in the evenings at a local gym.

Yet despite all this she knew she had it within herself to return to the top and she did just that with a superb silver at last year’s Commonwealth Games, made even more impressive by the fact that she was suffering from a painful back injury at the time.

So often in sport we see young prodigies fade into nothing for a whole variety of reasons. Given her circumstances the same could have easily happened to Smith.

Instead however she has proven that not only is she a world class talent, she is also incredibly resolute and possesses levels of determination most of us can only dream of.

Furthermore she is still only 24 and has potentially two, if not three, more Olympic cycles in her if she so desires.

If her body lets her, Smith could be set to fulfil the promise she showed as a teenager against the very best the world has to offer.

Screenshot 2019-04-13 at 00.33.56

Making the most of un-Godley circumstances
While Smith was already competing at Olympic Games in her late teens, Muskett – formerly known as Godley before getting married last year – had only just started taking the sport seriously.

A naturally gifted athlete, she had specialised in the pole vault after participating in a number of other sports including hockey, netball and tennis as a child.

Lifting weights as part of her S&C training201 for athletics, it was soon discovered that so adept was she at doing this that she could actually qualify as a weightlifter for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, an opportunity which – after initially scoffing at – she took up.

However, unlike Smith, success wasn’t instantaneous and it’s been a long grind for Muskett to reach the top of her sport.

Illness prevented her from taking to the stage in Delhi, while she was not selected for London 2012.

A fifth-placed finish at Glasgow 2014 was encouraging but it was 2016 that was to prove her breakthrough year, claiming a first national championship as well as placing a highly respectable sixth at the Europeans.

This improvement in results came alongside a shift up the weight divisions, with a British Championship gold – and national record – coming her way in the 75kg class in 2017; she competed in the 63kg category just three years earlier.

What makes these results even more impressive though is that Godley was competing in a division where she wasn’t even close to being near the maximum weight, measuring around 69/70kg the scales, yet she was still able to beat much heavier competitors with ease.

Perhaps her most impressive achievement at that point was to follow in 2018 as she beat the previous Commonwealth champion Marie-Eve Beauchemin-Nadeau to the -75kg title despite weighing nearly 4kg less.

And what this European silver, won against some tough opposition, further proves is that it may have taken time, and there may have been a lot of hurdles in the way, but Muskett is developing into a genuine contender on the world’s biggest stages.

 

Future still uncertain
While these impressive performances have certainly boosted their hopes of making Tokyo 2020, there still remains a lot of uncertainty about whether Smith and Muskett will compete at the Games next year.

First of all there is the issue of funding. As mentioned previously, weightlifting’s funding was completely cut after Rio, forcing the athletes to have to rely on crowdfunding to make last November’s World Championships.

However they have recently been handed a lifeline in the form of the new Aspiration Fund from UK Sport and the National Lottery which is being awarded to help support athletes in their quest to reach Tokyo, a scheme which has certainly aided in the case of Smith and Muskett as European medals carry significant qualification points.

Even then though it may be third time unlucky for Muskett thanks to a major restructuring of the weight divisions.

The 69kg category at which she would have competed has been removed, meaning she has one of two choices – return to the weight she started her career at but was less successful or bulk up even further to compete in the 76kg category.

The fact that she has been able to not only compete but win at this level though – albeit not quite against the same calibre of opposition she could face next summer – shows that Muskett definitely has the capabilities of performing at the very highest level in this weight band.

It’s certainly early days and there is a long way to go but with hard work and perhaps a little bit of luck, these two women have the power to push Britain into becoming a top weightlifting nation.

#42) Harlequins

Photo credit: @HarlequinsWomen

Women’s rugby is on an incredible upward curve right now.

It seems that every five minutes something groundbreaking occurs, whether it be the introduction of full-time contracts, new sponsors for major tournaments or outstanding performances.

Attendance figures have also been smashed out of the park in the last few months, with the standalone Women’s Six Nations record being broken on several occasions during this year’s tournament.

However it’s not just the international game that the crowds have been flocking to see; the domestic game has experienced an influx of supporters too.

Last weekend Harlequins hosted a record-breaking 4,837 fans at their #GameChanger match against Gloucester Hartpury at The Stoop, beating the record they set the previous year at the same ground.

Harlequins may have only existed in their current guise since 2017 – having merged with Aylesford Bulls for the inaugural Tyrrells Premier 15s season – but they have been a crucial cog in this momentum shift in the women’s game.

They may be one of the oldest rugby clubs in the world but the childlike naivety with which they approach the women’s game is very refreshing.

It seems as though they refuse to accept the boundaries that have long since held women’s sport back and believe that anything is possible.

One thing that is clear the moment you walk into The Stoop is that Harlequins is a club which cares about its women’s team as much as it men’s.

From the moment you arrive at The Stoop you are met with pictures of players from both teams across the venue, from the car park to the club shop, heroising their biggest female names alongside the men.

Having also been fortunate enough to hear Quins’ CEO David Ellis speak about his plans to evolve the club over the next few years, it is clear that the women are just as much a part of that as anyone else.

 

This is something the players certainly recognise and is a key reason why, despite being very young in comparison to some of their Tyrrells Premier 15 opponents, they are attracting many of the best players to play for them.

This includes seven of the current Red Roses full-time set up, including the explosive Jess Breach, highly intelligent Leanne Riley and World Cup winning centre Rachel Burford.

Their roster isn’t just limited to English talent either; the club also boasts the likes of Scotland’s Jade Konkel, back row Kristine Sommer from the US and Leah Lyons of Ireland amongst their ranks.

Speaking as part of our Women’s Six Nations special in conjunction with SportSpiel and caytoo, Lyons said such an attitude towards the women’s squad was a key factor in her joining the club.

The versatile front row said: “There’s so much effort being put in behind the scenes which we barely notice but it’s massive.

“Quins is a massive advocate for equality – they want to make the women as equal as the men.

“And giving us our big #GameChanger, it’s like the boy’s big game over Christmas.”

The messaging and language used on their digital platforms is another indication of the way the women have been integrated within the club.

While they may have two separate accounts for their men’s and women’s teams, the branding used and the formatting of their messaging is clearly from the same handbook.

The interaction between the two accounts is also noteworthy, with both giving each other plenty of support and RTs/shares, although there are many clubs across rugby and football – in particular Chelsea – who also exhibit this.

Furthermore, their ‘DHL Quins Moment of the Month’ votes include almost always include clips from both teams, giving fans of the men’s squad glimpses showing that the women also employ the attractive, attacking brand of rugby that has epitomised the club since their formation.

Their promotional video for this year’s #GameChanger was also a stroke of genius.

While 28 of England’s finest Red Roses may be full-time professionals, the majority of elite domestic players in the country still have to hold down other jobs alongside playing the sport.

Yet rather than see this as a setback, Quins used it as a tool to show us that these women are superheroes off the pitch (as firefighters, doctors, police officers etc.) as well as on it.

And with not only nearly 5,000 people attending the game but a reported 42,000 also watching the live stream on YouTube and Facebook, their desire to grow the game’s domestic fanbase certainly looks like it’s working.

Of course they aren’t the only club doing great things in terms of promoting the women’s game though and in our opinion there are changes they could make.

The presence of the women’s team on their website is limited, as are their player profiles when you do find them, while the use of the word ‘Ladies’ can be seen by some to be outdated (although several other teams also employ this term and Harlequins are reviewing its use at the moment).

The fact that they have only been able to host six games at The Stoop is also not ideal, although they will be the first to admit the interest in the women’s game just isn’t there to fill up a 15,000-seater stadium at the moment.

But times are changing and women’s rugby is growing ever more popular seemingly by the minute and no club is better proof of this than Quins.

If they and the other clubs keep progressing as they are, things are only going to get better.

#41) Stacey Copeland

This week SportSpiel founder and co-host Alasdair Hooper writes about an athlete he describes as a pioneer, innovator and inspiration to all women.

Pave the way. Three words that sound so simple but can mean so much.

Those words can challenge prejudice, change society, alter stereotypes and make lives.

If you are looking for a walking, talking example of pave the way then thankfully we have one – boxer Stacey Copeland.

Last summer the 37-year-old caytoo athlete became the first British woman to win a Commonwealth boxing gold.

She grew up in a boxing mad family and, before she turned professional, she carved out a career in football playing for Doncaster Belles and the England U18s.

Women weren’t allowed to box then, you see.

But, as impressive as Stacey’s sporting accolades are, this isn’t a piece about Stacey the boxer or the footballer.

This is a piece about Stacey the pioneer, the innovator and the inspiration. She is the definition of pave the way.

It’s been about a year and a half since I first spoke to the Mancunian in an interview for SportSpiel but it was one of those conversations that has stuck with me ever since.

That was before the Commonwealth title and before she properly launched the ‘Pave the Way’ project. 

But it was clear from the off that inspiring the next generation through sport was the bedrock of who she was as a person.

“I don’t see being a role model as a responsibility, I see it as a privilege,” she said in that November 2017 interview. 

“When I was a kid growing up I didn’t have those role models in football or boxing.

“Everyone I looked up to was male.

“I did get questioned a lot as a kid in school. They’d say ‘why do you want to be a boy?’

“I was called ‘shim’ and ‘shemale’ just because I did boxing and football, which were considered boys sports.

“I felt like a weirdo a lot of the time and would ask ‘what was wrong with me?’

“‘Why am I a boy trapped in a girl’s body, what’s the matter with me?’

“There was nothing wrong with me – I was just a girl who loved those sports.”

Stacey’s identity struggle is probably something a lot of children growing up can relate to. 

Whether it’s through sport, or any other walk of life, society judges you – it’s almost programmed to.

When I was growing up, in school hockey was for girls and football was for boys. 

The story is similar with netball (girls’ sport) and rugby (boys’ sport). 

In terms of my own personal circumstances I turned to fencing, which isn’t necessarily for boys or for girls. But it sure as hell meant you were privately educated. 

So, what I find particularly vital about Stacey’s message, and the entire ‘Pave the Way’ mission statement, is that it’s not about who you are.

It’s about who you want to be – regardless of gender, background, or what others will tell you.

“It took me a long time to realise I didn’t want to be Sugar Ray Leonard, who I loved, or Muhammad Ali or David Beckham or Ryan Giggs,” said Stacey.

“I loved all of those athletes, but I didn’t want to be like them because of the gender.

“I wanted to be a great footballer or boxer like them.

“There just weren’t female equivalents to look up to so I do feel really passionately about making sure that I’m visible and that I’m sending out a message to young girls.

“You can be whatever you want to be and, if they’re being told they can’t do something, then yes they can.

“I want to be an example for them, and that goes beyond just girls.

“There’s a lot of people who can relate to that kind of story, male, female or otherwise.

“If I can inspire others that’s my greatest privilege as a human being and an athlete.”

Looking to the present day and Stacey is one of the most prominent and important mouthpieces for women’s sport out there.

You will frequently find her giving talks to children, training with them in gyms or hosting her own radio show on BBC Radio Manchester.

But at the heart of everything those same themes come across, showcasing exactly what sport can do for people.

“Sport is incredible at bringing about social change,” she told the Manchester Evening News in March 2019.

“From an early age, girls are repeatedly told they can’t do certain things because they’re girls.

“Women’s boxing is brilliant because it challenges society’s notions of femininity.

“That will fan out into society and that can only be a good thing.

“It’s really important for young girls and boys to know that whatever they love doing, it’s OK. Don’t let gender stereotypes define you.” 

#40) Telegraph Women’s Sport

How refreshing has it been to see women’s sport dominating the headlines this week?

From the announcement of Barclays as the first Women’s Super League (WSL) title sponsor to an ODI series whitewash for England in Sri Lanka, a new government drive to encourage more women to take up sport and a stunning Six Nations success for the Red Roses, the list has been seemingly endless.

While this may feel like a fleeting novelty now, such coverage could become the norm before long thanks to the brand new Telegraph Women’s Sport (TWS) campaign.

The 52 first learned about this initiative back in January after seeing job adverts posted looking for writers and an editor and immediately we felt very excited.

After all, this blog was created with the same intention – helping increase the coverage of women’s sport in the public domain.

But we came from a standing start, with pretty no resources other than passion – and while we are incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved and are so grateful to everyone who has supported us – there is only so much change we can elicit at this moment in time.

So to see a major British newspaper with a huge following taking this unprecedented step is fantastic.

It’s what women’s sport needed too.

While the structure, success and desire to see our fantastic individuals and teams continues to grow rapidly, the media coverage has barely increased at all.

As discussed in our piece on the #SeeSportyBeSporty campaign, the statistics surrounding the presence of female athletes in national newspapers is still alarmingly alarmingly small.

Their own independent research showed that just 2.9% of athletes pictured in sporting action between June 2017 and June 2018 were women, while back in 2015 Women in Sport found that just 7% of all sport media coverage in the UK focused on women, with the number dropping to 2% for national newspapers.

Hopefully, thanks to this brand new initiative, this will no longer be the case.

 

This isn’t the first step taken by The Telegraph to reducing this inequality either.

Last October they appointed the first dedicated women’s football reporter in Katie Whyatt, who has done an awesome job keeping us up-to-date with the goings on from the Lionesses and across the domestic leagues.

She also took investigative journalism to a new level by taking part in a training session with Championship side Crystal Palace and produced a brilliant piece which you can read here.

With the continued success of the national team and the development of the club game, this move was always going to take off quickly but when it comes to most other sports – particularly Olympic events – the following is still a long way behind.

Yet that’s why bringing in such well respected names as Dina Asher-Smith and Judy Murray is a huge reason why we believe TWS will be a major success.

Ultimately all people really want to read about is our biggest names and what they’re up to so who better to tell those stories than the individuals themselves?

They will give us all the gossip, insight and knowledge we crave through the first person, something which will immediately make them feel more personable and relatable to readers and, in turn, make us want to follow not only their progress but also that of the others they will inevitably write about too.

Overseeing all these columnists too is the hugely respected Anna Kessel, author of ‘Eat, Sweat, Play’ (if you haven’t read it yet then you really must) and co-founder of Women in Football.

One of the things that makes Anna stand out as a journalist is not just her constant drive to increase the amount of women’s sport in the news but also the fact that she is unafraid to tackle the negative subjects too.

In just it’s first week TWS has already produced pieces discussing how half of female athletes have admitted being bullied, the constant comments Simone Biles receives saying she ‘looks like a man’ because of her impressive muscles and Monica Seles emotionally depicting the mental struggles she has been through after being stabbed on court back in 1993.

And all of these came in the same week that Sheffield United’s Sophie Jones was found guilty of racially abusing Tottenham’s Renee Hector – a verdict she says she will appeal – while it was claimed 50 PSG fans were turned away from their Champions League game against Chelsea after allegedly arriving armed with weapons, fireworks and drugs.

None of these are stories are necessarily what we want to read but if we want complete equality in media sport coverage then they have to be told.

We need to appreciate and know about the issues surrounding sport in order to appreciate the positive stories even more. It is then that women’s sport and men’s sport will simply just become sport.

It may have barely got off the ground but TWS has already made an impact in beginning to re-address the significant gender imbalance of our sporting journalism coverage, with several of its pieces being among the Telegraph’s ‘Most Read’ sport items.

This could be the start of something very special.