Coronavirus has altered our lives beyond recognition.
Almost overnight we changed from being a socially mobile nation, one where millions of people travelled many miles and saw multitudes of people over the course of a single day, to one confined to our homes.
For many, the transition has been difficult. Having to shut ourselves away and isolate from the rest of the world – at least physically – is a very strange experience.
Cricketer Olivia Rae summed up the situation perfectly when she spoke to The 52 writer Alasdair Hooper on the SportSpiel podcast last week.
“I felt a sense of loss when it happened,” she explained.
“We’d lost the cricket season, lost our training sessions, our ability to go to the gym and the ability to do anything you were before as a team.”
When you think about it, lockdown is like a grieving process. We are mourning the loss of our privileges, our freedom, to an invisible foe, one that could strike anywhere and at any time.
Fortunately for Rae, she was ready for this.
The Middlesex cricketer has openly talked about her struggles with her mental health in recent years and has subsequently spent a lot of time coming up with strategies to ensure she is in the best place to cope with anything thrown at her.
“I’m just trying so hard to stay positive and keep perspective” the Scotland international said.
“I did a lot of preparation mentally before this all happened. One of the things I was working on before this was mentally preparing so that I could cope with the demands of not just cricket but life.
“So as much as it was annoying timing (as I’d got prepared for the season) it was also the best because I’d prepared myself mentally as well I’ve got the skills to cope with this situation.”
🚨NEW PODCAST🚨@ollierae14: Building your mental health support network
Our brand new episode is now available on our website or wherever you get your podcasts 🎙️
— SportSpiel (@SportSpielPod) May 3, 2020
Not that the opening batter hasn’t had difficult times throughout this period though.
She told SportSpiel that she initially struggled when the government first introduced isolation measures on 23 March but has since found ways of being able to stay positive and make the most of the situation.
One of these is being able to interact with her support network, the people she’s included in her life that she can speak to if she needs. The people that understand her and know what sort of support to give her if things aren’t going so well.
This isn’t a group of people that she has formed in a matter of days though. It has taken Rae a long time to build a network that she trusts and it is constantly evolving.
Over the years, Rae has grown more confident in talking to people about her struggles but she knows better than anyone that it can take a long time to find those who properly understand you.
Furthermore she is also adamant that people should not put pressure on themselves to find individuals they click with; they should work at their own pace and find their own way.
“We hear and read a lot about how it’s really important to talk and open up about your mental health but it’s not as simple as that. Where do you go, who do you talk to? It’s such a scary prospect.” the 32-year-old explained.
“I only moved to London two-and-a-half years ago from Scotland. I didn’t grow up in London, I didn’t have friends and only a very small amount of people who knew me for me.
“It wasn’t like I could phone a few people up or meet people in the new teams at work and ask ‘do you want to be part of my support network?’ It doesn’t work like that. It was a long process.
“I just started to be myself completely and not just in person with people but also on social media. Using my platform on social media to open up and talk about my struggles, I was starting to really create an authentic version of myself which helped me create that in person as well.
I’ll always remember this birthday!! In lockdown, fully padded up, playing with my new swing ball that is literally the best birthday gift ever (my fam know me so well). Hopefully this can make some of you smile!!!! 🤦🏻♀️😃 #StayHomeSaveLifes pic.twitter.com/KyUbhOBSi5
— Olivia Rae 🏠 (@ollierae14) April 14, 2020
“I was struggling so much but I also had this newfound energy of wanting to grab life and make the most of it.
“I wanted to put myself out there because what’s the worst that could happen? I’m already feeling the worst I could possible feel but I might get some support. Or it’s going to make it so much easier to walk into a training session or meet a group of people when they know what I’m going through.
“On the back of that I got some people who would reach out to me and it just went on to the next thing and the next thing.”
After initially meeting Alasdair back in February, he then introduced Rae to the Mintridge Foundation and very soon after she became a mentor for young cricketers.
Now she has gone from the one being listened to to the listener; she is now part of the support network for these aspiring athletes and is able to help them through the current situation.
But she also knows that people shouldn’t rely on their support network to do everything for them; they’re just there to help and facilitate. The onus should still be on the individual themselves.
Back from the run in the rain and wanted to share my thoughts! I hope everyone is keeping safe and well 🌈🌦 #MentalHealthAwarenes #lockdown #StaySafe #staypositive #StayHomeSaveLives pic.twitter.com/mzSsAAFHP0
— Olivia Rae 🏠 (@ollierae14) April 28, 2020
“The whole point of that support network is that they support you to go and put yourself out there, go into the arena and do your thing but that they’re there whatever happens,” she explained.
“You know that whether you fail or succeed you’ve got that support.
“It’s a lot more powerful to know that it’s you out there doing it, it’s not anyone else telling you what to do. They’re just supporting you to do it.”
But how do you go about working with your support network to overcome your difficulties, especially in a time when what we can do is currently very limited?
While Rae acknowledges that everyone is different and has their own ways of dealing with things, she also believes that if we break our goals into small, achievable increments then that will start us on the right path.
“The steps that feel right, that’s what’s important,” she said.
“Think about what you can do now. It’s amazing how something as little as drawing a picture can kickstart your day.
“It doesn’t matter how small it is, it doesn’t matter if it’s the online class you were supposed to do, even if it’s just drawing a picture then that’s just brilliant.”
With the current global coronavirus pandemic shutting down the world, it is feared that all the progress that has been made with the acceptance and growth of women’s sport could be undone.
With many leagues, governing bodies and teams facing significant financial difficulties, the worry is that women’s sport will suffer hugely and face severe difficulties when we are able to get back to some form of normality.
But Totally Runable have decided to use the opportunity to launch their brand new project aimed at reducing the gender sport gap on fundraising website KickStarter.
Over the next few weeks, the charity is hoping to raise £6,000 to create sets of posters to be sent to 2,500 primary schools across the UK. These posters will feature images of several young girls taking part in a variety of sports and the aim is for them to be stuck up around the school to normalise the idea that girls and women can take part in sport.
This is an extension of the company’s #SeeSportyBeSporty project, which we wrote about in late 2018, and is based on extensive research they have undertaken over the last few years.
Speaking exclusively to SportSpiel, Olympic middle-distance runner Jenny Meadows – who has joined the company as a director alongside founders Natalie Jackson and former GB sprinter Emily Freeman – explained how this is something that she would have loved to see when she was at school.
“The real difference is that these posters are actually going to feature young girls aged 10-15 playing the sport that they love,” the two-time World Championship bronze medallist said.
“It’s amazing to have role models – myself and Emily were both Olympians, which is great – but it’s really important that the girls actually see people their own age or a couple of years older who they can look up to – their peer group playing sport – and actually realise this is a really cool thing to do. Realise that being sporty is completely normal and is something they actually want to aspire to do.
“I started athletics aged seven and was hooked really, really quickly but I remember when I was in primary school and going into secondary school, if I ever had to go up in assembly to get recognition or a reward etc. I’d be absolutely mortified about having to go up to get this award.
“I’d almost feel like I wasn’t normal – ‘oh, you’re the runner aren’t you?’ I actually downplayed how much I loved it and how good I was at it because I didn’t want to stand out from everybody else.”
Their aim is broadly the same as many other schemes – to increase the coverage afforded to girls and women in sport and make their presence as accepted as men.
But their methodology is different. They aren’t focusing on the elite, where it is still difficult to make women’s sport cut through to everyone and is easy for it to be ignored by the media and consumers.
They are implementing this strategy in an environment where children are required to be; where they know they are going to learn; a place where lifelong attitudes, opinions and understandings of the world are developed.
WE ARE LIVE! We’re SUPER excited TODAY to announce that our Kickstarter project is finally LIVE 💜
Check it out, share it, pledge if you are able…
**EARLY BIRD REWARDS AVAILABLE NOW**
— Totally Runable (@TotallyRunable) April 14, 2020
Furthermore they’re not just trying to change the attitudes of young girls. They also want to make young boys realise that sport is for everyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity and so on.
“Boys need to be educated as well,” Meadows – who competed at the 2008 Olympics – told SportSpiel.
“A lot of the boys say ‘I let the girls play football’. It’s not your game, what do you mean you let them? I think it’s educating the boys as well and if they can see posters of girls as well from an early age they will think ‘girls and boys both play sport’ and there is an equal opportunity.
“We need to really change the mindsets of boys, really work on the gender-related language. Things like ‘oh you kick that like a girl’ or ‘I let the girls play’. We just really need to make sure everything is gender neutral, there’s real equality for both genders.
“Eventually this will really help narrow and really close that gender sport gap within schools.”
This project is not about producing the next generation of Olympians. It’s about empowering girls and normalising the fact that sport can be played by anyone.
Totally Runable’s research has shown that girls start to lose confidence in their sporting ability at the age of seven, a shocking statistic given that this is a time where children should be experimenting as much as possible to develop core life skills.
But Meadows knows that, should they reach their fundraising target, the company’s new project can start to make these changes and finally start to change attitudes that have been around for far too long.
Olympians @JennyMeadows800 and @emkfree have launched an inspiration initiative, created to encourage girls to get active. Learn more about the #SeeSportyBeSporty posters & their Kickstarter campaign ➡️ https://t.co/kL9DRRvnS8 @totallyrunable
— AW (@AthleticsWeekly) April 14, 2020
“We’re living in an age where young people are so used to labelling themselves – they’re either sporty or not sporty, I don’t like this or that – and a lot of the time people put themselves in brackets from a very young age,” she explained.
“So I think a big part of this is to visually show girls of all different shapes and sizes playing a variety of different sports. It might just be that first instinct where somebody thinks ‘she looks a little bit like me’ or ‘I thought you had to be super slim to do this sport’ or ‘I thought you had to look a certain way’ or ‘I didn’t know girls could play that sport’.
“Hopefully it will give girls the confidence and the motivation to actually think ‘I want a go, I want to try some of these sports’ and that it is completely normal to do that. We are really, really excited about this and obviously hoping we can reach our target.”
Totally Runable needs to have raised £6,000 by 18 May in order to fund their project – let’s make sure we help them get there! Find out more about the project or donate here.
Ollie Godden spoke to former England cricketer Laura MacLeod about her new role as Director of West Midlands Cricket Limited & how she hopes to inspire more girls and women than ever before to pick up a bat or a ball.
Stories of early sporting experiences often have a familiar theme. Taken down to a local club by a willing parent and shown the ropes of a new activity for which the rules, tactics and techniques seem far beyond comprehension. If the beady eyed child is persistent enough, a relationship will begin to build – a slow and sometimes painstaking connection that may last a lifetime.
Former England cricket all-rounder Laura MacLeod knows that tale all too well. Cladded in her father’s pads, she made the journey to Crewe Rolls Royce, the club at which her father plied his cricketing trade, and began a long-lasting love affair with the sport.
Aged just 11, she made her debut for the U18 boys team due to a lack of segregation or age appropriate opportunities for girls. It didn’t seem to matter though; the boys were respectful and slowed down for her. That was until she honed her skills with the bat and ball and, four short years later (incidentally around the same time that she discovered women did play cricket after seeing England lift the 1993 Women’s Cricket World Cup), she found herself captaining the same side and the boys would be doing everything in their power to dismiss her.
“As I went through my teenage years getting better and beginning to hold my own, the boys probably gave me the best test that would prepare me for an England career – they tried to knock my head off at times!”, Macleod recalls.
“They just took me as one of them. There were good lads around me who valued my input and respected me as a player.”
It’s a fond memory for MacLeod, who was influenced by wider sporting engagement as a youngster. Hockey and swimming came naturally and helped to shape the young girl who would go on to play 72 One Day Internationals, 13 Tests and 3 T20 Internationals for her country.
Her involvement in the game now comes administratively, as the Director of the newly formed West Midlands Women’s Cricket Limited, after a plethora of roles across the Midlands.
The role follows the restructuring of elite domestic cricket for women in this country, a reflection of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) five-year “Inspiring Generations” strategy released last year. For the first time, the framework for development included women’s and girls’ cricket as a specific growth area, citing the potential to harness enthusiasm to increase representation of women in cricket at every level.
ECB unveils £61m interim support package for professional and recreational cricket
— England and Wales Cricket Board (@ECB_cricket) March 31, 2020
£20million was pledged to the restructuring, which has seen eight new regional hubs established, each of which will award five full-time contracts to players within their region, resulting in 40 new professionals across the country to supplement the 20-or-so Central Contracts given out by England each year. The regions, each encompassing a varying number of constituent counties, will play against each other with teams supplemented by regional talent on a pay-as-they-play basis.
England has taken a leaf out of the Australian system’s book, which has been continually producing talent for some time, indicative of the work done to increase the impact of the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL). If rolled out successfully, the new structure should raise the standard of the domestic game here, whilst providing depth to the national squad.
MacLeod admits: “The Aussies have just got real foresight. They have some really clever, strategic people. We do have to learn from them but be mindful of bringing people along with us on the journey.
“The ECB have really done their homework on this as to how a girl gets from that first feel of the bat and ball right through to being an England player. We recognise that we need girls to fall in love with the game and then we can start working on the fundamentals and bringing in things that they need in order to develop, ideally to a higher level.
“If we start at the top, the hope is that there are more girls knocking at the door for England places. There needs to be an oversupply so if Katherine Brunt and Anya Shrubsole were to retire tomorrow, we have quality players that could step into their shoes that have had not just potential, but good experiences. They have played high quality, under-pressure, cricket so they are ready to get into that environment and not just survive but thrive.”
🏏|KEEP IT UP|🏏
Here is what the Worcestershire Women’s Rapids have been up to whilst they’re not training!
Their version of the ‘keep it up’ challenge!
— Worcestershire Womens Rapids (@WorcsCCCWomen) March 25, 2020
The five contracted players in each region will receive tactical, technical and physiological conditioning training as part of the package lined up for athletes. It’s a far cry from the amateur era MacLeod played in, where she had to coach and work in schools alongside her England career to fuel international representation.
The regional hubs will also provide a platform for increased exposure to the younger audience, though MacLeod is acutely aware of the challenges facing anybody trying to engage new clientele. Previously tasked with increasing participation at the ECB across communities, and now Chair of the MCC Women’s Subcommittee, it is a challenge she is used to, but well versed in dealing with.
Day 1 as Director of West Midlands Women’s Cricket. About to go on a very exciting journey of creating a professional team (name, brand, staff, players, training and match venues, kit) from scratch! 🏏 🤗
— Laura MacLeod (@MacleodLK) February 3, 2020
“I will be working hard with the county board to flood the bottom and make sure that we are giving girls, no matter who they are, opportunities. They must then have a really clear line of sight and they know what they are aiming for at the end of years and years of hard work.
“I know from having two kids myself, they rarely watch TV these days. They spend a lot of time watching other people play a game! We need to understand what kids do in their leisure time, what they are like online, what they like to do, and how we can connect with them in a safe and appropriate way. We have got the right things in place. It is only a matter of time before this will gain traction and it will start to snowball.
“The beauty of the women’s game is that there are not too many steps or rungs of the ladder between grassroots and the international stage. You’ll see the girls signing at the end of the game and chatting away. We have to do more of that to make it a great experience to come and watch.”
Photo credit: Brian Cleary, Brian Cleary/BCPix.com
While gender equality has grown exponentially across many sports in recent years, motorsport has often been criticised for failing to follow suit.
And when it did try to address the issue with the creation of the W Series, it came under intense scrutiny for taking the perceived wrong approach.
As a result, the stereotype that woman cannot keep up with men in this field still pervades.
But across the water, two individuals have been proving that very wrong.
Not only have Christina Nielsen and Katherine Legge been matching their male counterparts in America; they’ve been beating them.
In 2016, Nielsen became the first woman to win a major full-season professional sports car championship in North America, finishing top of the GT Daytona division in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The Dane did so alongside co-driver Alessandro Balzan, the duo taking two wins across the 11-race season after finishing runners-up the year before.
Proving this wasn’t a one-off, they then claimed the title again the following year with a series of impressive performances, while Legge also made her first mark on the championship with two wins alongside Andy Lally after switching from the Prototype category.
Guildford-born Legge then nearly claimed the crown herself in 2018, finishing second in the championship by just four points after winning two races and featuring on the podium another five times.
@katherinelegge: This coming season is an amazing opportunity to showcase the very best female driving talent. To partner with Lamborghini really shows how things have developed over recent years for #womeninmotorsport and a big part of that is thanks to the work of #FIAWIM. pic.twitter.com/zejpqbOg3b
— FIA Women In Motorsport (@fiawim) January 25, 2020
So why have their accolades barely been recognised in Europe, where they hail from?
Firstly because they took place so far away. It’s a case of out of sight, out of mind – if you’re not excelling on home soil then your achievements very rarely get picked up by the media, almost as though they don’t matter.
Football manager Graham Potter is a great example of this. He took Ostersund from the fourth division to the Allsvenskan – Sweden’s top tier – in just five years. At a time where this country was crying out for young English managerial talent, here was one performing wonders yet barely anyone knew who he was.
Indeed it took his team coming up against Arsenal in the Europa League for the media to only begin to recognise his achievements.
The same could certainly be argued for Legge. Recently more and more people have been arguing that women should be given opportunities in motorsport and yet was one showing just how good they can be if treated correctly. But because her racing was taking place in America and not on our shores, it seemed to pass everyone by.
It was interesting to note the media coverage afforded to Legge earlier this year was when it was announced that she would be part of an all-female team participating in the 2020 European Le Mans Series and the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans race in June.
While this is newsworthy, it’s not novel for Legge as she and Nielsen have competed in teams featuring only female drivers in both the 2019 and 2020 GT Daytona WeatherTech SportsCar Championships. Yet where was the press coverage surrounding this?
Furthermore, the main line being peddled by the British media around the Le Mans story was not that Legge was being offered a chance to show European fans what they’ve been missing all these years. Instead they focussed on the fact that she’ll be linking up with Sophia Floersch, the young German driver who hit international headlines following her horrendous crash at the 2018 Macau GP. It actually felt as though Floersch was the main talking point and Legge’s return to Europe was just a side note.
The @Richard_Mille Racing Team is set to compete in the
2020 and 2021 @EuropeanLMS seasons with an ORECA 07-Gibson
in #LMP2 with @katherinelegge @TataCalde @SophiaFloersch. #ELMS #LEMANS24 https://t.co/SiMM50WICh
— 24 Hours of Le Mans (@24hoursoflemans) February 12, 2020
The second potential reason behind the lack of attention for Nielsen and Legge is that they have been successful in a category of racing barely understood over here. In the UK, the only motorsport we’re really exposed to is F1. Of course there are so many more types of racing that take place but it’s the only one that you ever hear anyone speaking about.
Unless you’re a real purist, sports car racing just isn’t appreciated or even respected.
Ok yeah, these women won some events but they did so with the help of a man in races that last far too long (between six and 24 hours, with drivers sharing the workload in stints) and in cars that, if you have enough money, you can buy yourself – who cares?
Just because these women aren’t winning in a category of racing we necessarily understand, it doesn’t make their achievements any less noteworthy.
These are two women competing with and beating men in a sport where many still perceive it can’t be done. That’s not just something we should be recognising; it’s something we should be celebrating.
Women will only get more opportunities at the very top end of motorsport when it becomes the norm right the way through the system.
And that’s why we need to highlight the brilliant work these two women are doing.
“Daytona is always the one that got away.” – @ChristinaRacing
— IMSA (@IMSA) January 19, 2020
While their accolades may not yet be recognised by the wider world, there will be young female racers out there who already look up to them, who see them as proof that they do have a future in motorsport.
And if we want to see more exciting talent such as Floersch, Jamie Chadwick, Alice Powell and Bitske Visser emerging, we need to give the best female racers as much media coverage as possible, no matter what series they’re racing in.
We’re not waiting for a revolution to begin in motorsport. It’s already begun, with Legge and Nielsen leading the charge.
Now it’s up to us to recognise and champion them.
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.
We’ve been #InspiredByAlex more times than we can remember 🙏
— Great Britain Hockey (@GBHockey) February 20, 2020
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.
6⃣2⃣ goals in 2⃣0⃣3⃣ appearances
We couldn’t show you all of them but here are seven of @AlexDanson15‘s finest strikes in an 🏴 shirt 💥
Which one is your favourite? pic.twitter.com/kFVZevliqQ
— England Hockey (@EnglandHockey) February 20, 2020
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.
🗣️ I’m so proud of how I’ve lived my career.
🙏 It’s the right time for me to retire & it’s a good opportunity for me to say thank you to everybody who has made this career what is has been
— Great Britain Hockey (@GBHockey) February 20, 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.
🇳🇿 0- 3 🇬🇧
— Shona McCallin MBE (@SMcCallin) February 8, 2020
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!
Where have you been hiding that for the last seven years Shona? 😉 pic.twitter.com/9Zo3gcZlNu
— Great Britain Hockey (@GBHockey) February 13, 2020
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.
🇬🇧 Women’s mile record 4:17.88 for third in New York
🇬🇧 Women’s 1500m record after going through in 4:00.56
— British Athletics (@BritAthletics) February 8, 2020
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.
2020 has already been a spectacular year for @JemmaReekie 🙌
— British Athletics (@BritAthletics) February 15, 2020
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.
@JemmaReekie storms to a 1:57:91 800m clocking, the fastest indoors since 2006.
She now sits 11th on the world all-time list 🌍
— World Athletics (@WorldAthletics) February 3, 2020
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.
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.”
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.”
🔹Changing outdated perceptions on shooting
🔹Getting more women into the sport
🔹Mental health and the importance of looking after yourself
All that and more in tomorrow’s episode as @adjhooper1992 chats with Georgina Roberts 📻
— SportSpiel (@SportSpielPod) February 15, 2020
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.”
🗣️ “Not that many people know what’s actually been going on behind closed doors”
Georgina Roberts had to take some time away from shooting in 2019 due to her dad’s cancer. But it’s also forced her to focus on herself.
Listen to the full interview tomorrow 📻 pic.twitter.com/tJCs3Oq1NC
— SportSpiel (@SportSpielPod) February 15, 2020
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.”
Georgie didn’t have to share this, but so glad she felt comfortable enough to do so. It’s conversations like this that are so important to everyone when things get tough.
You won’t find many stronger units than her and her family. 👊👊👊 https://t.co/NOCNYgbCoS
— Alasdair Hooper (@adjhooper1992) February 15, 2020
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.”
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.”
— SportSpiel (@SportSpielPod) January 5, 2020
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.”
🥈in her World Para Canoe debut!@LauraSugar1 ran for 🇬🇧at Rio 2016 & hopes to double up at Tokyo 2020 after securing GB a place in the VL3 event at those Games with SILVER.
— ✌️🏊🏻♂️ 𝗡𝗶𝗰𝗸 𝗛𝗼𝗽𝗲 🇬🇧✌️ (@NickHopeTV) August 23, 2019
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.
Reflecting on a great first season as part of the paracanoe team, it’s exceeded all my expectations and yet made me hungry for more! Thanks to the amazing team and especially @canoecol for taking me on and @rogweir as well for putting up with me 😊 #paracanoe #kayak pic.twitter.com/zDXZENaCPo
— Laura Sugar (@LauraSugar1) August 26, 2019
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.”
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.”
— SportSpiel (@SportSpielPod) January 5, 2020
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.”
Our Moment is Now … incredible celebration with my Team mates #DelayisnotDenial #4×400 #Beijing #Bronzemedalist #TeamGB #10yrwait #worthit #drugscheatsout #perseverancepaysoff pic.twitter.com/Iol5gCtyef
— Marilyn Okoro OLY (@mokoro4) July 23, 2018
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.”
— Marilyn Okoro OLY (@mokoro4) December 18, 2019
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?