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?
At the end of another groundbreaking year for women’s sport, The 52’s Will Moulton (WM), Alasdair Hooper (AHp), Alex Horowitz (AHz), Ollie Godden (OG), Julia Cook (JC) and Shona McCallin (SMc) have collated their favourite moments of 2019.
And in case you missed it, you can also read Tess Howard’s excellent review of her top moments from the year here.
Attendances soar & will only grow more
WM: It’s been incredible to see how many attendance records have been broken this year. And it’s not just the international teams but also domestically too. Of course many of these figures had previously been low and were there to be broken but to generate such great numbers already is a good start.
It is proof that the appetite is there; people do want to watch women’s sport.
The level of innovation implemented in football and rugby – moving into ‘men’s’ stadiums, creating a Women’s Football Weekend etc. – is certainly a different approach but it seems to be working. It will be interesting to see if/how this changes going forward.
It’s been a privilege to be a part of many of these crowds – including part of the 77,000 roaring on the Lionesses on at Wembley and the 10,000 watching the England Rugby’s Red Roses thump Italy at Exeter’s Sandy Park – and I can’t wait to see how these figures progress further next year.
SMc: I think 2019 has been a big year for women’s sport. Attitudes and perceptions seem to be finally changing and, more crucially, being maintained.
One of my favourite moments of the year was seeing the Lionesses filling up Wembley on the back of a whirlwind World Cup campaign which I was certainly gripped by. The previous record home attendance record for the team was 45,000 – set five years ago – which just shows how much interest has grown.
Incredible scenes at Wembley last night! 😍
This is our idea of #BeSeenBeHeardBeInspired at its best 👏👏👏
Cannot wait for more games like these across many sports in the future! pic.twitter.com/Pw9l8T9Fui
— The 52 Blog (@the_52blog) November 10, 2019
AHp: This summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France was the competition where the world finally realised the potential and the appeal of the women’s game.
Overall 1.12bn viewers watched the tournament on TV at home, on digital platforms or out-of-home. The final was seen live by more than 260m viewers and the average live match audience more than doubled from 2015.
While marketing and attendance levels in France itself were far from perfect – there were some record crowds but also plenty of empty seats – in several countries many people tuned in for the first time and stuck with it.
We’ve seen that here in the UK. England’s semi-final defeat by the US attracted a TV audience of 11.7m, more than the Gavin & Stacey Christmas special and a new record for women’s football in this country. Follow that up with the record attendances and the renewed interest we have seen in the WSL and it tells you women’s football is here to stay.
The game has got coverage like never before, attention like never before and it really is about time. We have athletes demanding equal pay and the players are continuing to break down barriers. France 2019 was a large part of showcasing the product to a new audience and for that it has to be seen as a landmark tournament for women’s sport.
This was always going to be a landmark year for women’s football 🤩
But in the end, the eagerly anticipated 2019 #FIFAWWC – unforgettable as it was – proved to be just the tip of the iceberg 💪
— FIFA Women’s World Cup (@FIFAWWC) December 27, 2019
Dina’s Doha Delight
AHz: My first standout moment has to be Dina Asher-Smith’s historic achievement as she became the first British woman to win 200m gold at a World Athletics Championship. It was an event that brought huge tears of joy to my eyes despite being sat on the sofa 6,000 miles away.
JC: From studying history to making it, Dina Asher-Smith had another sensational year, setting a new British record on her way to 200m gold at the 2019 World Athletics Championship.
Having been a kit carrier at London 2012, she will now head into Tokyo 2020 as a medal favourite having also secured silver medals in the 100m – where she was only beaten by multiple World and Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce – and 4x100m events.
Her time of 21.88s in the 200m final was leaps and bounds ahead of the rest, finishing 0.34s ahead of Brittany Brown as the American claimed silver.
From winning the European youth title in 2013 to becoming Britain’s first senior female sprint world champion in Doha (and obtaining a First Class degree from King’s College London in between), it has been a remarkable rise for Asher-Smith over the last few years.
If she continues like this, she looks set to add more Olympic medals to the relay bronze she won in 2016.
— The 52 Blog (@the_52blog) October 2, 2019
SMc: Dina Asher-Smith taking medals in both the individual 100m and 200m at the World Championships was pretty special. Until Dafne Schippers of The Netherlands came along, those fields had been notoriously dominated by Jamaicans and Americans. To medal at a major event just one year before Tokyo 2020 is a pretty exciting prospect for any sports fan and will ensure we’re all watching her next August.
OG: Dina Asher-Smith took arguably the greatest leap in terms of sporting achievement this year with her efforts out in Doha.
She looked stunned at the end of her 200m title winning run, as shown by her emotional interview to BBC Sport after clinching the gold medal. However, in truth, it wasn’t a shock to most, so good had her form been leading into the event.
Importantly, it was not just her athletic exploits which made her such an inspirational figure but also the way in which she carried herself off the track. A relatable role models for girls and boys alike, she showed the rewards of hard work and dedication with beaming enjoyment along the way.
I think she characterised selflessness and gratitude during her interview at Sports Personality of the Year where she praised the impact of her parents and Coach of the Year John Blackie. In Asher-Smith and Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Britain have found new age heroines who truly can inspire a generation.
🥇 GOLD GOLD GOLD 🥇
💥 @dinaashersmith is WORLD CHAMPION!
— British Athletics (@BritAthletics) October 2, 2019
Biles cements legendary status
AHp: An incredible year for an incredible individual. At the 2019 Gymnastics World Championships, Simone Biles secured gold medals in the individual all-around, vault, balance beam and floor to go along with a team gold for the USA.
She now has 25 World Championship medals to make her the most decorated gymnast in the history of the competition. Of those medals, 18 are gold.
She’s 22 years old.
What really defined her star turn this time round was inspiring the way she continued to push her sport to new levels. She became the first woman to perform a triple double (two flips with three twists) on the floor and she also added another novelty – a double-double dismount off the balance beam (watch it on YouTube – it’s incredible!).
This is not just Biles continuing to stay as the world’s best gymnast. In 2019 she bettered even herself. Couple that with the way Biles continues to carry herself in the wake of the Larry Nasser scandal and it’s clear we are looking at a sports star who will be remembered for generations.
You have to ask yourself just how far she can go? And what on earth are we going to be seeing in Tokyo next summer?
Never. Before. Seen.
— Olympic Channel (@olympicchannel) October 1, 2019
Bowing out in Petter-fect style
OG: Few, if any, events this year came close to matching the drama of the Solheim Cup. I’m not usually a massive golf follower but the circumstances surrounding Suzann Pettersen as she sunk the winning putt in her ninth Solheim Cup gripped even the tamest of sports fans.
Originally selected as a vice-captain after taking time out of the game in November 2017 to have a baby, Norwegian Pettersen returned to playing and was a surprise pick by captain Catriona Matthew. But her selection was vindicated on the final day.
With the American’s leading 13.5-12.5, Europe needed to win both the matches remaining. Bronte Law, playing against Ally McDonald, holed a magnificent 15-foot putt on the 16th to half the hole before securing victory in her match on the 17th.
That created a tense finish for Pettersen; with the scores between her and Marina Alex level after 17, she could secure the victory by beating her opponent on the final hole.
The American missed an eight foot putt for the win, meaning Pettersen was left on the verge of a birdie that would see Europe win the trophy for the first time since 2013. The 38-year-old personified coolness and used all her experience to knock in a tricky putt that sent her team-mates and the Scottish crowd into a frenzy.
Pettersen then announced her retirement from the sport, a decision that wasn’t planned but after the game she admitted to the BBC that it felt like “the perfect stage to say goodbye to professional golf.”
🚨 BREAKING 🚨 @suzannpettersen has announced her retirement from golf.
What a moment to end an unbelievable career 🏆🇪🇺
Suzann you are an inspiration & will be missed by us all. Thank you for everything 🙏 Especially today 😉 pic.twitter.com/4NWElwd1WJ
— Ladies European Tour (@LETgolf) September 15, 2019
Gallagher hits new heights
WM: Many people know how much of a fan I am of GB trampolinist and fellow The 52 writer Laura Gallagher. Since being fortunate enough to earlier this year share the incredible story surrounding her comeback to the sport, I have followed her exploits with keen interest.
Heading into this year’s World Championships, the British team knew that a place at Tokyo 2020 was up for grabs. And while most eyes were focussed on Rio silver medallist Bryony Page, it was Laura who produced the goods as she reached her first ever world final and secured GB a quote spot for next year’s Games.
After everything she’s been through, to watch Laura produce such a spectacular routine in the semi-final – she qualified for the final in third place – was not only fantastic to witness but also proof that on her day she can mix it with the world’s best.
Her place at Tokyo is not yet guaranteed but she’s currently in a strong position to make the cut. I cannot think of anyone else who would deserve to appear on sport’s biggest stage more. One of the nicest people you’ll meet and a brilliant athlete, she’s one to watch out for in 2020.
Just completely stoked with today and with the opportunity to compete in finals tomorrow, I can’t wait 🇬🇧What a journey it has been!🤪
Thank you so much to those who have been by my side throughout & to my team-I certainly haven’t come this far on my own, thank you 🙏🏻☺️ https://t.co/hM7JegzaRW
— Laura Gallagher (@lgtrampoline) November 30, 2019
KJT finally reaps the rewards on the big stage
JC: After years of struggles and disappointments, Katarina Johnson-Thompson finally put the demons behind her to win her heptathlon gold at the 2019 World Championships medal in Doha, her first ever medal at the competition.
In an interview the morning after taking gold, KJT was moved to tears thinking about how she almost quit the sport after a disappointing performance at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Despite her unquestionable talent and potential, much of her career had been defined by heartbreak, especially at the major events where she never seemed to be able to unleash her potential.
After the Rio heartache, KJT made the life changing decision to leave everything she knew and loved behind and moved to live and train in Montpellier, France.
It’s a decision that’s certainly paid off so far as she has gone on to win golds at the World Indoor, European Indoor and Commonwealth Games alongside a silver at last year’s European Championships.
This performance was by far her best yet though. Not only did she overcome reigning Olympic champion Nafi Thiam – widely regarded as one of the greatest heptathletes of all time – she set four new PBs on a way a British record score of 6,981pts (more than Jess Ennis-Hill ever achieved), the sixth score highest of all time and a total Thiam has only beaten once. Their battle at Tokyo next year is going to be electric.
✅ Four event PBs
✅ British record (better than Jess Ennis-Hill)
✅ Beats one of the finest heptathletes of all time
✅ Sixth highest ever score
✅ WORLD CHAMPION 🥇
— The 52 Blog (@the_52blog) October 3, 2019
Teenager wreaks havoc at Wimbledon
AHz: Another stunning moment for me was Coco Gauff’s superb performance at this year’s Wimbledon. At just 15-years-old, she not only became the youngest player to qualify for the women’s singles draw, she then beat Venus Williams on the way to reaching the fourth round. And even then she was knocked out by eventual champion Simona Halep in a close encounter.
She showed superb style, strength and tenacity throughout both this tournament and her run to the third round of the US Open, which was proof that Wimbledon was no one-off performance. I am sure she has inspired many girls across the globe.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 1, 2019
Taylor becomes the undisputed Queen of the Ring
AHp: We’ve all known about Katie Taylor’s talent for a long time but in 2019 she proved beyond doubt just what an incredible figure she is.
The 33-year-old fought three times this year and won on each occasion. Furthermore all three of her opponents were world champions.
In March she knocked out Rose Volante in the ninth round to add the WBO title to the IBF and WBA belts she already held. On 1 June she became undisputed lightweight champion when she added the WBC belt after winning a majority decision over Delfine Persoon.
But that wasn’t enough for Taylor. She moved up a weight division and on 2 November beat Christina Linardatou on a unanimous points decision to claim the WBO super-lightweight title in Manchester.
Taylor now has 15 wins in 15 bouts as a professional boxer, which follows up brilliantly on an amateur career that ended with a record of 175-10-1 (including 34 knockouts), appeared in two Olympic Games and won a gold medal in 2012.
Furthermore, according to our research, she is the only woman to currently hold world titles in two different weight divisions (alongside only three men – Canelo Alvarez, Jermall Charlo and Leo Santa Cruz) and is the only professional boxer (male or female) to currently hold all four belts (WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO) in the same weight category.
The best bit is that there is a whole lot more to come from this sporting star.
Katie Taylor wins!!!
An undisputed two-weight champion! 👏👏
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) November 2, 2019
How one tweet began a promising career
OG: Imagine a video of you training going viral on social media; a professional outfit seeing it, signing you and then turning you into one of the country’s brightest young starlets. Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it?
Yet that’s exactly what happened to 16-year-old Phoebe Litchfield this year.
Litchfield was picked up by Sydney Thunder after a tweet of her netting at New South Wales Breakers’ training went viral. She made her Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) debut for Sydney Thunder against Sydney Sixers a week later and infiltrated social media once again as she ramped Hayley Silver-Holmes with just her tenth ball in elite cricket.
In her second appearance, the left hander from Orange scored her maiden WBBL fifty with a plethora of elegant shots, guiding her side to victory against eventual tournament victors Brisbane Heat.
We have become used to Australia perpetually producing cricketers of such ability but Litchfield has made a bigger splash than most. The prodigious talent seemed mature beyond her years on and off the pitch.
Furthermore many, including Australian legend Alex Blackwell, believe she has a massive future in the sport. That is if she chooses it over hockey, where she has represented her country at age group level.
16-years-old. On debut.
Phoebe Litchfield: pic.twitter.com/ZZtNEV1o96
— Rebel Women’s Big Bash League (@WBBL) October 18, 2019
Cox continues to defy the odds
JC: Kadeena Cox’s 2019 Para-athletics World Championship 400m silver medal was a remarkable feat. Not just because she once again battled through the multiple sclerosis that affects her every single day but also because just three days before competing, Cox wrote an honest and thought-provoking blog post detailing the seriousness of an eating disorder she has.
It was in April of this year that Cox opened up about the topic, saying that she no longer knew what normal eating was. This wasn’t something new either; it has affected her for a long, long time.
Add in a career-threatening knee injury, it is a miraculous feat that Cox made the start line at all. To walk away with another global medal, in what was only her second 400m race since winning the world title in 2017, was incredible.
Less than a month later she was back in the velodrome claiming gold medals at the Manchester Para-Cycling International.
Cox, who developed MS after suffering a stroke in 2014, told of how being at the World Championships had caused her to relapse with her eating disorder, feeling all of the attention was on her. She has explained how she hopes to get her eating disorder under control in time to defend her Paralympic titles in both cycling and athletics.
Sometimes winning medals isn’t the most important thing.
In the C4-5 Women’s 500m TT there was only going to be one winner…
Fresh off competing at the Athletics World Championships, @kad_c is straight back into winning form on the track 🥇🇬🇧
— British Cycling (@BritishCycling) November 30, 2019
Hockey creates yet more special memories
WM: It has been a tumultuous year for British hockey for a number of reasons but there have still been plenty of brilliant occasions too. This includes making history at The Stoop, seeing GB qualify for Tokyo 2020 and Scotland’s women and Wales’ men producing sensational European performances.
However it was one small moment that stood out for me.
Tess Howard burst onto the international scene at the 2018 Champions Trophy, scoring in just her third game and bringing a new lease of life to the team. Come this spring she was making her home debut against the USA in the FIH Pro League, a game that went to a shootout on a dreary April afternoon.
Not only did the 20-year-old have the bottle to step up and have an attempt, she casually approached the ‘keeper before slotting the ball between her legs, much to the delight of the home crowd.
It was cheeky. It was brave. It was absolutely brilliant and an early sign of how seriously talented Tess is, something subsequent performances have only further proven.
A tough, fierce and determined competitor, expect her to be at the forefront of GB’s charge for a third consecutive Olympic medal in 2020.
1⃣4⃣ days to Christmas 🎄
1⃣4⃣ the number worn by @_tess_howard who produced this outrageous shootout finish in her maiden home international earlier this year 😲🔥
— Great Britain Hockey (@GBHockey) December 11, 2019
A mention must go to Shona too. Having worked with her for more than two years and being one of the first athletes I got to know, it was so tough to see her out of the game for 17 months. But she never gave up, showed a brilliant attitude throughout all the rehab and finally got back onto the pitch this year. It was so great to watch her as GB overcame Chile in a highly pressurised two-legged Olympic qualifier and I cannot wait to see even more next year.
SMc: I may be biased but my personal highlight of the year has to be qualifying for Tokyo 2020. More specifically, it was when the moment Izzy Petter scored the opening goal in the first leg. Once that went in, we were able to relax a bit more after a nervy first half and play our proper game. We came away with a 5-1 aggregate win clinching our spot at Tokyo and boy it felt good!
AHz: Being half-Scottish, I felt great pride seeing the women’s team produce five fine performances on home soil to secure EuroHockey Championships II gold and earn promotion back to the top tier for 2021. Seeing the likes of GB internationals Amy Costello and Nicki Cochrane, who I have volunteered alongside over the years, enjoy such success was hugely rewarding.
Scotland 🏴 win gold 🥇at Women’s @eurohockeyorg Championship II in Glasgow ❤️
— Scottish Hockey (@ScottishHockey) August 10, 2019
Following Fallon Sherrock’s two historic victories at the 2020 PDC World Darts Championship, Ollie Godden explains how darts still has a long way to go when it comes to encouraging women to play the game.
As Fallon Sherrock stepped up to the oche on 17 December 2019, she had three attempts at double 18 to make history. Cheers and whistles reverberated through TV screens as the fans at Alexandra Palace (or ‘Ally Pally’) rose in tandem.
The first dart nestled outside the wire, enough to hush the rapturous crowd into tense silence. The second pierced the centre of the red sisal fibre and sent the crowd – and social media – into overdrive.
In overcoming Ted Evetts, Sherrock became the first woman to beat a man at the Professional Darts Corportion (PDC) World Darts Championship since it began in 1994.
Evetts was gracious in defeat while Sherrock, after taking a few moments to compose herself, showed wisdom beyond her years: “I feel really happy. I’ve made something for women’s darts. I have proved we can play men and beat them. Fingers crossed that puts us in the right direction.”
The win sent a shockwave through the sport and sparked a media frenzy, with people from all corners of the sporting spectrum hailing a performance of such magnitude.
It had been a case of when, not if, this landmark moment would happen but that didn’t mean it had any less magnitude.
Then came Sherrock’s second round victory over world number 11 Mensur Suljovic, proving the previous performance was no fluke. A plethora of leg-deciding darts were thrown with coolness. The Austrian became just another victim in Sherrock’s path to relative stardom.
She was already fairly well known in darts circles but these two wins have thrust the 25-year-old into the national spotlight.
She will go onto face world number 22 Chris Dobey on 27 December with nothing to lose, a multitude of new fans in her corner and history already made.
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) December 18, 2019
Women’s Darts – The Journey
The PDC World Championship has always allowed women to compete in its 26-year history, with Canadian Gayl King the first to do so when the event was held at Essex’s Circus Tavern in 2001. She lost in the first round.
The same year the British Darts Organisation (BDO) launched their Women’s Championship which allowed them to compete for a prize pool of £6,000 – a figure which has now risen to £25,000. The winner of the men’s championship pockets £100,000.
Between King’s appearance and last year’s tournament, no female player appeared in the major draw of the PDC World Championship. Russian Anastasia Dobromyslova was handed a wildcard entry in 2009 but lost in the preliminary round.
There we no technical barriers preventing women from entering but a lack of equitable prize funds and limited provisions meant growth in the women’s game was stunted.
Despite Trina Gulliver’s 10 BDO Women’s Championship victories she was, and is, a relative unknown in the sporting world. The PDC did attempt to respond to the lack of female exposure by creating a Women’s World Championship in 2010 but this was discontinued after one running.
Things changed in 2018 when PDC Chairman Barry Hearn stated that the organisation would expand the World Championship competition from 72 to 96 players and guarantee two places for women.
This was an important move.
Two qualification tournaments were run to determine the athletes, with Dobromyslova and four-time BDO Women’s World Champion Lisa Ashton the two who won their events to reach one of the sport’s biggest stages.
This year Sherrock, who has had to also overcome the adversity of kidney disease following the birth of her son in 2014, was joined by fellow qualifier Mikuru Suzuki of Japan. She almost made her own piece of history, taking Englishman James Richardson to a deciding leg before losing 3-2 in the first round.
Following her first victory, Sherrock suggested that more places should be guaranteed for female participants. However Hearn’s response was that a pathway is now visible and said it is up to the female players to create more opportunities by proving their worth.
The bulls-eye to win it just caps this incredible moment off…
Iconic from Fallon Sherrock, a sporting history maker 🎯pic.twitter.com/5hPWx3wbNU
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) December 22, 2019
Still a way to go
It is important that Sherrock’s win doesn’t mask the progress that still needs to happen in darts. She has taken her opportunity with aplomb but things aren’t all rosy in the women’s game.
Whilst the prize pots remain small and competitions at a premium, they will remain semi-professional and this is an inherent barrier to growth.
Moreover, there is still a shift required in the cultural position of women’s darts. In an online Q&A in 2018, Michael van Gerwen – a three-time PDC World Champion – said: “You can’t compare woman darts and men’s, [I] don’t have a reason for it but [it] just doesn’t happen for some reason.”
The word number one wasn’t wrong for saying so. It was, and is, correct that few comparisons have been drawn but with little justification.
Two-time PDC Grand Slam of Darts champion Gerwyn Price joined the debate on Sherrock’s successes after his own first round victory this year, stating: “She hasn’t beaten a man, she has beaten a young boy with the crowd on his back.”
This was a startlingly regressive comment from a leading light in the sport.
Price himself beat Suzuki on his way to a second Grand Slam title a year ago but maintains the crowd impairs a player’s ability to perform to their potential and cited this as the reason for Evetts’ loss.
The comment from Price was not only patronising to Evetts, a young player with a very bright future, but undermined the success of Sherrock, who scored six 180s and nineteen 140s.
Similarly, Sherrock appeared on Good Morning Britain the day after she beat Evetts for an interview with the infamous host Piers Morgan. In a hugely trivialising stunt, Sherrock was tasked with beating Morgan in a three-dart challenge. As he swaggered over to the board, Sherrock looked understandably bemused before comfortably beating the presenter as he joked it was up to him to ‘restore pride in male darts playing’.
After her subsequent victory against Suljovic, Morgan stated that she was his ‘female empowerment role model’, but until such a point that we can take an achievement at face value without feeling the need to turn it into a gimmick, we are failing to truly celebrate the sport and those within it.
“I have just proved that women can beat anyone. I have beaten two of the best players in the world. If that doesn’t show that women can play darts, I don’t know what does…”
Fallon Sherrock missed just five darts at double against World 11 seed Mensur Suljovic.
What a legend🙌 pic.twitter.com/G3MdCN9uC4
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) December 22, 2019
To continue the growth, fans must ensure that their appetite for the women’s game remains or even broadens, whilst organisers must reward women appropriately and broadcasters have a duty to televise events.
We can see the potential for development with the Women’s Super League in football this year, where exposure and sponsorship has contributed to a boom in the game. The same must occur here and there is no reason why it shouldn’t.
A quarter-final berth is not beyond the realm of possibilities by any means for Sherrock but, regardless of where she finishes in this year’s competition, the point has been made.
Women have a place in the upper echelons of the sport but they must first be given a chance. The onus is now on Hearn and his team to ensure the strategic progression of the sport which will, in time, effect the cultural beliefs about females in the sport.
In her first piece for The 52, England and GB international Tess Howard reviews her favourite hockey moments of 2019 and explains why they show the sport has a blueprint for gender equality that all other should follow.
To legitimise women’s sport, it is often perceived as an add-on to its male-counterparts: ‘rugby’ and ‘women’s rugby’; ‘cricket’ and ‘women’s cricket’ etc. But hockey, whether you’re a man or woman, is simply just ‘hockey’.
It is a flagship team sport and pioneer for athletic equality.
Our world of hockey is a game of 50-50 representation. We move towards equality without the need to separate the sport in events, media or communication. There is no need to artificially construct a social hierarchical divide.
We appreciate the game for the sake of the game; a meritocracy. Viewed in this way, our sport separated by gender becomes a categorization much like weight classes in boxing; not a tool for prejudice.
As a human geographer, studying remotely with Durham University, my degree addresses the symbolic, historical and political cultures which influence our society, economy and environment. I am fortunate to be situated in elite sport whilst studying the academics of feminist movement. This has inspired me to critically reflect on highlights for women’s sport and, for me personally, revealing how sport can be a deeper indicator of contextual social progress.
The first two of my ‘women’s sporting highlights’ should probably be reworded as ‘greatest GB Hockey moments of the year’, where hockey is appreciated as the game where both men and women compete equally in their respective competitions. Perhaps a sport marking a movement ahead of its time.
1) Making history at The Stoop
This was an unprecedented event. A crowd of nearly 12,000; an enclosed and covered stadium; a hockey pitch laid down over a rugby field. And two wins, the men with a 2-0 victory over New Zealand (securing their spot in the FIH Pro League Finals) and the women then recording a 3-1 victory over the same opponent.
I was lucky enough to play in this and it was doubly special as the team put in one of our best performances in the FIH Pro League and showed that despite a tough year, we were evidently growing.
What an incredible day! pic.twitter.com/Gxu8CMuO5n
— Great Britain Hockey (@GBHockey) June 23, 2019
2) GB secure their places at Tokyo 2020
That feeling – to be part of that moment in our squad’s journey, helping secure our spots at the Tokyo Olympic Games – is easy to essentialise and reduce it to a single word, either ‘relief’ or ‘elation’.
But in reality it is extremely difficult to give an honest, straightforward account of what it means. Overwhelmingly, it was a feeling of achievement: successfully completing a job we simply had to complete. Happy, but realising we were always going to qualify because there was no way we couldn’t.
Within the squad there was a steady calmness, a conviction to stick to our game plan and deliver what we believed would unfold. To share the event with a rallying crowd, our fans and supporters at Lee Valley, reminded us it was more than just a match we had both won.
The reality of the event inspires reflection. A lot was shared. The huge pressure felt by both teams, the understanding that both men and women had to independently qualify. You share the relief, the elation, the experience, the event. We are grateful to GB Hockey and the FIH for hosting hockey in this way and hope this continues as we keep making positive steps to achieving true equality in events and operation. EuroHockey’s #EquallyAmazing campaign is one demonstration of how we empower athletes as athletes, nullifying performance discrimination based on gender categorisation.
— Great Britain Hockey (@GBHockey) November 3, 2019
3) The game that had it all
My final highlight is slightly unconventional. As well as England and GB Hockey, I also play for East Grinstead (EG) and one sodden October afternoon we found ourselves playing away to Hampstead & Westminster (H&W) in what was to turn out to be an all-time classic.
Given we went 3-0 up after the first quarter, it was a game we really should have won. As an EG player it was hard to concede three goals, score again to go 4-3 up but eventually draw 4-4. However, from a reflexive feminist standpoint, after the game I think my only comment to the media was “it was epic”.
The game was a clash of two top teams, fuelled by adrenaline and healthy rivalry. Both were coached by women excelling in their professional fields; H&W’s Kate Richardson-Walsh and Sarah Kelleher as well as EG’s Mary Booth.
What the H&W coaches or players said at quarter-time to ignite a three-goal comeback, the first scored by inferno-attacker Lily Owsley, we do not know. How the EG girls found it in themselves to score a flames-worthy goal, put in by Laura Unsworth, to go up 4-3 we do not know. And how H&W equalised in the last few minutes, we will never know. This game is an incredible advocate for women’s sport.
What sticks in my mind about this game is that we were able to share this moment. Standing pitch-side was not only a dedicated rain-saturated crowd, but more than 30 U12 schoolgirls from The Perse School. They had taken a school trip to play matches against a local school and then to watch elite level hockey. The Perse is my old school so afterwards it was fantastic to see them all, chat about the game and be intoxicated in their enthusiasm despite being drenched.
“Ohh my word, Tess, did you see there was Owsley, Unsworth and Bray playing… What a match – why didn’t you win?! They are all soooo fast… I wanna learn how to do that thing Bray did… Did you see Kate Richardson-Walsh is one of the coaches… You’re so muddy – are you playing rugby or hockey? When are you coming back to school to coach again?!”
These were just some of the quotes I can remember when talking to them, my white kit soaked in mud from the horrendously slippy pitch.
Sharing that moment reassured me we are part of something greater than a scoreline when we play high level hockey.
As female athletes, we constantly challenge the patriarchal ideology upon which sport was originally based; we negotiate what athletic femininity means and we are part of discovering, as Dr Alison Enever asks, “how the modern girl attains strength and grace”.
Elite sport and their athletes afford the power to legitimise knowledge around their sport, and play a part in affecting culture for the benefit of equality.
As athletes, we perform on a stage where our performance can be understood quantitatively: in the scoreline. But it is the qualitative, intangible meaning of our performance as an individual, with our intersectional identities and complex cultural tendencies, which continually construct the society we are part of.
The fight, bravery, determination, passion and excellence on display during these matches, led by brave and passionate women, and shared with young people discovering their own passion and bravery in sport is continuously contributing to the equal society we all want to live in. And I hope 2020 will bring many more moments like this.
Julia Cook looks at one of the latest controversies dogging athletics after Mary Cain alleged abuse by banned doper Alberto Salazar during her time with Nike Oregon Project
Mary Cain shocked the sporting world last month with her allegations of abuse by Aleberto Salazar, a story that is growing in relevance everyday.
Cain, a former Nike Oregon Project runner and one of America’s biggest young talents, revealed how she was pressured by Salazar to lose weight, and broke five bones due to weight loss linked osteoporosis.
Seen as the future of the sport, Salazar started advising Cain in 2012 and she reaped the rewards almost immediately, qualifying for the World Championships as a 17-year-old a year later.
But instead of nurturing her talent, Cain was told by the all-male staff to get thinner and thinner.
This was a long time coming. For years, I felt broken and alone- I waited, yet no one reach out to help.
Now I am ok. But the system isn’t. And I can’t stay silent.
— Mary Cain (@runmarycain) November 7, 2019
Cain, now 23, told the New York Times: “I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete ever. Instead I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.”
Cain also detailed how she lost her period for three years and how the abuse led to suicidal thoughts and self harm.
She says that her dreams quickly went out of the window.
“I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics any more, I was trying to survive,” she said.
This is just the latest scandal of many for Salazar, who has been banned from coaching for four years for doping offences. He is currently appealing the decision.
In an email to the New York Times, Salazar denied many of Cain’s claims and said he had supported her health and welfare. On 11 October, Nike announced it was shutting down the Oregon Project.
In a statement to the Times, Cain said that “after the doping report dropped that led to his suspension, I felt this quick and sudden release. That helped me understand that this system is not O.K. That’s why I decided to speak up now.”
Cain described the abuse within the project: “He wanted to give me birth control pills and diuretics [which are banned on anti-doping lists in athletics] to lose weight. I felt so scared and alone and I felt so trapped and I started to have suicidal thoughts.
“I started to cut myself. Some people saw me cutting myself. And nobody really did anything or said anything.”
Many within athletics have spoken out in support with Cain, including former Nike athlete Allyson Felix, who was dropped when she got pregnant, and current Nike athlete-turned-coach, Shalane Flanagan.
— Allyson Felix (@allysonfelix) November 7, 2019
Cain’s story raises important issues. When do we stop supporting Nike? And at what cost? Do we prioritise shoes that give us personal bests over fighting for clean sport, women and integrity?
Whilst Cain’s picture of Salazar and the Oregon Project may seem unbelievable to some, it is by no means the only toxic culture within athletics, or sport as a whole. It’s an extreme and high-profile example of the issues faced by countless others, raising questions about how athletes are trapped within a sporting system not fit for purpose. With no dedicated nutritionist or psychologist, and a culture that made athletes feel alone, where are they meant to turn?
There’s an undeniable truth that weight and performance are linked. But that should never come at the cost of an athletes mental or physical wellbeing. And that should never allow a culture of bullying and harassment to be created.
What has to be considered is how and when an athlete’s weight is talked about, with nutritionists and psychologists, and how it should never come before the physical or mental well being of the athlete. Having an outside professional, whose sole job it is to act in the best interests of the athlete’s health, means that coaches can focus on what’s important, and don’t have to weigh in on issues that they don’t have expertise or experience in.
I had no idea it was this bad. I’m so sorry @runmarycain that I never reached out to you when I saw you struggling. I made excuses to myself as to why I should mind my own business. We let you down. I will never turn my head again.https://t.co/pfj0BIaEiS
— Shalane Flanagan (@ShalaneFlanagan) November 7, 2019
Cain herself also offered a solution, suggesting that more women need to be involved within athletics. “I got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls. We have to protect them.”
Women can’t do this alone. Men need to step up and be allies, calling out problems when they see them, and supporting women who do.
Cain sharing her story has started an incredible debate within athletics and sport as a whole. It’s stories like Cain’s that change the world, and make it a better place for the women after.
Bryony Page’s beaming smile after she completed her second trampoline routine at Rio 2016 was for many the highlight of that year’s Olympics.
To see an athlete so completely overwhelmed with emotion after producing the performance of a lifetime is a memory that will stick in the minds of those who watched forever.
The fact that she then won a silver medal too just made it that bit more special.
While it was an incredible moment to see play out, nothing can match how it must have felt for Page herself to achieve something no British woman had ever done before.
It was the culmination of a long and at time arduous journey too; a journey that certainly didn’t follow the norm.
Unlike many of her counterparts, Page never represented GB at youth level – ‘I just wasn’t one of the top youths. I was always trying to fit into that team of four but was always fifth or sixth’ – and didn’t actually compete at a major championship until becoming a senior.
But instead of giving in she stuck at it, believed in her ability and before long was winning British Championships, World and European team golds and then finally that Olympic silver medal.
Her story provided the perfect lesson to any aspiring athlete; if you really want something enough, you will get it as long – as you persevere.
“My journey has been quite different, not being part of any junior major championships and then getting into senior level, doing ok and building up,” the Sheffield Trampolining Academy member told team-mate and The 52 writer Laura Gallagher in an exclusive interview for SportSpiel.
“It just goes to show that you can start later, you don’t have to be the best in your age group at the time. It’s just about enjoying your journey.
“That’s something I took from the Games. It was just two weeks and one competition. 16 years boiled down to one day. You’ve got to make those just as enjoyable as each other.
Sport is a major part of my life. It’s brought me joy, allowed me to see the world & given me friends for life. It’s inspired me, challenged me, broke me, rebuilt me, made me smile, made me cry, made me sweat, made me stronger, made me ME. 💙 #SportisGREAT🇬🇧 @teamgb @uk_sport pic.twitter.com/0JJN2Lp1Y5
— Bryony Page (@BryonyPage1) August 20, 2019
Even if she hadn’t won a medal that day, Page had already created British history at the Games by becoming one of the first British women to reach an Olympic trampoline final.
She did so alongside Kat Driscoll, who had finished just one spot outside the top eight at London 2012, and sharing the accolade together was something Page was also very proud of.
“For us both to experience it together was something really special,” the 28-year-old said.
“Kat continued after London and fought and fought having just finished outside the final then. To know that she’d made it this time and knowing how much it meant to her, it was really nice.
“It was nice to know that after the competition, whatever happened in the final, both of us would be pleased to have achieved that together.”
With just over a year to go until the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, we caught up with 2016 Olympic silver medallist and trampoline star @BryonyPage1.
She’s on a training camp in the Japanese city at the moment, and is hoping to be back there next year when the Games begin! 🇯🇵🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/cMTHfPsSJb
— British Gymnastics (@BritGymnastics) July 10, 2019
While Page has many fond memories of the final itself – aside perhaps from a slight faux pas on the way to the podium where she walked past it and bumped into gold medallist Rosie MacLennan (‘it was so embarrassing’) – nothing could beat celebrating with her parents that evening.
“For me that was my favourite part, being able to share that moment with them because they’ve supported me my whole life,” she recalled.
“It was fantastic, just seeing so much happiness all at once in all of us.
“I got messages from [my brothers] Jack and Marcus. We saw Marcus’ Facebook post where he’d been at home watching it with his friends were gathered round. They had a picture where each of them had a wine bottle in their hand as if they were downing it and Marcus said ‘well you did say we could have a drink to toast this’! That was quite funny.
“And Jack had written something really lovely where he said ‘last night I posted about being so proud of my sister who is going to compete at the Olympic Games and you want to watch her. Now I’ve never been so proud’. It was so sweet.”
— Team GB (@TeamGB) March 28, 2019
Despite feeling ‘invincible for months and months’ after Rio, it’s not been all plain sailing for Page since as she suffered with ankle injuries that kept her out of action for a prolonged period.
But that silver medal has proved to her that she can compete with the world’s best and now she wants to add individual World and European medals to her collection, starting at the current 2019 Trampoline, Tumbling & DMT World Championships in Tokyo where she has qualified for the individual semi-finals and team final at the time of writing.
“I have unfinished business. I want to find where my limits are. I feel like there’s more in me in terms of difficulty,” she stated.
“I don’t want to be doing anything else right now. Trampolining is what I want to do for as long as I can.
“I’d like to compete a harder routine and succeed at major championships at my potential. I’ve got close at World Championships before. In 2010 I did the best routine I could have done at that time and finished fourth. I’ve done a European where I finished fourth but was way off where I could do.
“There’s more in me and I just want to keep pushing myself and if I can compete in another Olympic Games that would be fantastic.”
— SportSpiel (@SportSpielPod) November 24, 2019
You can follow Bryony in action alongside team-mates Gallagher, Driscoll and Izzy Songhurst until 1 December on the BBC Sport website and BBC Red Button.
Image Credit: British Gymnastics
You know an athlete is a special talent when they are winning World Championship medals in their teenage years.
Great Britain trampolinist Izzy Songhurst is one of those, having helped her country to a team bronze at the 2017 Trampoline, Tumbling & DMT World Championships aged just 18.
The pressure on her was huge. Not only was it her first ever major event at senior level, she knew there was no place for mistakes if GB wanted to medal as the team featured only three members (nations nearly always field four athletes, with only the three best scores being taken).
And she was up first in the final.
Recalling that day, she said: “I think it was a smart move for me to go first in the final because I felt really nervous, more nervous than I did in the qualification.
“I felt a lot of pressure because not only did I need to get through the routine, I needed to do a good routine. That was a new type of pressure for me because in the individual event it’s only on you, whereas in a team final you’ve also got the pressure of not letting other people or your country down.
“The main thing I remember was feeling relief and being pretty satisfied with the routine I’d done as it was similar to the one I’d done in qualification. I was optimistic after the routine, even before seeing Laura’s or Kat’s, that we had a chance to get a medal.”
— British Gymnastics (@BritGymnastics) November 10, 2017
While this was a new scenario for Songhurst at senior level, she had competed in plenty of finals at age group level.
She had competed very well too, securing the junior British, European and World titles within just a few months of each other in 2014, signalling to the world that she was someone with a very bright future in the sport.
However, in spite of this and her immediate medal success at senior level, the Dorset-born athlete admitted she found the initial transition into the women’s team difficult.
“I’ve learned a lot more about competing compared to all those years I had in my junior career because it’s just such a different atmosphere,” she said.
“At the start I was really worried about not being good enough. There was a time where I didn’t believe I could make it there because I was starting at the bottom again and I was wondering if I was going to ever make it to that level.
“At the end of my junior career it got to a point where I was consistently finishing in the top eight and I was struggling to motivate myself because I knew on an average day I could still get a European or World medal or could still be the best in Britain for my age group. I felt that I was getting a bit stagnant.
“But when I transitioned into being a senior, I realised I needed to be on my top form if I was going to make the top 20 in the world. That’s been really good for me because I know if I’m feeling a bit unmotivated that can switch me on.
“You know that you need to be working your hardest no matter what because if you achieve what you want to achieve that’s how you’re going to do it.”
Ahead of the 2019 Trampoline, Tumbling & DMT British Championships this weekend, we caught up with trampoline star @IzzySonghurst. She talks us through two of her ultimate trampoline skills 👌👏
Take a look 👇🙃👀 https://t.co/SUHY0o8sa6
— British Gymnastics (@BritGymnastics) September 24, 2019
It’s not all been plaining sailing for Songhurst.
Just one day before the start of the 2018 European Championships, Songhurst suffered a dislocated ankle during training and underwent immediate surgery in Baku.
Such a serious injury can not only have a serious impact on the career of an athlete, but their day-to-day life too.
However, having now recovered fully, Songhurst believes that the incident has actually helped her become a better athlete.
“The philosophy I live by now is that everything happens for a reason and looking back I definitely believe that it was a blessing in disguise and that I have learned a lot from it as an athlete and also as a person,” the 20-year-old reflected.
“It was a really good test of my patience because it got to a point where I didn’t think I was going to be able to get back on a trampoline, I didn’t know if I could wait any longer to get back on a trampoline. I didn’t know if I wanted to go through that whole process.
“I also learned how I react to trauma and mental health issues and how I was able to get myself out of the whole I was in and come out of the other side a better person or a stronger athlete.
“It was the first major injury I’d had in my life. It was very unexpected and I felt very lost at the start but had a great team of people behind me and I don’t think I would be where I am today without them so I’m very thankful.”
Perseverance! @IzzySonghurst returned to international competition today @Minsk2019BY after more than a year 👍🇬🇧 It may not be the routines demonstrated in training but is certainly a massive step in the right direction💪 #welldone #TeamGB pic.twitter.com/yJzJ36PnT5
— TracyWhittaker (@tracywhittaker1) June 24, 2019
Songhurst will now be looking to help Great Britain secure an Olympic berth at the 2019 Trampoline, Tumbling & DMT World Championships alongside Bryony Page, Driscoll & Gallagher this week. You can follow the event on the BBC Sport website and BBC Red Button.
Image Credit: British Gymnastics
As she prepares to compete at her 11th World Championships, there are no signs that Kat Driscoll will be giving up trampolining anytime soon.
Described by team-mate and The 52 writer Laura Gallagher as a legend of the sport, come January 2020 Driscoll will be heading into her third decade of competing on the international stage.
She has achieved plenty of success during that time too – two World Championship gold medals, three European titles, a stint as world number one and becoming the first GB trampolinist to appear at two consecutive Olympics.
The Chatham-born athlete was also the first British woman to jump in an Olympic final in 2016, having agonisingly missed out during London 2012. She finished fifth in Rio, while team-mate Bryony Page secured a memorable silver medal, Britain’s first ever Olympic trampolining medal.
As Tokyo 2020 draws nearer many athletes will be thinking about their future post-Games; some will already have it in their heads that they will be retiring.
Not Driscoll though. She isn’t intending on going anywhere.
“I’ve always loved trampolining and I’ve always said that as long as I wake up in the morning and feel I can go in and achieve something, I’ll keep going,” she told Gallagher in an exclusive interview for SportSpiel.
“Obviously there are days where you hurt, you feel tired and it’s a struggle; I don’t mean those days. It’s if there was a prolonged period of time where I wasn’t enjoying myself, didn’t feel like I was achieving anything or there wasn’t anything to smile about – that would be time to call it quits.
“My motivation just comes from trying to make the seven-year-old me proud of the journey she’s been on. I still love what I do and I think ‘why stop if I still love it’? There’s still things to achieve.”
— SportSpiel (@SportSpielPod) November 24, 2019
Rewind seven years ago though and she was in a much different headspace.
By the end of 2012, Driscoll was a European gold medallist, a two-time World Championship runner-up, had been ranked world number one in both the individual and synchro listings and was a three-time British individual champion.
She’d also just missed out on reaching the Olympic final in London, finishing ninth in front of a packed home crowd.
Reflecting on this, Driscoll thought she perhaps had gone as far as she could.
However that year she was also introduced to Tracy Whittaker for the first time, a key part of the British Gymnastics World Class Programme who would go on to be named as the Head National Coach for Trampoline in 2017.
“I didn’t start working with Tracy, our national coach, until 2012 and at that point I was content with being done; I didn’t think I could do much more,” the former HSBC employee recalled.
“But she opened my eyes to believe that there’s more out there.
“Your career is not really defined by one competition. It’s defined by all the little things that got you to where you are and the person that you become at the end of it.
“That’s what I’ve learned in later life – it isn’t about the medals, it isn’t about all the achievements. Once you stop people forget that anyway but they don’t forget the person that you are or the person you become.”
This philosophy has transformed Driscoll’s career and under Whittaker’s tutorship she has gone on to win at least 16 more medals across all competitions, including both her World titles in 2013.
Meet the 2019 Senior British Trampoline Champions! 🏆🏆
— British Gymnastics (@BritGymnastics) September 28, 2019
Whittaker’s influence has not just impacted on Driscoll’s performances either; it’s also made her want to take up coaching once her competitive days are over, a role she was ‘adamant I was never going to do’ earlier in her career.
“There’s something about the way in which Tracy approached me, my career, my story. I never realised how much of an effect a coach can have on a person rather than an athlete,” she explained.
“She has helped me develop as a person and made my life so much better. If I can do that for one person in a way she’s done that for me I would be more than happy.
This week’s World Championships in Tokyo could see Great Britain secure places at next year’s Olympic competition, which will be held in the same venue. If she qualifies next year it will be a third Olympic appearance for Driscoll, something no British trampolinist has achieved before.
And despite making history by reaching the final in Rio last time out, her most treasured memory will always be being introduced to the crowd for the first time at London 2012.
“I remember the cheer, it was unreal, “ she said.
“When you initially march out that’s fine as you see it as a cheer for the competition, not necessarily just for you. But after I was introduced to the crowd I remember turning back round and, I can’t remember who I was standing next to, but she was smiling at me like she’d just got how mad that was.
“Tracy also said she didn’t know how I completed my routine because when I walked up to the trampoline and they announced my name, she bent down to pick up the mat and nearly couldn’t get back up because the roar was that loud. She said it overtook her body.
“For our sport to have a venue like we did [the O2 Arena], to have that many people watching [16,000]; that was important.
“The more people see the sport the more people understand what we do and don’t think we’re just flipping around on a garden trampoline and it’s really easy!”
so proud of this team – lets do this 💪🏻🇬🇧 https://t.co/x1yHZbgupj
— 🦁Kat•Driscoll 🦁 (@driscoll86) November 15, 2019
Kat will be competing alongside her team-mates Gallagher, Page and Izzy Songhurst at the 2019 Trampoline, Tumbling & DMT World Championships between 28 November – 1 December. You can follow the event live on the BBC Sport website and BBC Red Button.
(Image Credit: British Athletics)
Paralympic champion. Five-time European champion. Seven-time World champion.
Throw in a Commonwealth title, a Paralympic silver medal and two world records and it’s easy to see why we’re asking if Sophie Hahn is one of the greatest British athletes of this era.
The list doesn’t end there. Following yet another double gold at the 2019 World Para-athletics Championships in Dubai this week, Hahn holds the Paralympic, World, European and Commonwealth titles, a feat no other British woman has achieved.
She also hasn’t lost an individual T38 race since finishing second in the 2016 European Championship 200m final.
Hahn has certainly come a long way since being introduced to Charnwood Athletic Club by her brother after being inspired by London 2012.
A year later she was a world champion, breaking the 100m world record on her way to winning gold having claimed 200m silver the day before.
It was her first major competition. She was 16. She had yet to even learn how to use starting blocks.
A star had well and truly been born.
Delighted to end my @ParaAthletics World Championships flying the flag for GB with 2 Gold medals and 2 World Record times.
Thank you to #TeamHahn, my coach @LeonBaptiste all @BritAthletics and everyone at home for all your support 🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/1McYGbPhnr
— Sophie Hahn MBE (@SophieHahnT38) November 14, 2019
Of course statistics don’t solely determine how good an athlete is; there are many other factors.
One key example is the ability to capture the public’s imagination. It doesn’t mater how successful you are, if the fans aren’t on your side it can be very difficult to be remembered as one of the greats.
This is largely achieved through a combination of the way in which titles are won and the personality exhibited along the way.
Usain Bolt did both brilliantly. Not only was he unrivalled in terms of his outright success, he won in style. He would decimate fields of extremely talented athletes and make it look like child’s play.
What’s more, he never failed to turn up for the biggest occasions. He broke the 100m and 200m world records in Olympic and World finals.
Furthermore he was a showman. The celebrations, the media interviews, the playful interactions with volunteers before races – all endeared us to him.
On the track, Hahn certainly matches Bolt. She is in a class of her own, dominates each race she’s involved in and continues to record the fastest times ever seen, particularly in finals.
Getting déjà vu here…
— C4 Paralympics (@C4Paralympics) November 13, 2019
And while she man not exhibit the same gregarious personality as the Jamaican, Hahn is immediately likeable off the track. Quiet but polite, interesting and very mature for her age, she never fails to come across well in interviews.
It was the latter point that really stood out when things became rather difficult for her in late 2017.
Having stormed to double gold at the World Para-athletics Championships in London a few weeks earlier, Hahn unwittingly found herself dominating the back – and some front – pages for the wrong reasons.
This was because Michael Breen – father of fellow British T38 athlete Olivia Breen – claimed she had abused the classification system.
He was of the belief that Hahn – who has cerebral palsy – had been wrongly classified, did not have the required disability to compete in the same events as his daughter and was therefore at an unfair competitive advantage.
The issue of classification in para-sports is a very complex one and has led to several issues in recent years, one of which we previously wrote about after two-time Paralympic champion archer Danielle Brown’s career was halted overnight after being told she had failed re-classification tests.
In short, she was told she was not disabled enough to continue competing.
But rather than coming out all guns blazing to defend herself, Hahn kept her head down, got on with her training and said all she needed to say in court. She was found to have been correctly classified.
Breaking a world record in 3️⃣ simple stages:
— C4 Paralympics (@C4Paralympics) November 12, 2019
Of course such is her domination of the T38 sprints that some of you reading this may think Hahn is in the wrong class. Alternatively it could also ask the question about the level of competition she is up against.
This is an issue that is often raised with para-sport; ultimately many events are still in their embryonic stages and that means there aren’t the numbers of competitors you may see in able-bodied events.
But as an athlete all you can do is beat what’s in front of you and that’s exactly what Hahn has done.
Harking back to the Bolt analogy, another thing that made him so good was how he continually saw off a plethora of sprinters desperate to take his crown.
Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake, Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay were just a handful of immensely talented runners who tried to overcome him but every time they threw anything at him, he would have an answer.
Fast and faster – those are @SophieHahnT38 two speeds
— C4 Paralympics (@C4Paralympics) November 6, 2019
It’s similar with Hahn. Many have tried to match her but only Margarita Goncharova has ever come close, with the two sharing titles early on in Hahn’s career.
But the Russian’s form has dipped in the shorter sprints as she’s focused on the 400m and as a result Hahn hasn’t been challenged since 2016.
However the emergence of Hungarian athlete Luca Ekler and Australian teenager Rhiannon Clark in Dubai is certainly an enticing one and it will be interesting to see how Hahn responds to their threat.
So, to answer our original question: Is Sophie Hahn one of the greatest modern British athletes?
To be honest, it’s too early to tell. She is still only 22.
But if she continues to win gold medals and break world records in style while fighting off any potential challengers, she certainly will be remembered as one of the finest athletes this country has ever seen.