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The Olympics (finally) commence today. After a year of delay and months of agonising uncertainty, Team GB have landed in Tokyo for the 2020 games. To celebrate, Harper’s Bazaar has highlighted five extraordinary female athletes who will be competing in the Olympic and Paralympic games this year.
We spoke to them about training during a pandemic, battling misconceptions about their sport, how to keep motivated in times of difficulty, and what it means to represent Great Britain.
Kate Shortman and Izzy Thorpe, artistic swimmers
Childhood friends Shortman and Thorpe have swum together for more than 10 years and have forged a lifelong connection vital for a sport hinged on physical harmony. On the verge of their inaugural Olympic games, the two are not only gunning for gold, but are keen to show the grit and strength behind a sport too often viewed as merely decorative.
The road to Tokyo
Kate: "I think that we feel like we have been training for this Olympics for 10 years. For both of us a massive inspiration was the 2012 Olympics, seeing girls swim in front of their home nation. It was such a motivation and, though we were too young for Rio, we knew from 2016 that we were gearing up for Tokyo. Obviously, last year because of Covid, it got really difficult. Firstly we had to get over the fact that we weren't going to be competing that year, and then we had to change everything; our training was scheduled to peak at that point and then it just stopped."
Izzy: "Weirdly, I think it was a bit of a blessing in disguise because we were able to train things that we haven't really been able to train in a while. So I think those things got a lot stronger from doing a lot more like running land work. We were able to work on our weaknesses a lot more because we were out of the pool for about 10 weeks. Now, of course, it has changed everything about the actual games. We are living in bubbles, taking tests, isolating. It’s an extra level of stress."
Building that connection
Kate: "I think it definitely helps that we know each other so well and that we have been a pair for 10 years. We can always second guess each other. Everyone says we synchronise in and out of the pool!"
Izzy: "We can tell when the other person is sad or happy. I think that it makes training much more efficient, because we're able to help each other in that way and correct things quickly. That connection is so important because we need to look exactly the same."
Kate: "Our mums both did artistic swimming and both of us have aquatic backgrounds within our family, so we have been around this sport for a long time and know what people think it’s like and what it’s actually like. It requires lots of different skills to do it. So, you never have a dull day, there's always something new. We do gymnastics, ballet, yoga, dance, weightlifting; around 40 hours every week of training, and 30 to 32 hours of that would be in the pool."
Izzy: "It's such a unique sport. It doesn't get necessarily the all the backing it deserves and we would love for more people to be involved in it. It’s magical; you're dancing and doing gymnastics in the water. People don't realise, until they've tried it, how hard it is. When your legs are out of the water, it might look easy, but it's the work of the arms, which no one can see, which is what's tiring. We have to do so many breathing exercises, like running on the treadmill while holding our breath. It feels completely surreal once you’ve mastered it."
Kate: "I feel like carrying a clear goal really helps. And obviously, for us, we've had this goal since London 2012. When it gets tough, we just envisage being there. I just picture being on that Olympic stage and use that image as a constant throughout my training."
Izzy: "I do the same thing. I think also it helps that we both have really supportive families. You’re not going to be motivated every day, so needing to build that dedication and having a support system is always part of being an athlete. It’s such a good life skill to have. It really gives you character, I think, to be able to get out of bed and push through the day."
For more information on the aquatic disciplines and to find your local club, visit discover.swimming.org.
Bryony Page, Trampolinist
Plagued by injuries and, earlier in her career, a loss of motor skills, which affected her confidence, Page has become a staunch advocate of self-belief and dedication. The 30-year-old athlete became the first British trampolinist to have won an Olympic medal, picking up a silver medal at the Rio games in 2016, her first ever Olympics. She heads to Tokyo hoping to do one better…
Overcoming mental blocks
“I think a lot of people might be scared that you can't overcome a mental block when you’re an athlete who has been struggling with it for like a long time. Actually, having been through that myself, it's something that people can go through and come out the other end of and be stronger because of it.
"I suffered from a mental block. My mind would stop me from taking off for skills that I had been doing for years, and years. I got a confidence coach, who I still have. We tried lots of different things. He helped me to understand what was going on and understanding my anxiety a little bit – learning that it is a natural reaction, my body trying to protect me – made it easier to combat it.”
Working with fear and building confidence
“I have learned that fear needs to be there. Fear brings focus towards the technicality of the skill and how to do it right. My advice for anyone needing help with a confidence would be to reach out to friends or family or coaches or external support. But it also really comes down to believing in yourself and knowing that, if you feel a lack of confidence right now, it doesn't mean that you will feel that lack of confidence later on. Confidence is like a muscle: you can work it to build it up and improve it.”
Age is no barrier
“I think one of the most common misconceptions about sport, if you're not involved in it would be the age limit, or capacity to which champions can go to. We had a women’s world champion a few years ago who was 37. It’s just not true that age is a barrier!”
The road to Tokyo
“The journey to these games has been quite interesting for me. At the start of this Olympic cycle I had surgery on my ankle, which unfortunately didn't solve the issue that I was struggling with, so I had to go in for a second operation. So overall, having two operations and rehab in-between and afterwards, and having to build it back up to full strength, took about two years out of my Olympic cycle through injury. Having an extra year to train was actually useful. Being able to compete again felt like home, even though it had been two years. And the last competition I'd done before the operation was the Olympics. So it was really nice to get back into training. I felt so privileged to be able to go back to training too, as we were given the opportunity to return to sport earlier than other people might have been.”
Pressure and expectation
“Being the first British trampolinist is to win an Olympic medal was incredible. It was a moment of pure joy and happiness, excitement and relief. There was also so much pride and honour in wearing the Great British kit and being part of Team GB and all that excitement. It does add pressure for these games now, which can go two different ways. There is the expectation to get another medal. That’s the kind of pressure that lifts me up.”
For all of the latest gymnastics news visit and to find gymnastics near you, go to british-gymnastics.org.
Joy Haizelden and Amy Conroy, wheelchair basketball players
The Great British women’s wheelchair basketball team has gone from strength to strength in recent years, reaching the semi-finals in Rio and, most recently, winning silver in the 2018 world championships. This is thanks in no small part to two of its star players; Joy Haizelden and Amy Cowney. Both athletes have overcome great adversity to reach the phenomenal success they have today. Haizelden, who has spina bifida, was found abandoned as a baby outside an orphanage in China with her elder sister and, as a teenager, Cowney lost her leg to a rare form of bone cancer that, initially gave her only a 50 per cent chance of survival. In the 2014 world championships, Haizelden became the youngest player to represent Great Britain in the sport, and Cowney is now one of the team’s most revered players, who has competed in both the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics.
Getting into the sport
Joy: “I think what initially appealed to me was simply being included. At my school, there just wasn’t a place for me in sports, so I went and found this after-school club that did wheelchair basketball and that's where it really started. What I love is that it's all on the same level playing field; you're all in chairs, your abilities are similar. It’s such a rush to be part of that, and it’s such a fast-paced atmosphere. It’s also about the 11 other teammates that are out there supporting you. It’s just so good to go through the highs and the lows together.”
Amy: “I had been sporty before I got cancer and after getting my leg amputated and being in remission, it was my dad who suggested I got into wheelchair basketball. If I'm honest, I was quite reluctant at first. I was terrible initially and I was quite shy and self-conscious and kind of hated it really. But slowly that competitive spark came back and when I saw the Great British team playing on TV at the world cup that year. it changed everything for me. I wanted to do that; I wanted to be those powerful, confident, talented women.”
Representing Great Britain
Joy: “When you get the kit and see your name on your back, it really hits you. To get to do it all over again in Tokyo is incredible. Especially with a sport like this, it's so important to be seen. People can’t believe that the basket is the same height, that pretty much everything about the game is the same, apart from the chairs. The Paralympics is sometimes the first time some people will see someone with a disability. I think London 2012 was a real game-changer in that regard. It shifted people's perceptions of disability.”
Amy: “This was my dream, to play for Great Britain, and I feel like I have overcome so much – mostly my own self-consciousness and doubts – to get here. I’m so happy my dad made me do this. He’s so proud of me now.”
The road to Tokyo
Joy: “It’s obviously been so hard with Covid and all the delays and not being able to train. It has also meant a really weird period of isolating and living and training in bubbles and constant tests. Training also meant only with one other person at one point and we couldn’t even share a ball. My biggest anxiety right now is passing a PCR test to even get to compete! It adds this whole other element to it.”
Amy: “As Paralympians you live your careers in four-year cycles, so to have that messed up by Covid was a huge setback. It has changed everything about the way we have trained and the normal practice matches we would have had in the run up to the games have just not happened, so it’s really nerve wracking. That said, it has given us time to really nail fundamentals and I really think it’s made us stronger.”
Keeping spirits up
Joy: “It’s been hard this last year but it’s important to keep motivated. For me, my family are the biggest help with this. They never fail to keep my spirits up. But I think just being a Paralympian has given me a lot of confidence. I was incredibly shy as a teenager and wheelchair basketball has just helped me grow as a person. It's given me an outlet. Plus, when I can no longer play, I will have so many fantastic memories to look back on.”
Amy: “I guess with all of this, because there have been so many things we can't control, it’s been about just focusing on what we can and not complaining about the rest. I’ve been through so much and at such a young age, so I’ve got to the point where I don’t want to waste my time feeling sad. Sometimes, when horrible stuff happens it can be a good chance to prove to yourself how strong you can be, and gain that resilience. Being part of a team plays a massive part in that. We hype each other up and have each other's backs completely.”
British Wheelchair Basketball have just launched their new Inspire a Generation programme, providing a perfect introduction to the sport. To find your nearest session, go to inspireageneration.com
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