Tag Archives: Rio 2016

Tales of what might have been for Pickering

It’s not very often that one athlete earn the chance to represent their nation at two Olympic sports. Craig Pickering came very close to doing so.

Now 29 and living in Australia, the former Team GB sprint star nearly made it to the 2014 Winter Games as part of Britain’s bobsleigh squad.

Injury prevented him from making the trip to Sochi, however, and such setbacks are a recurring theme in a sporting career that could have – but didn’t quite – hit the heights.

Crawley-born Pickering burst onto the athletics scene at the age of 18 with victory in a race in which he beat Sydney Olympics 4x100m relay gold medallist Darren Campbell.

Looking back, he’s not too sure whether that win really deserved the hype it generated around him.

“When I beat Darren, he was coming to the end of his career,” Pickering told me. “Three other people beat him in that race, so it wasn’t only me. I think it was made into more of a big deal than the performance warranted.”

Sacrifices

His sprinting memories start 13 years prior to the ‘breakthrough’ race in 2005 that his sprint memories start.

“Sprinting was probably the first sport I did, but more as a play-based activity. I have strong memories aged five of winning my first sports day by a long way, and also beating kids a few years older than me. But I never pursued athletics outside of sports day, really. One of the problems was that I genuinely didn’t know how to.”

“I was by no means a serious athlete aged 14 or 15, even though I was winning national championships”

Dreaming of becoming a professional footballer, Pickering’s then-PE teacher Adam Izzard pointed him towards rugby. However, success in athletics seemed more likely for the 16-year-old, and as the chances of succeeding became more realistic, other sports were sacrificed.

However it took Pickering a while to realise his potential. “I was by no means a serious athlete aged 14 or 15, even though I was winning national championships.

“I think the turning point for me came in 2003, I was 16; I came third in the World Under-18 Championships, and I thought that if I took it seriously, I might be able to get somewhere with my sprinting.”

Transition

Two years after this realisation, he found himself crossing the line ahead of Campbell. By now, Pickering had goals in his mind. Everything was geared up for the 18-year-old to burst onto the global scene, but a great 2005 was followed by an anti-climactic 2006.

“It was my first year at university with a new coach, and a big transition period,” he explained. “It’s important in athletics to take it each year at a time.”

So 2006 rolled into 2007, and Pickering won the 60m at the European Indoor Trials and UK Championships in February.

“My goal for 2007 was to get myself back to a decent level. I did not expect to run so fast over 60m, that was a shock, but once I had it wasn’t that surprising that I had a bit more success over the 100m that year.”

Blunder

By the time the Beijing Olympics came around in 2008, Pickering and the rest of the GB men’s sprint relay squad were seen as certainties for a medal.

But history repeated itself as, yet again, a bad year followed a good one for Pickering. In the 4x100m final, his illegal baton exchange Marlon Devonish led to Great Britain being disqualified.

“It was an important opportunity missed. I should have an Olympic medal, but I don’t and that’s my fault”

It was a blunder that Craig takes full responsibility for. “It wasn’t ideal, but mistakes happen and the important thing is to learn from them. From then my relay performances were much better.

“After Beijing my focus was on 2009, then 2010, then 2011 – 2012 was a long way away at that point. It’s only now that I think that the relay was an important opportunity missed. I should have an Olympic medal, but I don’t and that’s my fault.”

Surgery

The years following 2008 were all geared towards London 2012 for Pickering, but early in Olympic year came the devastating news that he was to miss the Games on home soil.

“I had to have back surgery,” he explained. “I knew for about seven months before the Olympics that I’d have to, so it wasn’t a last minute disappointment or anything, but I would have liked more than anything to have competed in London.”

“I’d rather my big injuries had not happened in 2012 and 2014, but 2011 and 2013 instead, but that’s the way it goes sadly”

The bad news didn’t stop there. Due to not being able to compete in London, Pickering dropped out of UK Athletics’ lottery funding system, meaning at 21 he he had to find another source of income.

Luckily (for once), a new one wasn’t hard to locate as his talent was seen to be potentially useful in another Olympic event, the bobsleigh.

“Bobsleigh offered me a trial, I was quite good, and they took me on board. From that point, I was focused on qualifying for Sochi in 2014.”

Bad timing

However, as the Winter Games approached, Pickering picked up another injury, ruling him out of yet another major event. He’s now philosophical about these setbacks.

“Genetically, I am at risk of suffering from a lower back injury – I had my first one aged 14. Then the daily training and competing takes it out of you too.

“The timing of it all is unlucky – I’d rather my big injuries had not happened in 2012 and 2014, but 2011 and 2013 instead, but that’s the way it goes sadly.”

Since moving to Australia, Pickering has found himself becoming more detached from the GB athletics scene.

Offering his services as a coach online and being head of sport science at DNAFit, he is hoping his current job will lead him to secure a more hands-on coaching role.

Rumours

An avid user of Twitter, Pickering is vocal on eradicating drugs within athletics. With world governing body the IAAF currently mired in a corruption scandal involving the alleged covering up of positive tests, it’s a topic that is high on the agenda.

“Rumours will never stop,” he said. “Things that have happened in the past will taint athletics pretty much forever, and there is a belief in the general public that pretty much every athlete is on drugs.”

“If Ujah and Dasaolu can stay injury-free I would expect them to have really solid careers, and potentially challenge for 100m medals in the future”

At least, says Pickering, the sport has Usain Bolt to counter the negative news. With Rio 2016 possibly signalling the end of the Jamaican sprint king’s career, Pickering believes that as much as his retirement would be a sad day, it will also help the sport progress as a whole.

“After he retires, the sport will just move on an unearth new stars and big names. I doubt any will have the same impact as Bolt, however. He is a one-in-a-million athlete that only comes around every 100 years or so.”

Amongst the up-and-coming stars of sprinting, Pickering thinks highly of GB hopefuls Chijindu Ujah and James Dasaolu.

“If they can both stay injury free I would expect them to have really solid careers, and potentially challenge for 100m medals in the future. Adam Gemili too is a big hope.”

Mair aims to keep things fair in Olympic hockey

Andy Mair will be looking to put in a good all-round performance at the Olympics in Brazil this summer, but you won’t find him on any medals podium.

When the Games come round, our focus tends to be solely on the athletes, striving for success and enjoying the limelight at the world’s biggest sports event.

“Officials ensuring fair play and enforcing the rules in each sport have to be just as much ‘in the zone’ as the competitors”

However, there’s an whole army of other people without whose contribution Rio 2016 couldn’t possibly go ahead.

They are the referees and judges, the umpires, marshals and range of other officials who are there to make the Olympics tick as smoothly as a Swiss watch.

Kent-based Mair is an elite-level hockey umpire, and will in Brazil working with video technology to ensure that the correct calls are made out on the pitch.

In many ways, he says, the officials ensuring fair play and enforcing the rules in each sport have to be just as much ‘in the zone’ as the competitors.

Balance

“By the time you get to an Olympic Games, you get used to the rhythm of major tournaments. You learn the ups and the downs, and you get ‘up’ for your games and then you get back ‘down’ afterwards to try and relax,” he told me.

“If the technology can slow things down and highlight things that the officials couldn’t possibly see, then it’s definitely worth having”

It’s a trick that not everybody manages because they can’t always keep that balance. You can see people in a tournament, their performances start to go because they are simply running out of [mental] puff. They are not capable of sustaining the concentration levels.

“The officials tend to be spectators of things such as the opening ceremony, rather than being involved in it. But  a lot of them will get involved in a lot of things in the Athletes’ Village. You can see people trying to detach themselves and then get their levels back up for the events they are officiating in.”

Mair is part of a sport that has been rapidly developing. At London 2012 he was a video umpire, assessing referrals from the umpire on the pitch, and challenges made by teams on a call they thought were wrong. Mair watches a slow-motion replay to determine the correct decision.

Trust

The technology is, he says, much-needed in what is very fast and intense game.

“Being part of the on-pitch umpiring team has changed radically even in the time that I’ve been involved because hockey is a high-speed sport on synthetic pitch.

“We have two umpires one at each end, with equal sort of strength and value if you like. operate with each other.

“In some sports, technology has perhaps got too important and now they’re just learning to rein it back”

“In the big tournaments, you build up strong relationships with the people you’re working with, build up the trust, so you know when things get tricky you’re able to rely on each other to try and get through the problems.

“The difficulty, as I’ve said, is that hockey is a very fast sport. The ball is very small and the pitch is similar to the size of a football pitch. The ball can travel from one end to the other within a second or two.

“Being able to see what fully happens all of the time is perhaps asking too much. So if the technology can slow things down and highlight things that the officials couldn’t possibly see then it’s definitely worth having.

“In some sports, technology has perhaps got too important and now they’re just learning to rein it back – that’s all part of the learning process within all sports.”

Participation

At London 2012, tickets for the hockey – with its end-to-end action and GB’s good Olympic record – were much sought-after. The sport is popular in this country and is played at school, county, club and national league level.

But what will be its appeal at Rio 2016, in a country where hockey isn’t on the sporting agenda for many fans?

Mair said: “The Brazilians are going to have a tough time, and it was the same [for Greece] at the 2004 Athens Games. They had to go through a qualification process to get through to the tournament and they tried very hard to do that.

“Brazil do play hockey, they compete within the Pan-American set-up, but the level of their international team is much lower than what would be expected in an Olympics, so it’s possible they won’t take part.

“But hockey will be seen in the country and it will be televised. The people will want tickets to go and see it, and that will have an effect on the sport in the host nation.”

Image courtesy of englandhockey.co.uk

Lee aims to join GB talent pool for Rio

With Tom Daley only turning 22 in May, it may seem odd to be talking about the next generation of British divers.

But there are even younger talents on Team GB hoping to emulate his success, which includes Olympic bronze as well as World, Commonwealth and European gold medals.

At the forefront of the charge is Matty Lee, who already has his own impressive set of honours at junior level and last year took 10m gold at the inaugural European Games in Baku.

“It’s a unique sport and it’s given me some great rewards”

But it’s the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro which is currently the focus for the 17-year-old from Leeds.

The youngster told Elephant Sport about how he is upping the intensity of his training as he chases a seat on the plane to Brazil this summer.

“I’m training harder and longer on a day to day basis, and I’ve been out to two warm-weather training camps, one in Florida and one in Australia, on top of normal training. Also, I’m trying to improve my diet in the run up to the games to help with recovery and stamina.”

‘Great rewards’

Lee launched himself into diving at a very young age.

“I was first inspired to dive by watching my older brother Tom dive when I was a toddler. I wanted to be like him. I started diving at the age of six, and I’ve just enjoyed it so much ever since. It’s a unique sport and it’s given me some great rewards.”

“It’s great before the dive when people are cheering and shouting for you, but when the whistle blows and silence falls it’s just you”

Diving is a blend of athleticism, artistry and precision in which nerves and adrenaline need to be conquered in order to execute those perfect routines which leave barely a ripple. Daley has done this time and time again for Team GB, inspiring others to do the same.

Lee admitted: “It’s hard, you are alone up there on a 10m board in front of hundreds of people and possibly thousands of TV viewers all looking at you and what you’re going to do in the next two seconds. You just have to put it to the back of your mind.”

Focus is key, he says, and Lee deals with the challenges and pressures with a maturity that belies his tender years.

“You just focus and concentrate on the dive you are about to do, let that occupy your mind and nothing else.” he explained. “It’s great before the dive when people are hopefully cheering and shouting for you, but when the whistle blows and silence falls it’s just you.”

Social network

Although Lee is yet to cement his place in Team GB for the Olympics as it is still qualifying season, he has already has a taste of the fame that comes with sporting success, but insists he is keeping himself grounded.

“I think you just need to realise it won’t last very long, so keep one foot firmly in reality, but enjoy your 15 minutes of fame”

“On past experience of the European Games where I won gold, I quite liked the media attention, the press interviews and the photo-shoots, though I imagine it’s nothing compared to what might happen with the Olympics. It didn’t really impinge on my home life.”

Lee, as with most teenagers, is a keen social networker, keeping fans updated on Twitter (8.4k followers) and Instagram (19k followers), and he has also opened up his Snapchat to the public.

“I think you just need to realise it won’t last very long, so keep one foot firmly in reality, but enjoy your 15 minutes of fame,” he added.

As Lee sets his sights on a place at the Olympics, he knows there still a lot more work to do, but with a mature head on his young shoulders, he’s on course to achieve his aim.

Follow Matty Lee on Twitter @mattydiver, and on Instagram

Day in the life – Dina Asher-Smith

Dina Asher-Smith was named British Young Sports Woman of the Year in 2015, and for good reason.

At the age of 20, the Team GB sprinter is the fastest British woman in history. The 2014 Junior World 100m champion and 2013 Junior European 200m gold medallist now holds the UK records at both distances.

Originally from Orpington in Kent, she is currently combining top-level athletics with studying for a degree at Kings College London. She runs for Blackheath and Bromley Harriers.

Her main ambition for 2016 is to compete successfully at this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Here she talks about her daily routine.

What time do you wake up and why?

It changes day to day! Normally it ranges between 7 and 8am depending on how early my lectures are on that day, but I don’t normally stay in bed for too long anyway. So many things to do!

What do you have for breakfast and why?

I normally have either yoghurt and granola and a banana, or scrambled eggs and maybe some chorizo or spinach – either one with a glass of water. I have it because I obviously like the taste of them – ha,ha! –  and because they’re relatively healthy and provide me with the energy I need for the rest of the morning.

What’s your morning training regime and how does it affect everything else you have to do before lunch?

Since I have lectures most days in the morning, I only do morning sessions on Wednesday and Saturday. I kind of prefer morning sessions, because it’s another thing ticked off your list and then you can get on with the rest of the day.

What is your motivation when the training becomes difficult?

I take most of my motivation from my training partners. I’m fortunate to be in a both friendly and amazingly talented group, so we have loads of fun at training and bounce off each other. We are all quite resilient; we understand that training becomes difficult but also know that you have to push through the hard bits if you really want to improve.

What do you do for the rest of the day?

Well if its a uni morning, then I will spend a few hours in the library, then go home, have a snack, nap and then train! If I’ve trained in the morning then I usually spend most of the afternoon in the library.

What do you have for lunch and why?

My lunch varies, as at lunchtime I am 9 times out of 10 in central London, so I’m buying food there. I’m so grateful for so many healthy food chains that have popped up recently that I’m spoilt for choice! I just eat whatever I fancy – as long as its healthy and high protein of course.

How busy is the normal day for you, and how much does athletics impact your daily schedule?

My days are really really busy, athletics impacts my day to day life a lot! It makes it fun and enjoyable, but also sometimes hectic! My uni friends are always laughing at me because unless I have something fixed in my diary, I’m usually impossible to pin down.

How tired are you at the end of the day?

Funnily enough I’m normally not that tired at night, so I tend to do some more work then or chat to my friends. I think it’s because I nap during the day and I’ve been busy like this for many years, so I’m used to running around.

What do you have for dinner and why?

I have whatever my parents make, if I have training that night, or I nose around in the fridge! Dinners are, again, always healthy and often focussed around high protein and vegetable content. My mum and dad are really good at making dinners healthy.

When you can’t fall asleep at night, what do you do?

I listen to some soft music or I start thinking about all the stuff I have to do the next day! That’s more than enough to put me to sleep -ha, ha!

Photo credit: Mark Robinson

GB gymnast Wilson eyes Rio 2016 trip

A lot can change in a year – it’s Nile Wilson mantra as he prepares to fight to the very end for his 2016 Rio Olympics place with Team GB.

The 19-year-old has made his name as one of the top young gymnasts in the UK, winning five gold medals at the European Junior Championships in 2014.

“It’s very exciting to be competing as a senior alongside the best gymnasts in the world”

Now entering his first year as a senior, he told me how he was finding his feet (and hands) in a sport in which Britain is now a major force on the global stage.

Louis Smith paved the way with pommel horse bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games, followed by a silver in the same discipline on home soil at London 2012.

In October, Max Whitlock become Britain’s first-ever gymnastics world champion, winning pommel horse gold in Glasgow, with Smith claiming silver.

Their success has inspired Leeds-born Wilson to aim high, with the Summer Games in Brazil as his target.

“It’s very exciting to be competing as a senior alongside the best gymnasts in the world,” he said. “But it was quite daunting at first, stepping up from the junior ranks.”

Tender age

Wilson was invited as a young gymnast to attend Carnegie University, which is a centre of excellence centre based in Leeds.

It was clear he had a gift for the sport and from there, his potential was rapidly realised. Soon enough, he turned that potential and growing self-confidence into medals.

“Once I got a few competitions under my belt, it gave me the confidence and belief that I can compete with the big boys,” he said.

“The key for me is staying grounded, which isn’t difficult having a very close family and group of friends”

The defining moment of his young career came in August 2014, when he became a double gold-winning medallist at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow at the tender age of 18.

It was his first major event as a senior, but Wilson said he was determined not to let the pressure get the better of him.

“I focused more on the feelings of pride and excitement rather than the pressure,” he explained.

He stressed the importance of the people close to him in helping to achieve his goals – complacency is evidently not part of his make up.

“The key for me is staying grounded, which isn’t difficult, having a very close family and group of friends,” Wilson added.

Maturity

Even at the age of 19, the maturity of Wilson is clear for all to see. He feels he belongs in this profession and is already being utilised as an inspiration to up-and-coming gymnasts.

“Having my profile grow is an incredible feeling, especially being consistently told that I inspire the younger generation,” he said.

“With the likes of the experienced Smith and Whitlock to look up to and seek advice from, Wilson can only learn and grow as an athlete”

Yet Wilson knows there is plenty of hard work and dedication ahead as he eyes a seat on the plane to Rio with Team GB.

He talks of his excitement for the year to come, in what could be another milestone phase in his sporting career.

“Preparation [for the Olympics] is fantastic and I’m doing everything in my power to make it onto that team. I am very very excited for the year ahead.”

If he makes it to Rio 2016, Wilson has specific goals in mind. “The targets for Rio, all being well, are to help the team to a medal-winning spot. Also making a couple of individual finals, giving me a fighting chance for medals.”

With the likes of the experienced Smith and Whitlock to look up to and seek advice from, Wilson can only learn and grow as an athlete as he seeks to add to his haul of honours.

Nile Wilson is on Twitter @NileMW

Iftakhar sets his sights on Rio 2016

Wrestling is arguably the lowest-profile Olympic sport in Britain, but Adil Iftakhar is hoping to put it in the spotlight at the 2016 Games in Rio.

The 21-year-old became a Team GB competitor in 2011, narrowly missing out on the London Games in 2012 due to his inexperience.

In order to compete in Olympic wrestling you must be the best in your weight category in your national team, which he wasn’t at the time.  However,he now feels he has got what it takes to make it to Brazil.

“I’m definitely looking at it, you’ve got to dream and make it a reality,” he said. “There’s certain events that I have to participate in. I’ve got to go to these tournaments, get a good placing – if possible a medal – and then from there the doors open for Rio,” he said.

On the GB wrestling team there are seven weigh-class categories with three people in each.  Iftakhar will battle against the other two in his category to reach Rio next summer.

“The two people in my category tend to be my main competitors,” he said. “I have to be better than them. Only one out of the three of us can get to Rio, but I still need to qualify by excelling in the tournaments as well.”

Self-belief

Iftakhar, who competes at 86kg, trains three days a week but just once a month with the rest of the GB Academy in Salford.

He stressed just how important training and dedication are, allied with confidence and self-belief, to achieving success in the sport.

“The training that makes you is club level,” he said. “I train in Slough once a week, and on top of that I train in London twice a week,” he said.

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Iftakhar in action

“I do my own conditioning separately with weight sessions on top. I’ve also now started to do altitude training with masks, and this has improved my performance greatly.”

Having recently turned 21, Iftakhar is now a senior and admits there are no more excuses if he doesn’t qualify.

“I’m a senior now and can’t say ‘Oh I wasn’t old enough,’ because now I am. I’m confident that I can be [good enough], 100 percent.

“You’ve got to be confident – it’s an individual sport, one versus one. You’ve got to be confident in your skills and ability because if you’re not you’ve lost half the battle. Wrestling is very mentally-oriented.”

Iftakhar is currently studying law at City University in London. Finding the right balance between training and study is tough but something he says he deals with.

It is very difficult with the work and training,” he admitted. “My frame of mind changes when I’m working, I’m calm and very relaxed, but when I’m training it’I become stressed out because I am so determined.

“The sessions are intense and repetitive, and if I don’t get it done I feel as if I’ve let myself down.

Right now I’m putting more effort into my work as wrestling won’t support me for the rest of my life compared to a sport like football,” he said.

“I still get in enough wrestling sessions and I would like to do way more, but it’s not realistic for the long term.”

Minority sport

The last GB Olympic wrestling medal winner was Noel Loban in 1984 at the Los Angeles Games. Iftakhar believes from what he has seen it will be very difficult for his country to end the 32-year drought in Rio.

“People need to understand that it is a minority sport in this country,” he said. “It hasn’t got a lot of funding and it is not supported well by the government, and therefore our chances are slim.

“If anyone does win it will be down to individual effort. If I’d gone and trained in Russia for a year that would have been done with my own resources and money.”

Iftakhar holds an outstanding record, winning 90% of his 50 tournament-based matches so far. He would like nothing more than to win a medal in Rio but knows it’s a challenge.

“My aim is to win one, obviously. I’d aim for the highest one but that’s not to say I wouldn’t be happy with a bronze,” he admitted.

“For a sport that is probably one of the most difficult in this country, and is not supported as much as others, it would be a great achievement.”

Adil Iftakhar is on Twitter @Adil Still; for more information about the sport, visit the British Wrestling website.