The accent is very much on youth in our Action Women of the Month list for April. Three of the outstanding achievements recognised here were by sportswomen still in their teens; the other two are barely in their twenties. The Mixed Zone writers Laura Winter, Alys Bowen, Katie Whyatt and Eleanore Kelly acclaim the successes of two gymnasts, a jump jockey, a cyclist and a weightlifter
MONTH’S ACTION WOMEN
Click on individual tabs to read more about each sportswoman.
Champion Barker is a bridesmaid no longer
Article by Laura Winter
Elinor Barker came away from the Track Cycling World Championships in Hong Kong as world points race champion in addition to winning two silver medals in the scratch race and the madison.
One of the most experienced members of the British squad at the tender age of 22, Barker only missed the gold by a matter of centimetres in the scratch race to Italian Rachele Barbieri. Finding herself boxed in on the final lap, she had to take the long way round on the outside to hit the front. But Barbieri was lying in wait on her wheel, took her chance and pounced. Barker knew she had jumped a fraction of a second too soon.
Coupled with a second silver in the first women’s madison staged at a world championship, in partnership with Emily Nelson, Barker could be forgiven for being a little frustrated. Indeed, she tweeted: ‘First the worst, second the best #bridesmaid”.
And when Sarah Hammer took a lap to lead in the points race with under 20 laps remaining, the Olympic champion was “a little bit heartbroken” at the thought of winning another silver. But with six laps to go, and despite feeling ‘“sickly nervous”, she launched a blistering attack to claim a second lap, and box Hammer in so she could not contest the final sprint. (Watch the final few laps if you can, the turn of speed is sensational.)
Bridesmaid no more; now she was the star of the Great Britain squad. She said of her win: “I’ve come so close so many times! I feel like I’m a constant bunch-race bridesmaid. I just tried to learn from years and years and years of mistakes. I still made mistakes in that race. I should have been right on Hammer’s wheel when she went and it would have saved me a whole bunch of energy.”
Barker’s tally of three medals helped a young, developing GB team rise to fourth in the medals table. Her Rio 2016 gold medal-winning and world record-beating compatriot Katie Archibald won her maiden world title in the omnium.
Barker’s attention now turns to the road, or more precisely, the exquisite art of time-trialling. The track specialist has set her sights on the 2017 World Championship time-trial title and has already been out to Norway to recce the roads of Bergen she will be racing on. The Welshwoman She is firmly focused on September 19, six years to the day since she won her first World Championship medal – a silver in Copenhagen in the 2011 Junior World Time-Trial Championships.
She explained: “After years of concentrating solely on the team pursuit on the track I think the time-trial on the road is the perfect goal for me this year. I can’t wait to get my teeth stuck into the challenge.”
Barker is now on training camp in Limoux, at the team base in France, with one eye firmly fixed on the British National Time-Trial Championships. She will then head to a UCI competition in Slovenia, as she attempts to secure European and World Championship selection.
Downie is an all-round golden girl
Article by Laura Winter
Ellie Downie became the first Briton to win all-round gold at a major championships. The 17-year-old gymnast added vault silver, floor silver and uneven bars bronze to her European title in Cluj for a clean sweep and the most successful haul in history.
The teenager said she had performed 12 out of 12 perfect routines and to come away with four medals was “absolutely crazy”. Winning all-round gold almost left her speechless. But once composed, she said: “It was the hardest competition I’ve ever done. After qualifying, to pull it all together and put in another four routines isn’t easy. When my name came up in gold I just broke down crying. I couldn’t say a word, I was crying so much.”
Her flawless performances were testament to her determination post-Rio, where the disappointment of finishing 13th drove her to take a break from the sport she loved. Downie said: “I came back and was just ready to go again. I’ve worked so hard. I’ve pushed my fitness and it’s paid off here. I couldn’t be happier.” Add fourth place on the beam and Downie has established herself as a medal contender for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Yet the bronze medal Downie won on uneven bars came at a price, as sister Becky took a heavy fall, injuring her elbow and needing urgent medical attention. The incident effectively handed Ellie the bronze, but she remained philosophical and congratulated her sister in an Instagram post. Ellie then posted that she had “been her inspiration since day one”.
Despite their mother admitting that she did not have a sporty bone in her body, Ellie started doing gymnastics when she was just three years old, alongside Becky, who is seven years older. Before Mrs Downie knew it, the duo were cartwheeling down supermarket aisles. Ellie watched Becky compete at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and was inspired to reach the same dizzy heights.
No stranger to history-making, in 2015 Downie became the first female gymnast to win an individual all-round medal for Great Britain, claiming bronze at the European Championships in France. She was named Young Sports Personality of the Year in the same year. Now her focus is on qualification for the 2017 World Gymnastics Championships in Montreal.
Kelly takes her cue for Aintree win
By Eleanore Kelly
Ground-breaking National Hunt jockey Lizzie Kelly added a prestigious Grand One race to her growing list of successes with victory on the opening day of the Grand National meeting at Aintree. Riding her long-term partner Tea for Two in The Betway Bowl, the pair battled it out against the legendary Cue Card to win by a neck.
“I never imagined he would beat multiple Grade One winners to win this. Having had a fall in his last race, my main objective was to make sure my horse had no worries and enjoyed his jumping before going out in the field on holiday,” she said. “But it was one of those wonderful moments where everything just goes right and as he jumped the third last, I thought, ‘Crikey we could win this!’ It was an amazing feeling.”
As Kelly alluded, the portents weren’t great. Two weeks earlier, she was picking herself out of the mud after a crushing fall in, of all races, the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The 23 year old, who became the first woman to win a Grade One race in Britain in 2015, had waited her whole life for the opportunity to challenge the world’s best jump jockeys and National Hunt horses, and become the first female jockey to win the race. But disaster struck at the second fence.
“When you’re riding horses at speed to a jump you have a certain number of strides before take-off. My horse got it wrong and chested the fence, catapulting us both to the ground,” she said. “It was the first time he had ever made a mistake and it was unfortunate that he chose to do it at the Gold Cup! I landed on my head and, yes, it hurt, but when you have so much adrenalin, you usually don’t feel it until the next day.”
Within an hour of the incident, Kelly was back on a different horse and riding in another race at the Festival. “That’s the beauty of racing, you can’t wallow in self-pity. You have to pick yourself up and get on with the job,” she says. And just how does she pick herself up? “I’ve never used a sports psychologist, but the weighing room is a good place to be because people are always supportive and there to lend advice. Whether that’s an older jockey or your valet,” Kelly explains.
Valets are on hand to sort the jockey’s kit, but many play a far more significant role as confidant and friend. To Kelly, her three valets mean the world. “My parents train racehorses so I have known Ginge, Sooty and Maudey since I was eight years old. They are like uncles to me.”
As the National Hunt season draws to a close, Kelly is not lusting after relaxing holidays or time out from horses. Instead she will venture to Ireland to work for other trainers and hone her skills. “You can never stop learning in this sport. Then there is the job of turning all our wild two year old’s into racehorses,” she says enthusiastically.
Kelly has often been outspoken about women in racing, but she feels perceptions are changing. “We are really beginning to bridge the gap as more girls are viewing being a professional jockey as a sustainable career path. We are seeing a new wave of really exciting female jockeys. Some trainers even prefer women on certain horses as we often have a more gentle approach and have to think more about technique because we are not as strong as the men. The fundamental issue is that if they are good enough, girls have to believe they can do it and make it a career.”
The champion weightlifter fuelled by prime cuts of meat
Article by Alys Bowen
Rebekah Tiler is not your average 18-year-old: not only was she Team GB’s sole woman in the weightlifting team at Rio 2016, earlier this month she won a silver medal in ‘the snatch’ at the European Championships. It was her first senior podium finish on the world stage.
Weightlifting lost its funding in UK Sport’s cuts earlier this year, but Tiler hasn’t let this dampen her spirit or her performance. Lifting 100kg placed her second in the 69kg category and fourth overall, missing out on bronze or silver by just one kilogram. At her age, and with her promise, she can look forward with confidence to the Commonwealth Games next year and further ahead to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Competing in a sport, where concerns about doping are on a par with those of athletics, makes Tiler’s achievements more impressive. Five countries, including Russia and Bulgaria, were banned outright from Rio 2016. So it’s immensely refreshing to see Tiler brimming with enthusiasm for a sport in which she excels.
Tiler was thrilled with her performance. “To get five out of six good lifts on the international stage is really positive. There are lots of new faces and most other lifters are a lot older than me, so to come out here and lift as I did is great – I’m still buzzing!”
One of the most impressive aspects of Tiler’s performances is the speed and fluidity of her bar lift. In one clean swoop, the bar is clear above her head. Bear in mind the bar weighs the equivalent of a newborn elephant. The snatch, the event in which Tiler won silver, encompasses this whole movement. The psychology involved seems to surpass her 18 years. Tiler says that although she appears calm when approaching the bar, she is thinking “nasty thoughts” about it in order to lift it above her head.
Tiler has an unusual sponsor: her local butcher in West Yorkshire provides her with all the meat she needs to fuel herself to be the best weightlifter she can. The seven chicken fillets, five steaks and occasional portions of lamb she consumes each week, seem to be doing the trick as Tiler is starting to make her mark on world weightlifting.
Tinkler shows the drive to take on the world
Article by Katie Whyatt
Injury-addled preparation gave way to bronze medal success for British gymnast Amy Tinkler, who finished third at the World Cup of Gymnastics this month. A calf injury had reduced Tinkler’s preparation to “one or two weeks”, yet she surpassed her own expectations in every conceivable way.
Tinkler was fourth entering the last round – the floor, her favoured piece of apparatus – having earlier tamed the vault and bars adeptly before navigating the beam in a testing penultimate series. It was the floor – with Tinkler twisting, gliding and powering across in an ethereal mash of power and intricacy – that would seal the bronze. She capped it off with a double-pike finish to a full twisting double straight somersault of moments before. She scored 13.233, an 8.033 execution mark for a difficultly of 5.300.
The Olympic bronze-medal winner’s achievements would be staggering were she not just 17. Yet Tinkler’s breadth of experience betrays an older head: she took up gymnastics at two years old, her former gymnast mum being her first coach. At nine, she scooped her first national medal, a silver in the British Championships. Since 11, she has represented Britain internationally. In many senses, she has grown up quickly, but the reminders of her youth serve to underscore the uniqueness of her talent. In the lead up to Rio, Tinkler somehow juggled more than 30 hours of training a week with GCSE revision.
At the moment she is learning to drive, and is chronicling her experiences in a video diary on her Facebook page. So far, she is a normal 17-year-old – the global sporting success and the occasional A Question of Sport appearance aside.
Now Tinkler turns her attention to competing in the World Championships in Montreal in October as gymnastics continues to relish the growing profile of one of its youngest stars. The World Cup of Gymnastics took place at London’s O2, playing to a crowd of 12,000. At South Durham Gymnastics Club, head coach Nicola Preston is effusive in her praise of the girl she coached to Olympic success. She says: “It’s great for gymnastics and it’s great for the girls around me because they work so hard. It gives them inspiration and says it’s OK to dream.” Though not even out of her teens, and with her career still in its infancy, Tinkler is already beginning to command a striking legacy.