There is an eclectic mix to the five sportswomen whose outstanding performances in February are highlighted in our Action Women of the Month list. Laura Winter catalogues the achievements of a young snowboarder, a record-breaking athlete, a transatlantic rower, a hat-trick-scoring rugby player and the return of an Olympic champion whose career had been on ice
FEBRUARY’S ACTION WOMEN
Click on individual tabs to read more about each sportswoman.
Ellie Soutter proves she is one for the future
Ellie Soutter cried tears of joy when she won Britain’s only medal at the European Youth Olympic Festival in Erzurum. The 16-year-old snowboarder from Bromley took the bronze behind French pair Agathe Sillieres and Kim Martinez, and managed to see off a challenge from Russia’s Zinaida Vasileva to reach the podium. She also had to endure the added pressure of competing in the semi-final against teammate Maisie Hill, who went on to win the B final and finish fifth overall.
Reflecting on a difficult year, Soutter admitted: “I cried as I crossed the line. I was just so emotional as it hasn’t been the season for me and it’s finally on the way up. It was nice to have Maisie at the finish line. The support from the whole team has been amazing and it really helps motivate you. My goal is to compete at Beijing 2022.”
The youngster also gave away some trade secrets that underpinned her success. She revealed: “I asked my coach to put snow down my back when I was in the start gate. It helps wake me up so I don’t feel all floppy like a jellyfish.”
If Soutter can continue her meteoric rise, the future of snowboarding could be bright for Team GB, who do not have the richest history in winter sports. But in winning four medals in 2014, they enjoyed their most successful Winter Olympics for 90 years. Pyeongchang, just under a year away, may be too early for Soutter, but her eyes are firmly set on the 2022 Games.
Laura Muir and the record-breaking fluorescent spikes
Laura Muir is in such a rich vein of form on the boards this winter that her name is being spoken in the same sentences as middle-distance legends Kelly Holmes and Maria Mutola. The Scottish runner has broken two European indoor records and a British one already in 2017, removing Holmes’s name from one national list and finishing little more than a second away from Mutola’s world mark for the 1,000 metres. She now has the opportunity to swap fast times for medals this weekend when she competes over 1,500 and 3,000 metres at the European Indoor Championships in Belgrade.
Muir had started her indoor campaign in January by breaking the British 5,000 metres record in Glasgow. But she went into overdrive during February: first it was the European 3,000 metres mark that went in Karlsruhe; two weeks later the 23-year-old was claiming the European record for 1,000 metres at the Grand Prix meeting in Birmingham. And all this after a notable outdoor season during which she took Holmes’s 1,500 metres British record and lowered it again on her way to clinching the Diamond League title for the distance.
Of her record run in Birmingham, Muir said: “To beat Kelly’s record is amazing and to be so close to the world record is also very encouraging for me. The crowd were so loud; I couldn’t hear myself breathe. To have this level of support is something I am very grateful for, and the fact that we will have this in London for the World Championships later this year will be a great advantage for all the British athletes.”
Muir has worn the same pair of fluorescent yellow spikes for each of her four records, as well as when she finished seventh in the Olympic 1,500-metre final in Rio, and is not going to break her superstitious habit any time soon. “They are doing pretty well so I’m going to keep them safe for the future. They will be worth a bit now,” she joked.
Twitter – @lauramuiruns
The fastest woman to row across the Atlantic
Elaine Hopley battled jellyfish stings, ‘blood rain’ from the Sahara Desert and unbelievably ferocious thunderstorms while competing in the Atlantic Challenge, but still managed to become the fastest woman to row solo across the ocean in the 30-year history of the race. She completed the 3,000-mile course from the Canary Islands to Antigua after 59 days, 19 hours and 14 minutes at sea, which meant she missed Christmas, New Year as well as the seventh and ninth birthdays respectively of sons Guy and Harvey.
The 45-year-old had a personal source of motivation to draw upon when things became seriously tough: she was rowing in memory of her mother, Jan, who she nursed following the onset of Alzheimer’s until her last breath. She dedicated the crossing to her and continues to raise money for Alzheimer’s Scotland.
But the brutal expedition took its toll on the former Scottish mountain-bike cross-country champion: race organisers Atlantic Campaigns reported she burned off around 8,000 calories a day and lost 20 per cent of her body weight during the course of the event.
Nothing, though, could have prepared Hopley for the crossing. She said: “It was totally epic. It was unlike anything I could have ever imagined. There were some terrifying thunderstorms where lightning bolts were incredibly close to the boat, but I pulled on through. It was definitely hard being away from my family over Christmas and New Year, and seeing them at the end was just fantastic.”
However, she seems to be a woman totally at peace with her own company, given some of the challenges she has undertaken. She completed a solo, unsupported expedition of Australia, New Zealand and Chile between 2000 and 2001, and the epic Land’s End to John O’Groats bike ride, finishing the 1,000-mile journey in just seven days.
Twitter – @elaine_hopley
Versatile Fleetwood is rose in England’s crown
Vicky Fleetwood scored a hat-trick of tries against Italy to maintain England’s winning start to the Six Nations Championship. In the process she became the first front-row to score three tries in the history of the women’s tournament as the Red Roses triumphed 29-15. It followed the 63-0 thrashing of Wales and the 26-13 victory over France to leave England top of the table ahead of matches against Scotland on March 11 and unbeaten Ireland a week later.
Despite losing captain Katy McLean to a red care for a dangerous tackle, and briefly going down to 13 players when Poppy Cleall was binned for the same offence, star-turn Fleetwood helped England collect a bonus point for their try-scoring exploits.
England head coach Simon Middleton said: “Vicky is a great athlete, she’s waited patiently in the wings and showed her versatility today when she went into the back row. She’s a great player and we are blessed to have her.”
Fleetwood, 26, was a member of the England squad who lifted the World Cup in Paris in 2014, and helped Saracens to the Premiership title a year later. But at the age of 14 Fleetwood was the UK’s top junior hurdler and only turned to rugby because she became sick of watching her brother play it. She wanted a piece of the action. “It was never a conscious thought that I would become a full-time rugby player,” she said. “Once capped, I wanted to stay in the squad and reach my full potential.”
Twitter – @vickyfleetwood
Lizzy Yarnold back on the skeleton track
Lizzy Yarnold, Olympic, world and European skeleton champion, may be more accustomed to winning gold medals, but the bronze she won at the World Championships in February is just as precious. It provided an important indication of a return to form after a year-long sabbatical, a serious back injury and recurring dizzy spells. She was fourth after the first two runs on the track in Konigssee in Germany, but climbed to third and held her position in the final run to reach the podium.
It was clear how much it meant to her, too. “This is where I want and need to be,” she said. “It is a major stepping stone. It shows I’ve made the right decisions over the past couple of years and means more than I could ever explain. I’ve had a few head and back issues recently and I physically wouldn’t be here without the help of my physio and family. I am still dealing with some stuff, but I am lucky with the team I have and that helps make me a stronger person and a better athlete.”
It has been a long road back for the Bath-based slider whose career took off after clinching gold at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. She followed up by becoming European champion in February 2015, and world champion a month later when she twice broke the track record at Winterberg in Germany.
However, while most athletes experience end-of-season fatigue, Yarnold admitted at the end of the 2015 season that she was “emotionally fatigued”, burnt out, and needed to take 12 months out to recover. So what does an Olympic champion do during a year off? Lampshade-making courses, wallpapering and getting married, of course. Yarnold also moved house and took an Open University degree in bookmaking and accounting. Now she’s back, rejuvenated and excited for 2018 and the Winter Olympics.
“It sounds weird to say, but I think I’m definitely a better athlete than I was leading up to Sochi,” she says. “This season has actually been very successful as I’m learning and building the foundations which are going to be fundamental to the Olympics. Trying to be the first British Winter Olympian to defend my title is a huge juicy goal that gets me out of bed every day.”
Twitter – @TheYarnold
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.