Britain’s world record-breaker from the IPC World Athletics Championships is explaining why she looked “dumbstruck” in the photos. She hadn’t expected to win. She hadn’t even expected to be part of the team. She is also laughing. Having walked into a room at home, she’d just discovered her three-year old daughter Tilly watching Bambi … through swimming goggles.
This mother-daughter arrangement is key to the rise and rise of Georgina Hermitage, newly-minted star of the British Para Athlete squad. An individual gold in the T37 400 metres, smashing her own world record, a relay gold and a silver in the shorter 100 metres sprint represents her haul from the championships in Doha. It was the arrival of Tilly in 2012 that set the whole process going.
She is right about the “dumbstruck” bit, by the way. In the photos where she is holding the obligatory Union Flag out behind her, elements of bewilderment clearly characterise her joy.
She had flown out to the championships an unknown. At the age of 26, this was her first full year of athletic competition. She came home a ‘name’ and one to which all kinds of hope will be pinned come the Paralympics in Rio. So it begs the question, why the relatively late start? The story that unfolds is remarkable.
“I didn’t know I had cerebral palsy until I was 14. And then it was a case of an athletics coach just turning round to me and saying, ‘Have you ever considered para-sport? You look like you’d qualify’. I didn’t know what he was talking about. But I went for a classification and the woman said to me, ‘Oh yes, that’s cerebral palsy’. I said, ‘What!?’ I must have sounded totally ignorant. But, looking back, I think it was my mum’s way of helping me live my life like everyone else.
“Unfortunately I lost my mum to cancer when I was about eight and she was 38. She’d always told me before she died that I had something called hemiplegia which meant I had a left weak side. And that was it. That was all I knew. I didn’t look it up. At that age you just accept it. Dad wasn’t around in the early years. He came back in when Mum died and when I told him about my classification, he didn’t know I had cerebral palsy either. It was kind of a revelation to us both.
“Nobody knew. When Mum died I went to live with her father, my grandfather, because it was his way of carrying out her last wishes. She didn’t want me living with my dad for whatever personal reasons, so she had picked some foster parents for me who I’d been getting to know in the last year of her life. Ultimately it led to a court battle. It was a messy few years. Eventually I went to live with my grandparents on my dad’s side because he wasn’t in a position to look after me.
“I didn’t turn out wonderful. I was a typical rebellious teenager. And right in the middle of this phase, a coach says to me, ‘Do you want to take up para-sport?’ It was not the right timing to hear that. I shut the door on athletics from then on. It would make me accept something I didn’t want to believe. I couldn’t accept what I saw as weakness. My way was to roll it up and forget about it. In normal life I could hide it. But I couldn’t hide it on the track.
“Now I completely embrace it. I love it. I am annoyed it took me so bloody long. It took me 10 years until the moment I sat in the Olympic Stadium to watch a night of athletics at London 2012. I’ll never forget it. It was a life-changing moment out of nowhere.
“We were sitting in row seven of the Olympic Stadium on the night of Mo Farah’s 5,000 metres gold and the men’s 4 x100 relay. Ricky, my other half, had wangled some tickets out of his mate because it turned out it was his mate’s wedding anniversary and he’d be in the dog house if he went. So that’s how accidental it was. I didn’t even want to go. I was 5-6 months’ pregnant and when Ricky suggested it at first I said, ‘To be honest, no, I don’t think so’. But he kept on at me. ‘Come on, it’s the only time in your life you’ll get the opportunity’. So in the end I said, ‘All right, I’ll go’.
“So we were sitting there and the roar of the crowd is making Tilly go nuts. Then it all starts happening on the track and I’m remembering my dreams of athletics when I was a kid. That night walking back to the tube station I opened up to Ricky about the whole disability-running thing and why I’d turned away from the sport 10 years ago. It made me think: could I try again? He encouraged me and then having Tilly made me even more ambitious. I wanted to give her a legacy, something to be proud of.
“So I’m definitely one of those people who were inspired by London. It was the catalyst. It was really special. But it wasn’t exactly straightforward either. I really did struggle with post-natal depression after Tilly. I kind of used the gym as a place for me-time, to focus on myself rather than being just a mother. It helped me get through those first few months. I had to escape being Mummy, not in a nasty way at all. It’s just such a change in your life. It was the only way I could cope.
“It’s brilliant now Tilly’s a bit older, but when she was a baby and especially where we lived – out in the middle of the countryside with no neighbours – I felt bloody marooned. Ricky runs his own carpentry business. He couldn’t take time off work. I remember saying to him when things were difficult, ‘It’s all right for you. You can walk out that door and leave for a few hours’. I felt I was in a sort of prison, which was horrible. But it’s a very common thing, isn’t it, and within a few months everything was looking up.
“I’d come back to athletics by 2014, but that April I was competing at one of David Weir’s events and I got a stress fracture in my metatarsal in two places. My left foot is a bit biomechanically rubbish really. It knocked me out for the whole season and then a second injury – inflammation of an abductor – kicked in. It was all going Pete Tong.
“So this year has been my comeback season and I hadn’t really started. Honest to God, Doha was a real surprise. The weeks leading up to it were really bad. I didn’t even think I’d be on the plane. I had fluid on an old stress fracture site and I cannot thank the British Athletics team and my coaches enough. They literally babysat me for seven weeks to make sure I didn’t do anything stupid. I’m one of those people who can’t sit still. I have to train all the time.
“They had me up at Loughborough and they let me take Tilly with me. They were brilliant. Either someone in their office had to watch Frozen four times a day or Tilly played in the long-jump pit next to Perri Shakes-Drayton. Just so I could get in the sessions in and make sure the injury was healing. Without their support, my coaches Paul MacGregor and Paula Dunn, I would not have been on the plane.
“Ricky and Tilly flew out to Doha as well which was absolutely fantastic for me. At home, I knew that Dad was watching with grandma in the hope that she’d recognise me. She’s in her late nineties now and unfortunately she has dementia. But Dad thought, ‘This is it. This will click for her’. She knew how much I loved running when I was younger. She’s the grandma I talked to about my dreams when I was a kid. ‘I want to get an Olympic gold medal – you watch!’ I told her.
“‘Look, Mum,’ Dad said when he turned on the TV. ‘It’s Georgie. Little Georgie’. ‘That’s not my Georgie,’ she said, which was really sad. It would have been lovely if she – at that moment – had remembered our conversation. But, maybe, deep down it stirred a memory for her.
“But Tilly is still my inspiration. She is the fire in my belly. When I go out to train at night and I don’t want to be there, I know it is days like those in Doha when it pays off and she will have these memories forever.
“She knows Mummy goes running and this is what Mummy does. It would be great in a few years’ time, when she is in school, that she can say this is what Mummy did and she was there.”
At last Georgina Hermitage takes a breath. “It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster,” she says, “but I’m starting to feel like I’ve found my way now.”
— Action Woman (@BTSportAW) November 10, 2015
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles
Georgina Hermitage has been nominated for the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year 2015.
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