Rachel Atherton is bubbling at the thought of following hero Jamie Bestwick by winning the 2016 World Action Sportsperson of the Year at the prestigious Laureus Sports Awards. The reigning world champion and World Cup series winner is the first female downhill mountain biker to be nominated for one of the major titles at the annual global ceremony.
Atherton said: “I am honoured to be considered for these awards, especially alongside such extraordinary athletes.” And the 28-year-old said she found it mind-blowing to be up for an award that has previously been won by some of her sporting idols, including the British BMX rider Jamie Bestwick. “Jamie, who won in 2014, is my all-time hero. I did my art project on him at school, it’s surreal!”
Then in the patois of the young, she added: “I’m stoked that downhill is getting some of the recognition that such a rad sport deserves.”
Atherton’s rivals for the Action Person title include two surfers, a skateboard, an Ironman triathlete and the only other woman in the category, the American snowboarder Chloe Kim.
At the glittering awards ceremony on April 18, Atherton would be rubbing shoulders with some of sport’s elite, including British nominees Jessica Ennis-Hill, Lewis Hamilton, the GB Davis Cup team, Adam Peaty and Tyson Fury. Except Atherton won’t be in Berlin in her best party frock to pick up her prize – assuming she wins. The seven-time world medallist cannot be there in person: such is her dedication, she will be in Cairns, Australia, preparing for the second World Cup event of the season.
Nevertheless her sport will receive the expose and recognition it craves on a grand scale as the awards will be broadcast live to 120 territories.
As the 2016 downhill season gets underway, with her World Cup-winning brothers alongside for company, the Atherton family’s stranglehold on the world of mountain biking does not appear to be about to relent anytime soon.
“As a family we get stick for looking serious, but it is a bit of a serious business, you know, your job!” she said. “I assume most people take their job seriously! I love the obvious professionalism that [cyclists] Laura Trott, Jess Varnish and Lizzie Armitstead bring to their riding.
“I love winning. I don’t care about getting drunk in front of the camera and being seen having a good time. I am having a good time! I want downhill mountain-biking to be as well-known and as watched as track cycling is.”
British cycling, indoors and out, is riding high at the moment, and Atherton watched recent World Track Championship at the Lee Valley Velopark in Stratford with more than passing interest.
Riding on the very track she conquered at the London 2012 Olympic Games, Trott picked up two world titles in style, in the scratch race and her favoured event, the omnium. Team-mate Becky James won bronze in the keirin after a dogged comeback from injury, though Jess Varnish failed to make up the deficit left by others that would have enabled GB to qualify for the Rio Games in the team sprint.
Atherton was inspired. “I was glued to the track cycling – those girls were smashing it!” she said. “But I was gutted for Jess. It must be so hard not contributing to your own destiny.”
After dominating the downhill scene in 2015, is there part of Atherton that would be tempted to turn to the boards? “Last year our coach Alan Milway took us to the velodrome to work with the Olympic track cycling squad’s physiologist. It was pretty weird for me: no brakes, no suspension, fixed gear and super-fast! I was dead chuffed when the coach said they reckon I’ve ‘got the horses’ to be a sprinter!
“I’m built more for sprinting and racing track is something I’ve always thought I might be good at, but I think I’d miss the mountains and the freedom of being outside too much. I’m not sure we set the velodrome on fire, but we gave it a good try!”
For now Atherton is focused on the opening round of the 2016 World Cup, at Lourdes, France, on April 10. By the time of the second race Down Under two weeks later, she might well have joined the pantheon of champions like Usain Bolt, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Kelly Slater as a winner of a Laureus award.
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.