It is hard enough focusing on the elite end of sport when you are also studying for GCSEs, A-Levels or a degree, and battling a myriad of other pressures like body and life changes. Wouldn’t it be great if someone offered financial aid, a sporting and business mentor and media training, as well as opportunities for personal development and work experience? The Sky Sports Scholarship Programme does. Seven promising young sportswomen have been picked for the scheme which runs from 2017 to 2020. Katie Whyatt went to meet them
Click on individual tabs to read more about each sportswoman.
“I love the freeness and the fresh air and the dark nights,” begins Sammi Kinghorn, recounting a childhood spent on her family’s farm in Scotland. “I was one of those kids where I’d come in just for mealtimes and the rest of the time I’d be outside playing. We’ve got sheep and cows and more than 1,000 acres – lots of space to just run free.”
It was on the farm that Kinghorn, then 14, had the accident that would change her life forever. Her father was clearing snow; Kinghorn jumped on to the forklift he was driving, and was crushed beneath the boom. She was paralysed from the waist down.
“I can still remember my whole accident, so it’s very vivid, but I just get on with it,” she explains. “There’s not anything I can do. I could sit and think all day, What if I hadn’t done that? What if I hadn’t jumped on to the forklift? Why did I do that?’ There’s all these questions that can run through your head, but every morning I’m going to wake up and I’m still going to be paralysed. But I’m actually quite thankful that I’ve had the opportunity. There are a lot of people who are born with a disability whereas I’ve seen both sides of life.”
Less than a year after the accident, Kinghorn’s physiotherapist introduced her to the Spinal Unit Games, and it was her own ignorance then that makes her especially keen to secure more recognition for disability sport. “I’d never met anyone with a physical disability before my accident – I’d never seen a wheelchair, and that’s really wrong,” Kinghorn says. “I want kids to understand disability, for some kind of disabled understanding at primary school, that disability isn’t always when you’re mentally affected – sometimes, it’s just physically. I didn’t realise there was a sport for disability until I met my physio, and I realised it’s pretty serious. I always thought disability sports was just a way to get kids out the house and give parents a bit of respite.”
At the World Championships in London this summer, Kinghorn won a gold and a bronze. But she credits the 2014 Commonwealth Games, in Glasgow, as the moment she “learnt to be myself again”. She says: “I was 14 years old, and there’s a lot of stuff going through a 14-year old’s head at that time anyway, never mind having had an accident. You’re trying to find yourself, and it was the moment where I was, like, ‘No, I think I can be better than I was before’. I was faster, I was going incredible places, I was meeting incredible people and I was wearing a Scotland vest, about to go compete for GB.
“Everyone always says you’re making the best of a bad situation, but it’s not a bad situation – it’s just not the situation I probably would have chosen for myself when I was younger. But I’m doing incredible things. I’m very happy with my life.
“I wouldn’t be doing this sport if I didn’t want to be the best in the world. I want to be the most well-known, the greatest wheelchair racer in the world. That’s why I do it.”
“I was quite an insecure teenager, and sport was an outlet for me to find my confidence within myself”
Imani Lansiquot is discussing her career goals, of which there are several. Olympic champion. Medals at all the major championships: World, European, Commonwealth. “I want to really establish myself as one of the greatest female sprinters of all time. I’m still really at the early end of my career, but that is something that I’ve had my eye on. And within that, it’s really important to be an inspiration to young people and young women.”
The last is typical Lansiquot, and it is this cause that brings her to life. Indeed, her Instagram bio reads: “Empowered women, empower women.”
“I was quite an insecure teenager, and sport was an outlet for me to find my confidence within myself,” she begins. “That’s something that I really to put out there to young women, that you can really find yourself within sport and be whoever you want to be. There’s so much potential to be fulfilled, and I hate seeing teenage girls capping their potential. My sporting hero was Jessica Ennis – I remember watching London 2012 and just being completely in love with what she did, so inspired by her grace, the fact that she did something that was so epic, yet she was so humble throughout the whole process.
“I really want to be someone who can inspire young women to pick up a sport and get confident. That’s what I’m about. It’s a really exciting time, being part of a new crop of female athletes coming through the pipeline. I think we probably have the most opportunities we’ve ever had from a media point of view, and our success is booming with it.”
Lansiquot, the second fastest British teenager of all time over 100 metres, captained the GB team at the 2016 World Junior Championships, while completing her A-Levels. She talks enthusiastically of the mental programme that forms a strand of the Sky Sport’s Scholarship scheme. “It’s about enriching myself as both an athlete and a young person. I’ve just started studying psychology at King’s, and I’d like to carry my degree alongside my athletics career, and hopefully leave with either a Masters or a PhD in clinical psychology. It’s challenging, but I don’t think I could do without it. You definitely need something else to focus on, because things can be so intense and move so quickly that you need something completely different to put your mind to. I’m really grateful for that outlet.”
“It’s journey that I’m going on, getting my confidence back”
Dublin-born Ellen Keane likens the next four years to “a journey that I’m going on and getting my confidence back”. For Keane, sport is intimately tied to her self-esteem: born with an underdeveloped left arm, the pool was where she first began to find herself.
“I used to hide my arm a lot. I used to wear sleeved shirts and try to fit in, try not to stand out at all,” she says. “But when you’re swimming, you’re only in your swimsuit and your hat and googles. There’s nowhere to hide. That’s really where I started to get the confidence from: the love of the sport, putting myself out there, being part of a team – there are so many people like me, and that’s where my confidence started to grow.”
Keane became Ireland’s youngest Paralympian at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, aged 13, before making three finals at the London Games and securing a bronze at Rio. But the road has not always been easy. “People treated me like an adult and like an athlete, because, at the end of the day, we’re all there for the same reasons. But post-games, I kind of struggled. I found it difficult to really push to motivate myself for normal competitions. Nothing, to me, was as big as the Paralympic Games. It was only after London that I realised, ‘You know what? You have a chance here.”
Keane’s preparation for Rio was dogged by anxiety. “Between September and December, I was competing and doing really well,” she explains. “But then the closer I got to Rio, I was getting really anxious. I was getting so, so nervous. Anxiety really got to me. The closer it got, the more nervous I got. When it came to my first race, I wanted the medal so badly that it really didn’t go to plan.” The following race, she won her bronze. “As soon as I got that medal I actually started to relax. It’s something that I’m working on, something that the [Sky Scholarship] programme’s really going to help me with. Being selected out of all the people who applied … Sky have confidence in me, so I should really have confidence in myself.”
Keane is targeting a Paralympic gold medal but emphasises the importance of “giving something back, and putting myself out there so that Paralympic sport can grow in my own country”.
Of the profile of Paralympic sport, she says: “I think there’s a bit of just not knowing. People just aren’t aware of it. I do believe that it doesn’t get the coverage it deserves, but, at the same time, I think that a lot of other Olympic sports also don’t get the coverage that they deserve. London did such good things for Paralympic sport, but there’s still a long way to go to make it on par with able-bodied sports. But they’re starting to really pick up the pace of the coverage. I’d love to go into media, and to still be involved in sport once I retire is a dream.”
Emily Appleton’s dream is to make the top 100 players in the world, and qualify to “play in all of the Grand Slams on a regular basis. I’d just love to get to the best level that I can”. She is on track: she began 2016 ranked at 303rd on the junior circuit; now she sits tenth in the world, and looks back on a year in which she reached the second round of the Wimbledon girls’ singles and doubles as she began the transition to pro level.
“I improved as an all-round tennis player. I played a lot of matches, won quite a few and gained a lot of confidence. I realised that I was worthy of being up there with the others and knew I’m not a stranger to that level.
“There’s definitely a pressure playing at Wimbledon, in front of the home crowd, but it’s also nice because you know they’re all supporting you. I just try to stay calm and continue to do my normal routine. Nothing changed. It was just a normal match for me. I chose to stay focused on the match and not focus too much on what was around me.”
Judy Murray is a frequent sounding board. “She’s been giving me some advice about the transition on to the women’s tour. She said that it’s a slow process, but, if I keep working hard, good things will hopefully come my way. The women in the pro circuit are stronger, so they hit the ball harder, and they’re able to work out things when they’re going wrong on the court. Experience plays a huge part in that. I just try and focus on the things that I can control from my end of the court. I don’t really try and think about the things that I can’t control.”
“It’s different to other sports,” says Molly Thompson-Smith, as she considers her favourite things about climbing. “It’s not really an execution sport – it’s constantly changing. It’s puzzles, and you have to work it out mentally and physically.
“At the top, the females are pushing the limits just as much as the guys are. The publicity that the girls get is just the same as the guys – sometimes a bit more, actually – and everyone in the climbing community is just as interested when a girl climbs something or achieves something as when a guy does. It’s super-equal.”
Climbing was declared an Olympic sport last year, but still lags behind other sports when it comes to commanding headlines. But Thompson-Smith remains undaunted. “I think, over the years, it will get that much attention,” she explains. “It’s quite nice at the moment to just be able to focus on the sport side of things. It’s kind of a new sport at the moment, but I think that loads of people will want to try it out because it’s unique. Climbing is part of the school national curriculum in some countries in Europe, and here it’s not at all. Climbers start as young as five, and then you have people like Sir Chris Bonington, who’s in his eighties and is still climbing.”
Like the other athletes, Thompson-Smith has lots of plates to spin – she trains twice a day and still feels the pull of university. But she talks through her options calmly, with focus. “My original plan was to study full-time at university this year, but now I have so much support from Sky, I think I can have another year of climbing like a professional, which is something I never thought I would have.
“I went travelling earlier this year to South-East Asia, and it was great fun. But it definitely made me miss training, and it made me realise that I think I’m meant to be an athlete and a competitor. It would be easier to just train, but then having something else outside of training really makes you appreciate every session, and it makes you put in that little bit more when you know that’s all you have.
“I hope I can climb until I physically cannot climb anymore. There’ll be a time I can’t compete because I’ll be too old, but I hope to climb outside and inside and still enjoy being a part of the climbing community for as long as I can.”
“I owe it to my sister,” recalls Francesca Summers, as she looks back on a decade that saw her crowned under-21 world champion at the age of 19. “I have four younger sisters, but the one under me was asked to do a biathlon with the swim club nearly ten years ago. I got dragged along to that because she was doing it.” Summers qualified for the nationals. “There were always these try-outs; there was a shooting try-out, and my dad was, like, ‘My girls aren’t going to like shooting’. But we loved it.” They checked off the events, one by one – fencing, swimming, showjumping, shooting and a cross-country run – and Summers trains with her sister to this day.
“To be an athlete you need to have a competitive element, but I don’t want my little sister beating me when we’re running or doing a swimming session. It drives me even more. I am lucky to have my sisters as training partners.”
Away from sport, she studies in Paris for a degree in fashion design. “I’m looking forward to putting a tick next to that and then focusing on full-time training and Tokyo in 2020. It is challenging trying to study a demanding degree trying to train as well. But I quite like it because when I’m training, I’m just thinking about training, and when I’m studying, I’m not thinking about the sport. It gives me something else to think about. And it keeps me busy.”
She splits her time between Paris and Pentathlon GB’s National Training Centre at the University of Bath. “They have great facilities there, great physios, great masseurs. In Paris, I have a world-class fencing coach, Daniel Levavasseur, who’s amazing, and sometimes I get to train with the French team. I get the best of both worlds, really.
“Paris is really close to London, but I think, for the next stage, after my degree and after sports, Sky is going to be really useful. I’m interested in going to sports commentating and maybe presenting – Sky could be really useful in helping me with that. Pentathlon is getting more recognition through schools, school biathalons and pentathalons, but I’m interested in sports fashion, so I’d like to maybe go into that.
“My main goal is to medal at an Olympics and go to many European and World Championships. I want to enjoy the journey, and make the most of being an athlete and doing what I love. I love competing, I love travelling the world and everyone likes winning.”
In April this year, Freya Anderson sealed her first senior British title in the 100-metre freestyle. Then it was back to the books. “I had GCSEs this summer, as well as qualifying for the World Junior and World Championships,” she recalls. “It’s been really busy. My school’s been really good. I go to boarding school, so everything is in the same area and the pool’s really close to the school. I’ve just started sixth form – I picked art, which is a lot of work, and biology and geography. I think just getting settled in is important and then I’ll just get my head down. Swimming helps me get away from the stress of work.”
Anderson made her senior debut at the World Championships in the summer. “At trials, I was injured. Mentally, it was really hard for me, but I had physio every week, recovering and helping me get better, so there was no pressure to qualify. We just took it as it came and we didn’t expect for me to qualify – that was like an extra bonus.”
What are her aims in the pool and beyond? “I think I need a lot of confidence around media, and that will then help me a lot in my sport. I’m really excited to meet everybody and the mentoring as well – because I’m not very confident, it will hopefully help. I hope to make the Commonwealth team, go to the Worlds in 2019 and then hopefully I’ll be in Tokyo for the Olympics – hopefully, I’ll get a medal.”
The Sky Sports Scholarship Programme inspires the next generation of athletes to achieve their goals through mentoring and financial, personal and sporting support. Visit http://www.skysports.com/scholarships
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Whyatt. Katie’s latest articles