Susan Egelstaff discovers the ups-and-downs of life in the not-so-glamorous world of the discus. Jade Lally, Britain’s No 1, tells her how disappointment and despair at not making the team for London 2012 are spurring her on to compete in Rio this summer. She takes her next steps along that road on Friday when she competes in the Diamond League meeting in Eugene
Jade Lally was reduced to sitting somewhat reluctantly in the stands and watching the 2012 Olympic discus competition unfold in front of her. Words, she says, could not describe how she felt about not being down there in the discus circle, performing in her home Games. Brooding and melancholy, her mood was not helped when spectators behind noted: “Oh, we’ve got no one in the discus.” Lally could not stop herself wheeling round and snapping: “Well, actually, I qualified but wasn’t selected.”
Lally had thrown the B qualifying standard distance and with no other British woman ahead of her in the rankings, selection appeared if not a certainty, then pretty likely. Except that, in what has become a recurrent feature of Lally’s athletics career, the British selectors chose not to pick anyone to represent Team GB in the discus in their own country.
Lally said: “It was massively disappointing not to go to London. It was hard to take that they didn’t take anyone in my event. I had bought tickets for my family, so when I didn’t get selected, I went to watch.
“The only good thing that came from going to watch was that the qualifying was a really high standard and I don’t think I’d have made it into the final. But having said that, I don’t think I should have been denied the chance to try. So it was a tough year, and now I always have to tell the same bitter story when people ask about it and that I’ll never forgive them. I was in a really horrible, angry place for some time afterwards. But it shaped me as a person, that’s for sure.”
Four years on, and a lot of water having flown under many bridges, the 29 year old finds herself contemplating again the prospect of her first appearance in the Olympic Games, though not in London, but over the Atlantic Ocean in Rio de Janeiro. This time the selectors might struggle to leave her off the team sheet. Lally has made an incredible start to this Olympic year and rose as high as fifth-ranked in the world following a throw of 65.10 metres in Sydney in February. And that exceeds the qualifying distance by quite a long way. It also places her second on the all-time British list behind Scotland’s Meg Ritchie, who threw 67.48 metres 35 years ago.
Lally must still finish in the top two at the British Championships in June, but the hardest part of securing selection is done, something the Shaftsbury Barnet athlete is palpably relieved about. “It’s so nice not having the pressure on me that I need to throw the qualifying distance at the trials,” she says. “It’s really unusual to have thrown the qualifying distance so early and it’s been great because it means my mindset is completely different from how it would have been if I hadn’t got the qualifying mark. I can be a little bit more relaxed about everything now.”
Not that her stance towards the selectors or Britain’s athletics governing body softened as the one-kilogram disc flew beyond the 65-metre mark. She continues to be exasperated that not everyone in the sport shares her enthusiasm for the discus. “I think it’s a problem with the governing body that they don’t promote the throws,” she says. “Where’s the next generation going to come from if we don’t inspire them? Where’s the governing body who should be pushing this sport? We need to promote throwers, and throwers who look athletic because that’s what will inspire the next generation. Athletics is so great because there’s so many events that you’ll find something that you’re good at and you enjoy.
“We need to promote role models and I don’t know if our governing body is so hot at doing that. If you do a field event, it’s like you’re second-class. You need lots of people speaking up. But it should start with the individual governing bodies, they should big-up the event much more because we’re producing good athletes.”
Lally began her junior athletic career as a high-jumper, but it was when she tried discus that she found her niche. While not an outstanding junior, she improved as she matured to the point that she won bronze in the European Under-23 Championships in 2009. The following year, she made the final of the Commonwealth Games, and from there the Englishwoman set her sights on competing in her home Olympics in 2012. Her disappointment then made her even more determined to get to Rio; she doesn’t want to be a “nearly Olympian”, as she puts it.
But there was more misfortune on the horizon. In late 2012, she was rushed to hospital to have kidney stones removed which then disrupted her winter training. After achieving the B standard for the 2013 World Championships, Lally was again overlooked for selection. But her resilience helped her bounce back again to win her first senior international medal when she took bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow two years ago.
Almost immediately, though, further bad luck beset her. “In Glasgow I felt weird, but I didn’t think it was kidney stones – and then I won a medal and completely forgot about it,” she recalls. “But then scans showed that I did have kidney stones and not just one, it was a lot. In the end, they found a benign tumour in my neck that was causing the kidney stones and needed removing. Originally, they were considering doing the surgery at the end of the 2015 season, so that I had the best chance of going to the Worlds. But I just wanted it done, even if that meant that I had to miss the Worlds. Doing that meant that I’d be in a great place for Rio and that was the main thing. It was a pretty easy decision for me to make so I got operated on last May.”
That decision has been vindicated by her performances this year when she beat the Olympic qualifying standard twice in three days, following up a 64.22-metre throw in Auckland with an English record in Sydney. Even she expresses shock at those performances. “It has taken me by surprise just how well it’s gone,” she says. “You know that you’ve put so much work in which should equate to an improvement in distance, but it’s not always as simple as that. Sometimes doubts go through your head and I definitely didn’t think it would go this well. I felt like I was due a big throw, but I didn’t think it would be a 64 and then a 65. I was just absolutely stunned.”
She has been throwing consistently in recent weeks, if slightly down on those distances. She managed 58.51 metres for eighth place in the Diamond League meeting in Shanghai two weeks ago, 60.97 for another eighth spot in Halle, followed by 60.50 to win at the Loughborough International meet last weekend. Lally is back in top-class competition on Friday at the latest Diamond League meeting, this one in Eugene, Oregon, aiming for another big performance to make sure she is not overlooked again in an Olympic year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Egelstaff is an Olympic badminton player who competed at London 2012, as well as representing Scotland at three Commonwealth Games, winning two bronze medals. She retired in the aftermath of the London Games after a 12-year international career. Having written the occasional article for newspapers while still competing, she decided to try and make sports journalism a job. Susan is now a columnist and sports writer with The Herald, The Sunday Herald and The National and is a regular contributor on BBC Radio Scotland. Susan is also heavily involved with the Winning Scotland Foundation, a charity which helps children achieve their goals. Susan’s latest articles.