If Rachel Atherton feared the sport of downhill mountain-biking was so far off the radar that she would never gain mainstream acknowledgement for her successes, then that misapprehension has been dispelled not once but twice in the awards season. In December, the multiple world champion from a non-Olympic event grabbed the public vote in an Olympic year to land the BT Sport Action Woman Award; two nights ago, as one prize beget another, she received the acclaim of some of sports’ most legendary names in winning the World Action Sportsperson of the Year at the prestigious Laureus Awards.
The two pieces of silverware destined for Atherton’s mantelpiece in Wales are reward for ‘the perfect season’. She won both the world championship and the World Cup series in 2016, and has dominated the sport to the extent she is unbeaten in 18 months and is currently on a record-extending run of 13 consecutive World Cup wins.
That Atherton could not physically be in Monaco to collect the latest prize is testament to why she will be the one to beat in 2017, too. Rather than criss-cross the globe, Atherton recognised she would be better served by staying at her training camp in California and not interrupting her preparations for the forthcoming season.
“But I think even they might have made an exception for this! I was texting Gill [Harris, head of communications at Atherton Racing] to say, ‘We should be there’. We were watching the red carpet and the room jam-packed with absolute sporting heroes, and we were both gutted. I guess Hugh Grant is going to have wait another year to meet us. And Mo Farah and Usain Bolt.
“I was gutted not to be able to make the ceremony. We looked at every available flight, about 100 different sets of scheduling, but we just couldn’t make It work. Let’s hope I get an invite next year!”
Atherton, the perfect ambassador for her sport, said: “I can’t quite believe this is real, and I am so delighted that my success this season has meant the sport of downhill mountain-biking as a whole has been recognised in the wider world of sport.
“This award is extra special because of the way it’s chosen by a panel of sporting legends – people who really understand how hard it is to put together a ‘perfect season’. I got a bit fed up last year that people started to think it’s easy for me. Winning is never easy.” Atherton just makes it look consummate. At just 29, she has been world champion five times, World Cup overall winner five times and has won a British-record 33 World Cup races.
She said: “I really thank the Academy members for giving me this honour, all of whom I have admired and been inspired by; every one of them knows exactly how many hours go into finally achieving your goal.
“What Laureus stands for, and the work Laureus does to help young people around the world, really means a lot to me. I fully believe that sport changes your life and gives you the tools to overcome anything. I will carry this award with pride and I will use it to inspire all the future mountain-bikers out there.”
Four of the six nominees for the Action Sports Person award were female, and two still teenagers. Snowboarder Chloe Kim is just 16 and was too young to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Last year, though, she claimed two gold medals at the Youth Olympics in halfpipe and slopestyle. Estonian freestyle skier Kelly Sildaru is younger still. At just 13 she became the youngest athlete to win a gold medal at a Winter X Games after picking up a slopestyle title. And at 14 she became the youngest to win two gold medals at the Winter X Games.
Australian surfer Tyler Wright, 22, was the fourth female nominated after notching up 11 WSL World Tour victories. She is also the 2016 World Surf League world champion. Brazilian skateboarder Pedro Barros and surfer John Florence competed the shortlist.
Back in California, Atherton is adopting a laidback approach to the season ahead. “I said the other day in an interview that I’m going to enjoy racing more this year. I feel that I can relax a bit. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever be as good again as I was in 2016, so it’s time to chill.” It is doubtful any of her rivals on the mountain-biking circuit fell for that piece of kidology.
Read more about Rachel here.
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.