Liz Byrnes talks to Paralympics bronze medallist Olivia Breen about her preparations for Rio and how she has grown up in the four years since the London Games
Four years ago Olivia Breen had no idea how her life was about to change. A keen runner since the age of five, Livvy had always raced against able-bodied athletes for City of Portsmouth Athletics Club despite having cerebral palsy which affected her movement and co-ordination. The then fifteen year old reluctantly agreed to take part in disability athletics. She is glad she did. Within weeks of being classified in May 2012 she found herself at the European Championships in Stadskanaal, Holland, where she won bronze in both T38 100 and 200 metres. Then came the big one: London and the Paralympics. And bronze for Great Britain in the T35-38 4×100.
“I can remember it all vividly,” she says. “I can remember getting the phone call to say I was on the Great Britain team and I was like, ‘What?’ And getting the medal in the Olympic Stadium with the crowd and everything, it was all like a dream.” She had a day off school and when she returned her friends and classmates at Bohunt School, in Liphook, Hampshire, formed a guard of honour.
Four years on and it is the countdown to the Paralympics in Rio. In that intervening period Breen has gone from a girl to a young woman as well as learning some harsh lessons about sport’s highs and lows. “I can’t believe how much has changed in that time,” she muses. “In London I was the second youngest in the team and now I am one of the oldest. Things have really changed.”
After the high of 2012, the following year was a bit of a comedown as she came away from the IPC World Championships in Lyon with two fifth places and no medal. Self-doubt crept in and she questioned herself. But now the teenager sees in hindsight the values of such lessons. She admits: “It made me stronger and more determined to come back. I had to keep going and see how to deal with expectation and pressure. I learnt a lot.”
The same year she was chosen to be a Sky Sports Scholar, a move that helped her address her doubts. It also meant she had to move out of home and to Oaklands Athletics Academy in St Albans, a rite of passage maybe, but one she took in her stride. “I thought if someone like Sky had confidence in me I must be doing something right,” she says. “It gave me my confidence back.”
Bubbly and chatty, Livvy is one of a pair of twins born to parents Helen and Michael. She is a mere 20 seconds older than her brother Daniel. She was diagnosed with cerebral palsy aged two, not that it has held her back. She wanted to be just like Daniel, the pair sharing such a close bond that one knew what the other was thinking.
Daniel was always on the move, but then so was she. Racing was a reality check, though, because Livvy was always trailing at the back and usually the last one over the line. It could have broken the dreams of many children, but not Livvy. “It taught me to not give up, to be strong, to always keep going.”
It was Daniel with whom she trained in the lead-up to London and he, as well as their parents and younger brother Jack, will be out in Rio. Guided by coaches Jonas Tawiah-Dodoo and Julie Hollman, Livvy is training five days a week in readiness for Rio where she will compete in the100, 400 and long jump. There she aims to secure her first individual medal at a global competition.
“Hopeful Rio will be as successful as London,” she says. “It will be high-profile and they have got a really big team. I love the Brazilian people.” She concedes that the Zika virus is “worrying”, but she is taking heed of what the World Health Organisation are saying.
It is no doubt something else she will take in her stride.
On the day we spoke she had been to visit her old school as part of her work with Sky Sports. Alongside former 400-metres athlete Lesley Owusu, Livvy took part in group exercises and a question and answer session. So what did they ask you? “How did you fit in your schoolwork while you were training for the Paralympics? Did you stay in touch with your old friends after you left?”
Clearly unfazed by being confronted by masses of schoolchildren, she admits she is a people-person, preferring to spend her days off with friends rather than resting. She particularly admires Jessica Ennis-Hill and would like to emulate her. “She is just so humble and nice. She had all the pressure in 2012 and won. Then went away, had her baby and came back and won in Beijing.”
Livvy also looks up to Margarita Goncharova, the Russian who won three golds and a silver in the T38 category in London. She may be a rival, but she is also an inspiration and role model.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Liz Byrnes. After an early career in PR and marketing, Liz changed her focus to what she had always really wanted and re-trained as a journalist in Sheffield. She spent 12 years at PA where she covered football, athletics and swimming before going freelance in January 2014. She now works for a number of organisations including The Guardian, BBC, Sheffield Star, Wardles, SwimVortex, AFP and Arena. Liz’s latest articles