The Mixed Zone’s Laura Winter reports from the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year Awards Show where Rachel Atherton repeated her success of four years ago by carrying off the main prize. It was no easy task, though: apart from having to fight the London traffic in the taxi journey from hell, she also had to beat off nine other outstanding nominees from a memorable twelve months for Britain’s inspirational sportswomen
It was a year in which any of the ten nominees could have walked away with the Action Woman Award, so inspiring and outstanding were the performances of our best-loved sportswomen. Women’s sport has had more coverage, more attention and more recognition than ever before, and it was no surprise that the room was packed last night with some of the greatest sportsmen and women this country has produced, as well as industry experts and the inimitable Clare Balding presenting live for BT Sport.
But who would claim the top prize? Could it be Maddie Hinch’s goalkeeping heroics in the Rio 2016 hockey final that won the nation’s hearts? Was Laura Kenny’s double gold in the cycling, to make her our most successful Olympian in history, enough? But what about Dame Sarah Storey, our greatest Paralympian with 14 golds, and the longest-serving athlete ever?
Or Johanna Konta, who climbed from world number 147 to tennis’ top 10? Or runner and cyclist Kadeena Cox, who was the first athlete in 28 years to win gold in two different sports at the same Games? The choice was nearly impossible, testament to the depth of talent in Britain.
But, in the end, Rachel Atherton, who won the inaugural award four years ago, was crowned the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year after a “perfect” season in downhill mountain-biking. She is five-times world champion, five-times World Cup overall champion and 33-times a World Cup race winner (more than any other Brit in the history of the sport). She is also currently on a record-breaking run of 13 consecutive World Cup wins.
For her to win the award in an Olympic year is even more extraordinary and left Atherton in a state of shock. “That is overwhelming,” she admitted. “I sat here and watched the videos of the other nominees, and felt inspired.
“For mountain-biking, which is a minority sport, to shine through … I love the Olympics, but they only happen every four years and the rest of the time we are out there doing our thing. And it proves that mountain-biking should be out there, people should be watching it. It’s so exciting, it’s such a cool sport and it should be recognised. This goes some way to prove that. It’s incredible.
“Thank you to all those mountain-bikers out there who voted. It was a public vote and that cements the fact that all those sports out there which are awesome, but aren’t necessarily on TV, there are still people going out there and doing them because they love them. It gives you that feeling, that buzz. That’s what we’re all after.”
It was a miracle that Atherton, with mum, dad and boyfriend in tow, made it at all, after a nightmare taxi journey across London had her running late. Despite venting her anger about the traffic woes at the poor taxi driver, he promised to pray for her when she got out of the cab. Clearly, it worked.
Charlotte Dujardin finished second on the night, an accolade to add to her three Olympic dressage gold medals from London and Rio, plus her world, European and World Cup titles and three world records. There was an audible sigh of awe as she described to Clare Balding the beautiful relationship between her and Valegro. Just before their gold-medal winning ride in Rio, which would be their last Olympic ride together, Dujardin admitted she had “never felt nerves like it”, but had trust and confidence in her beloved horse: “It’s like he held my hand and said, ‘It’s all right, Mum, we can do this’.”
‘Mad Dog’ Maddie Hinch, almost unrecognisable without those massive pads, gloves, body protection and helmet, finished third. Even Gary Lineker, who presented the award, admitted he chose to watch that incredible hockey final over football that memorable Friday night. He asked Hinch to pass on some advice to the woeful England men’s football team.
We all know where we were when Team GB won that hockey gold, and we’ll remember for years to come. It was a game-changing moment for hockey in particular and women’s team sport in general. Such an achievement had to be honoured, and it was no surprise that the women won Team of the Year, despite tough competition from the likes of rowers Heather Stanning and Helen Glover, Manchester City’s footballers, the team pursuit cyclists and the para-dressage team. The award was presented by the recently-retired Liverpool and England legend Steven Gerrard, who was suitably impressed.
The evening was also a chance to honour another retiree and our most decorated female Olympian in history. While most would have happily taken the fairy-tale ending – that elusive gold medal at the London Olympics in 2012 – and put their feet up, the pull of returning to the sport that has defined her was too strong for Katherine Grainger.
It is testament to how humble and grounded the five-time Olympic medallist is, that the Lifetime Achievement award was a complete shock to her – even as her doubles partner from 2012, Anna Watkins, took to the stage. Watkins, who retired after London, told the audience that Grainger was a “freak” and “annoyingly talented”, before stating: “She always gives you 100 per cent of herself. If there were more people like her around, the world would be a better place.”
Another bumper year for women’s sport is almost over. While it has never been in a better place – and Lineker and Gerrard agree – we must continue to vote with our remotes; to read, to watch, to engage and to invest so our sportswomen can continue to inspire. Roll on 2017.
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.