My selfish trek to help others

The charity SportsAid, which helps aspiring young sportsmen and women chase their dreams, celebrated its fortieth anniversary on April 8. Here, Gail Emms explains the impact that support from SportsAid had during her formative years and why she is climbing Mount Toubkal to raise funds

Later this month, I will be joining a group of like-minded people, including former Olympians Anna Hemmings and Mark Hunter, to climb Mount Toubkal in the Atlas Mountain range of Morocco for SportsAid charity. But to make it more of a challenge, we plan to trek up and down in eighteen hours. Well, we don’t want to make it easy now, do we?

A few people have questioned my sanity, others seem jealous and many have been very generous with their support, advice and donations. I haven’t really thought about it just yet. I am preoccupied with the equipment list and fundraising. But when I am on the airplane to Marrakesh, I know the butterflies will be in the stomach and the adrenalin will be flowing and I will be raring to go.

I will be honest, when a place on this trek was offered I jumped at the chance. Why? Because as a former athlete, I miss that buzz. James Cracknell doing the Marathon de Sable, Sir Chris Hoy driving in Le Mans 24-hour race, Rebecca Adlington on many television reality programmes and, of course, Victoria Pendleton ‘switching saddles’, are examples of athletes trying to find that rush again, to have another challenge to wake up and train for. Anything I can do for selfish purposes will get a ‘yes’ from me. Since retiring in 2008, I have run the London Marathon, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, appeared on ITV’s ‘Eternal Glory’ and ‘Dancing on Ice: Olympic Special’, and I plan to do the Three Peaks in 24 hours in June. All because I want to push myself again, to feel that physical and mental limit and remember how incredible our bodies are.

Even though my selfishness may be the overriding factor for agreeing to these ventures, in the case of the treks, there will be good coming out of them. SportsAid is the only national charity of its kind, proudly supporting young British sportsmen and women who aspire to be our next Olympic, Paralympic, Commonwealth and world champions. They helped me when it mattered as they were the only people to offer financial support when I was a junior badminton player. It is assumed that there is Lottery funding, sponsors and the like, but the truth is, the only support is the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’.

Badminton is a fairly cheap sport to play, but my parents have admitted to me that to fund the tournaments, the travel, the coaching, and the equipment, cost between £10,000 and £15,000 a year. I played in the junior programme, unsponsored, for six years. The costs and sacrifices that families make to ensure a talented child can go to training camps, even get to the weekly coaching sessions, is immense and SportsAid are the only ones to ease that burden. The grants are not life-changing amounts, but they help. It is a way of saying: “Carry on, we believe in you. You have the talent and you can make it.” And that is very powerful indeed.

I had a very middle-class upbringing. My dad established his own building firm, I went to a private girls’ schools and my badminton career started in the juniors around 12 years old. I wasn’t one of the best at that age, but I was ranked in the top 10 nationally. My world came crashing down over the next few years. I am not looking for sympathy, I just want people to know the background. My parents went through a messy divorce and when the recession hit in the late 1980s my father’s stubbornness that his company would be OK, a strength so many other times, proved to be a weakness. From a comfortable standard of living, it quickly nose-dived and we were struggling to pay bills. Badminton was a luxury that we couldn’t afford anymore. But thanks to support from people like SportsAid, I was able to carry on until we were in a better position. Sport was ‘My Space’, somewhere I could be me and forget what was happening in the grown-up world; somewhere I could block out the arguing and the fighting and just be me.

I want to give back and to make sure kids who feel like I did still get that chance to be themselves. SportsAid helped me and many Olympian and Paralympian alumni and I want to know that by ascending 4,167 metres and back down again really fast can help families. Whether it is with the cost of a pair of spikes, football boots, new kit, or whatever the requirement at that time, a SportsAid grant can keep a talented kid in the sport and not give up on their dreams. Because dreams are priceless.

If you would like to support Gail’s Mount Toubkal Challenge, and in turn help SportsAid help disadvantaged young sportsmen and women, then please visit the Just Giving page here


Gail Emms MBE is one of Britain’s most successful badminton players, best remembered for her silver medal in the mixed doubles at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. With partner Nathan Robertson, she won gold at the World Championships in 2006, the Commonwealth Games in the same year, and the European Championships in 2004. Gail was six times national mixed doubles champion and national ladies doubles champion five times. Since retiring after the Beijing Olympic Games, Gail has been a versatile sports presenter on a variety of television and radio programmes. She was awarded the MBE for services to badminton in 2009. She is the mother of two boys. Gail’s latest articles

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