In association with Virgin Money Giving the 100% not-for-profit fundraising website, The Mixed Zone has helped produce a series of video documentaries in which two leading sportswomen have the opportunity to sit down and quiz each other about their careers. In the second programme, to be aired by Virgin Money Giving today, two Olympic runners-up, Gail Emms from Athens and Becky James in Rio, compare silver medals and discuss everything from their respective post-podium celebrations to their domestic arrangements. Fortuitously, The Mixed Zone editor Sue Mott was there, armed with camera, tape-recorder and notebook and pen, to reveal the behind-the-scenes stories from their meeting
Two Olympians, both silver medallists, separated by the great gulf of retirement. That’s how it appeared from the outside. But it turned out they had mighty tracts of their lives in common: unquenchable competitiveness, ferocious work ethic, desperate disappointments, unforgettable moments on the Olympic podium … and genuine regret that they share a home with men so addicted to protein that powerful air-freshers are a necessity.
“Hmmmm, George’s worst habit?” mused Becky James of her international rugby-playing boyfriend, George North, who was frequently seen during the Rio Olympics wrapping her in huge-armed hugs by the side of the Velodrome.
“He has too much protein. Do you know what that does?”
Gail Emms, Olympic badminton silver medallist in 2004, did. She cracked up laughing.
“Too many bad smells,” elaborated Becky.
“They do smell, don’t they, boys?”
“Oh, they do.”
Elite athletes seldom socialise with each other, outside members of their own sport, but the empathy when they do is almost tangible. One of Team GB’s greatest cyclists meets Britain’s greatest female badminton player, and apart from the fact that Becky’s racing bike is worth about £60,000, while Gail’s racquet in her prime was “a hundred quid”, the common ground between the two is immense.
“There’s that little bit of frustration …” Becky admitted at not coming home from Rio with gold in either the keirin or the sprint. “If I’d done something different …”
“People assume you’re going to be happy with an Olympic medal, but there is that stigma that you’ve lost gold …” Gail confessed she can only ever be 99 per cent happy with her silver. But then her mum was an England women’s footballer who played in the 1971 World Cup in Mexico. Competitiveness runs in the family. As it does in the James family: six siblings, five of them sporty and even their mum finished runner-up in the over-50’s national mountain bike championships. She only took up the sport because she was worried about her daughters alone on long training sessions.
Mothers – and their sacrifices – becomes quite a theme.
Gail, at 39, is very clear on motherhood. She has two boys, Harry and Ollie, both sports-mad, and even though the dog is also male, she has no desire to go try for a baby girl. “No, I’m knackered, basically. It’s easier to train for the Olympics than being a mum. I love my boys, but they’re so full-on I need help. I’ve got a ‘manny’. A male nanny. Valentin from Germany. Doing the stuff I want to do – visiting schools and stuff. It’s so hard. I want to work. So it’s a great help.”
“It makes me think, ‘Fair play to my mum’,” said Becky, thinking of the cycling tribe at home.
“Do you want six then?” Gail asks.
“No. No way. Six is a lot.”
Gail’s advice is unequivocal: “Stay in sport as long as possible.”
Becky, 24, has already proved her staying power. Back in 2012 she missed her home Olympics because of a horrendously interrupted year due to illness. “I had appendicitis, put on weight, and missing out on London was hard to accept. But I pushed on and became double world champion in 2013. Happy times. But the following year I only managed double bronze which made me determined to train super-hard. I over-trained to be honest. I had a problem with my knee for 18 months. But I kept pushing and pushing through the pain.
“Then I had a cancer scare. I’d put off and put off my first smear test. When I went they found ‘severe’ abnormalities. My cervix was covered in pre-cancerous cells. I just found it so stressful. You know when you hear the word ‘cancer’? It’s terrifying. You convince yourself you’ve got it.” She received the all-clear just before her departure for Rio.
“Having all that going on, and the injury for a year and half – it just makes these so much more worth it, more special.” ‘These’ are her twin silver medals, lying on the ground in front of her, hefty great things that have already annoyed Gail in their size and magnificence. “Don’t laugh,” she says revealing her medal from Athens, half the size and about a bag of sugar lighter.
But, as she notes, Athens was more fun. “We had Lottery funding as athletes, but not as much as now. There was still an amateur status about it. Everyone was so grateful for any medal. And then we just partied. Completely. ‘Let’s go crazy’. I’m so lucky. I feel I had a chance to celebrate. I feel kind of sorry for you guys”, she addressed Becky, “it seems so professional, so …”
“…regimented,” Becky offers. Her post-victory celebration in Rio involved one drugs test, pizza and ice cream in the food hall, a couple of drinks and then deciding with her room-mate and fellow Olympic medallist, Katie Archibald, that it was time to sleep. “It was midnight – we were like, ‘Oh well, go to bed’.” Gail rolled her eyes in horror.
She retired at 31 from badminton after the Beijing Games where she and her partner, Nathan Robertson, finished fifth. They’d gone for gold. They were devastated. “But I knew I’d given everything, so I retired with a good feeling. Then I discovered that nothing prepares you for retirement. Sport gives you so much. Highs, lows, wins, losses, incredible relationships with a group of people who know what you’re going through. Then, suddenly, you’re in normal life and it doesn’t work like sport.
“You kind of wander around saying, ‘Hi, I used to play badminton. I was really good. I was the best in the world …’ and no one cares. You are really lost. Now I’ve accepted it. I feel privileged and honoured to be in sport.”
For her, the lightbulb moment was watching the Sydney Olympics at home. The competitors were drawn from the top 16 in the world. She was ranked 17th. “The next day I gave 100 per cent. It’s incredible. You know the difference. It’s really empowering.”
Becky is in the thick of the ‘100 per cent’ phase and has no idea what she will do afterwards. Her focus is on training for the Commonwealth Games, coming up fast in the spring of 2018. “I absolutely love cycling. I can’t imagine not doing it, day-in day-out.” If Gail kindly tries to insinuate that there is more to life, it is with the half-hearted urge of someone who is descending from the peak of absolute fitness with an understandable tinge of regret. Actually, delete ‘tinge’.
“It’s knackering being old … when you’ve got to look after the kids, do the school run, do dinners, sort their bags out. At the end of the day all you want to do is collapse on the sofa with a glass of wine and loads of chocolate.
“I loved my body when I was an athlete. I’m looking at your thighs with envy.” Gail said, staring mock-glumly. Or perhaps real-glumly. “I used to have those legs. I was about power and fitness. I loved being that advert for women to say, ‘Look this is what the human body can do. It’s incredible how we can push ourselves, challenge ourselves’. I want to be a role model for other women to keep fit. ‘Don’t succumb to the sofa’.”
She is preaching to the converted in this conversation. “I was desperate to get back to training after the Olympics.” Becky allowed herself a quick flit to Barcelona with George before settling on the bike again. “I get really grumpy if I don’t exercise. Really moody.”
She conjures visions of a domestic life in which the Welsh rugby hero (very tidy apparently) has to shove her out through the garage door on her bike when she gets irritable. Gail’s not buying it. She reckons the irritations are the other way round.
“Knowing a sportsman’s ego and how much they eat – how do you live with one?”
“I’m probably the more selfish one,” says Becky. “We started going out with each other when we were both in our careers. We would travel four-and-a-half hours each way every weekend to see each other. M6, M5, M4. It was hard work. Then he moved to Northampton, where we live now, and it was a lot easier.” Yes, but the food, Gail presses. “George is a big eater. Lots of chicken. I have to stop myself eating as much as him because, from all the training, I’m always hungry.”
Dangerously, she bakes cakes as sideline. In fact, she is producing two wedding cakes by the end of the month.
“Yours?” Gail wondered.
“No, I couldn’t stand the stress. When things go wrong it’s a disaster.”
So she is not to be lured into discussing marriage plans. Nor yet commitment to the Tokyo Olympics, either. “I don’t know. Four years is a long cycle. I break down what I’m doing into two years at a time. Apart from winning an Olympic gold medal, I’ve done most things I wanted to achieve. Just not gold … at the moment.”
Footnote: It later turned out that Becky had another ambition. One clearly secret from her entire family. Upon the startling revelation that she wanted to open ‘a sausage dog hotel’, a tweet was received from David of Wales. It said: “I only found out this morning and I’m her dad!”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles