Rachel Atherton is Britain’s most under-appreciated female athlete, says sports journalist Katie Smith, yet she is a world champion who has not been beaten for the last eighteen months. It probably does not help that her sport, downhill mountain-biking, is off the mainstream radar, but for Atherton it is all about the exhilaration and sheer joy of a life in the saddle.
Atherton is one of 10 athletes nominated for the prestigious BT Sports Action Woman of the Year Award, a title she won in 2013. The Mixed Zone is publishing a series of articles about each of the nominees ahead of the Action Woman of the Year Awards Show, presented by Clare Balding on BT Sport on Monday, December 12, when the winner will be announced.
That winner, from an outstanding list of sporting performances by British female athletes in 2016, will be decided by public vote. For details of how you can cast your vote, plus the full list of nominees, CLICK HERE
For a nation who excel at ‘sitting-down sports’, and whose most successful sport at both the London and Rio Olympic Games was cycling, it is faintly bizarre that Rachel Atherton is not a household name. Great Britain’s most successful downhill mountain-bike rider is one of the greatest champions, and most phenomenal racers, that you have probably never heard of, let alone seen. But watching her is a thrilling blend of excitement and madness, of sleek elegance and sheer power. Her eyes always forward, the track always going down. Woman and bike together: a force with which to be reckoned.
The 28-year-old has just completed the perfect season: she not only accomplishing the unprecedented feat of winning all seven rounds of the UCI Downhill Mountain Bike World Cup, but simultaneously claimed her fourth World Championship title. Indeed, she has not lost in 18 months. Yet despite all this success, and having won the Action Woman award in 2013, it is unlikely Rachel Atherton will feature heavily at this year’s Sports Personality of the Year. You can almost hear the cry of outrage from the mountain-biking community who have been instrumental in singing her praises across social media. It is for this reason that I will be voting for Atherton in the upcoming BT Sports Action Woman Awards – as Britain’s most under-appreciated female champion.
Known to her friends as Rachybox, her philosophy in life is “never ignore your instincts” and “you can always push harder”, which is exactly what she does. Growing up with two older brothers, Dan and Gee, both of whom are professional downhill racers with similarly impressive racing credentials, Rachel was pushed to keep up. Now that she is at the top of the world, she takes her responsibility as a female sporting role model very seriously. “Just being nominated for the BT Sports Action Woman Award is fantastic,” Atherton admits, “but seeing the polls and the voting has made me realise that to win this award would put downhill mountain-biking firmly in the eyes of the mainstream media and TV.”
For the second year running, she has personally sponsored the British Downhill Series Junior Women’s category, providing kit to get muddy and advice to be cherished. This seems particularly crucial alongside the latest announcement that British children are some of the least active in the world. For Atherton, being on the bike is a tool to inspire the next generation. “It’s such an empowering sport,” she says. “Watching the World Cup racing, the excitement of seeing riders push themselves and their bikes to the limit, the dedication of teams and the proof that everyone can achieve something.”
I admire not only her instinct to win and her drive to inspire, but her indisputable joie de vivre. For years she advocated for the inclusion of downhill in the Olympic programme. While this would still be an exciting moment in the sport’s history, in Atherton’s eyes happiness is the key. To spend days enjoying the great outdoors. Cycling is the freedom to explore, to experience, to participate. The sheer joy of pedalling down the hill, whether it be the one outside your front door or a perilous slope in a distant corner of the globe, produces an indescribable initial breathless moment of delight. Helmet goes on, your fingers curl around the handlebars and you push off from the ground.
“Anyone can enjoy mountain-biking,” Atherton exclaims. “Tackling a mountain makes you feel invincible!” Her love of the sport is infectious and I am voting for Rachel Atherton so I can be back in the saddle, re-living my first ecstatic, adrenaline-fuelled moment of sporting endeavour. This is where the essence of Atherton lies: a woman carving the way through a sport not for profit or shiny Olympic medals, but for the simple and unadulterated love of what she does.
So when you look back on the past year I ask you to pause for a moment. To rummage deeper through the sporting pages, beyond the glitz and glamour of those glorious two weeks in Rio, to a sport and an athlete so enthralling to watch and yet still so neglected by the mainstream media. Rachel Atherton is a champion who deserves the recognition that accompanies the domination of her sport. And besides, we’re British fans – we can get behind every sport when there’s the chance of a win, right?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Smith. Katie’s latest articles.