In an exclusive interview with The Mixed Zone, Susan Egelstaff hears how sprinter Georgina Hermitage rose above a storm about her classification for the Paralympic Games and won two gold medals in Rio
Georgina Hermitage came back from the Paralympic Games in Rio earlier this month with three sprint medals in her luggage, two golds and a silver. She had every right to feel proud of her achievements, but had her celebrations tainted by accusations in the build-up that she was “not disabled enough” to compete in the T37 category that includes athletes like her who have cerebral palsy.
The stories in the national press that cast aspersions about her eligibility were exacerbated when Bethany Woodward, Britain’s T37 200 metres silver medallist from the London 2012 Games, was quoted as saying that athletes had been selected “who are not like me in terms of disability”. There were suggestions from other athletes and coaches that Team GB was being packed with wrongly classified competitors in an attempt to increase the medal haul.
It was, admits Hermitage, a hugely testing time. “I’d like to say that it didn’t affect me but that would be a lie,” she says. “I’m still genuinely shocked that it’s been alluded to that I shouldn’t be where I am. In the past people have always said that I’m textbook for my category so I was really saddened that someone had said this about me.”
What got to Hermitage the most was the fact that the allegations raised doubts as to whether she had won her medals legitimately. “It was very upsetting that people were casting doubt on me because I don’t want anyone thinking that I’ve been gifted anything,” she says.
“I know and my coach knows and my family know what sacrifices you have to make to get to this point. Over the last few years, I’ve spent weeks and weeks away from my daughter to give her this memory and for someone to say that I’ve had it easy is hard because I’ve not at all. I was born like this. You go through quite painful testing to be classified – you get pulled about in all different directions to make sure that you are what you are, you can’t fake that.”
Hermitage, 27, who suffers from hemiplegia, a form of cerebral palsy that affects muscle movement, continued: “What’s really sad is that the lady who made the allegations, I’ve trained with her in the relay team and at no point did she ask me what was wrong with me. She could have spoken to me at any time. I’m very relaxed and open about what I have. And that offer is still there – if she ever wants to have a chat and clear the air then I’d be happy to because I hate bad feeling. So hopefully one day we’ll sort it out. It’s just sad that she chose to go to the press.”
But then anyone who thinks Paralympic sport is all sweetness and light is in for a rude awakening; the athletes are every bit as competitive as those in the Olympic Games, and every bit as capable of outbursts of gamesmanship and mind-games, particularly in the sprint events as Hermitage discovered in the 100 metres.
“There’s some big characters in that event and they’ll try anything to get into your head,” she says. “For example, when we were on the warm-up track, Mandy Francois-Elie [the defending champion], was trying some stuff. I was down in the start position and she was literally standing right over the top of me. She was doing it on purpose and it was her way of trying to get to me. And she always screams in the call-room. It’s scary and it’s very hard not to let it get into your head, so that was really nerve-wracking. But then it got to the point where I was like, ‘OK, stop screaming and let’s get on with this’.”
It did not help either that being away from home was also something of a challenge, especially as she had left three-year-old daughter Tilly behind with her partner Ricky. It is safe to say that Tilly did not appreciate her mother’s absence. “I’d ring home and she just wouldn’t speak to me,” Hermitage says. “That’s her way of saying, ‘Well, you’ve left me so I’m going to ignore you now’.
“But she was only like that for about a week and then she came round. I think it was because I was constantly sending her presents. Blackmail is the answer to everything, isn’t it?! She loved when I showed her around the place. I’d turn the camera on my phone around and show her the flat and the Village and into the physio rooms. So that was nice because it’s tough being away for so long.”
Hermitage’s return to the bosom of her family in Hampshire has also presented her with quite a challenge. As happens with so many Olympians and Paralympians, the come-down after the Games has been severe and Hermitage admits that it has been something of a roller-coaster for the past week or so.
“When I got home from Rio, I dive-bombed emotionally,” she says. “The other day, my other half came upstairs and asked me if I wanted a cup of tea and I just burst into tears. It’s weird because it’s supposed to be the happiest time of your life. He was asking me why I was crying and I was like, ‘I don’t know’. You have that massive high and then there’s the comedown. I think it’s quite normal to feel like this, though.”
Her head is still up in the clouds after her successes on the track. “It feels so weird,” she says. “It’s something that you’ve worked towards for so long, so to have achieved your goal feels strange. It feels like someone else did it. Before the Games, the 400 metres was the event I’d really focused on, so I really wanted to achieve gold in that. The 100 and the relay were just added bonuses. I definitely performed better than I expected.”
Hermitage’s preparations for Rio were far from smooth. A foot injury prevented her from doing any track work for the whole of July and she admits that only being able to do gym and pool work left her pondering the prospect that she may not be in Rio at all. “I had some dark days in July, and when I can’t train I’m a complete nightmare to live with,” she laughs. “It was really hard to see everyone else getting on with their training. When I got to Rio, I was still only on my fifth track session back, but actually I think that enforced rest did wonders for my body.”
Hermitage may have made it to Rio in one piece, but as a chronic sufferer of nerves there were still some significant hurdles to overcome before she could take her place in the blocks. Her nerves can be so severe that she is physically sick, although she managed to keep a lid on that in Rio.
But despite all the angst and aggravation, the real positives that came out of the Games for Hermitage were the messages that she has had from parents telling her the effect she has had on their daughters. There is, surely, no greater prize. “I’m sure that there’ll have been kids all over the world who watched the Games and were inspired,” she says. “I’ve had so many lovely messages from parents who said that their little girl has CP and she watched me and I’m her hero and that’s just amazing. If I’ve done that, then I’ve done my job.”
Read more about Georgina: An athletics dream reignited, then realised
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Egelstaff is an Olympic badminton player who competed at London 2012, as well as representing Scotland at three Commonwealth Games, winning two bronze medals. She retired in the aftermath of the London Games after a 12-year international career. Having written the occasional article for newspapers while still competing, she decided to try and make sports journalism a job. Susan is now a columnist and sports writer with The Herald, The Sunday Herald and The National and is a regular contributor on BBC Radio Scotland. Susan is also heavily involved with the Winning Scotland Foundation, a charity which helps children achieve their goals. Susan’s latest articles.