Six Olympic hopefuls fighting for change
With the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics approaching, former sprinter and five-time British athletics champion Jeanette Kwakye highlights six female athletes using their platforms for good. What do they want, a medal? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, they do…
Introduction: Jeanette Kwakye
As told to: India van Spall
Athlete interviews: India van Spall
Styling: Charlotte Roberts
Photography: Bolade Banjo
Eight weeks before the 2012 Olympic Games in London, I got injured. At the time, I was British number one and the fastest woman in the UK. Although it was hard to admit that my body wasn’t going to be ready in time, I had to pull out of selection.
But I didn’t just pick myself up and run away. I sat in the stadium on the night that I was meant to be competing. That was when I got approached to do a bit of punditry – and I got a taste for it.
Since hanging up my spikes that year and officially retiring in 2014, I’ve been lucky to be a part of the women’s sport movement as a journalist and broadcaster, amplifying voices on my weekly radio show and in print. You find extraordinary stories.
Back when I was an athlete, we didn’t have the accessibility of social media, where you can make statements that can go viral. If you needed to be heard, your statements had to be bigger and bolder. That might have meant wearing a particular T‑shirt on a race day, when you knew you were going to be visible or speaking to the papers.
Now, hard-working women in sport are paving the way and using their platforms to speak out in an industry that, for so many years, has been dominated by men. To me, that’s massively inspirational.
It made me think about women who stood out from the crowd, such as the incredible talent on the following pages: canoeist Kimberley Woods, sprinter Imani Lansiquot, rower Kyra Edwards, shooter Ruth Mwandumba, swimmer Alice Dearing and Celia Quansah, who’s bringing a vibrancy from track and field into rugby. They all prove that British athletics has the power to influence and empower a younger generation.
Ruth Mwandumba has only been a shooter for three years, but that hasn’t stopped her going for gold. “I still feel like I have a lot of catching up to do, but I’m trying to prove that I can get to the top,” she says. The 25-year-old from Merseyside first found a taste for the precision sport as an Army cadet at 13 years old.
Now, she’s gunning for the Paris Olympics in 2024. Working with organising body British Shooting, Mwandumba is also tackling inclusivity within the sport, beginning with visiting schools and outreach programs, speaking to young people of colour. “I’ve had to deal with a lot of negative comments about the fact that I’m a Black shooter. I struggled to come to terms with the fact that no one else looks like me. Since then, I’ve made it my goal to increase shooting’s diversity.”
Alice Dearing simply fell into swimming. “When I was eight years old, my brother and I joined a swimming club and loved it,” says the Birmingham-born athlete. “We kept doing it until I realised I could move to the elite stage.” Sixteen years later, the 24-year-old is a world junior champion and the strongest open-water swimmer in the UK, advocating for Black safety in water.
According to The Guardian, 95 per cent of Black adults and 80 per cent of Black children in England do not swim. Having co-founded the Black Swimming Association in 2019, Dearing is now working to ensure that swimming is compulsory in schools to break the stigma. “There’s this negative preconception that we really hope to stamp out. We’re well aware that it won’t be done overnight, but we want people to know that they can be safe by water without having to fear it.”
When the first lockdown hit, canoe slalom champ Kimberley Woods went from the water to training in her back garden. “Thankfully, the sunshine came for most of that,” says the 25-year-old. Working a rigorous schedule with her coaching team, the Warwickshire-born athlete was gearing up for the Olympics when her routine was turned upside down. But that time made her take stock and think about her biggest hurdles: depression and self-harm. “There’s not many people who actually open up about mental health. Talking about it publicly is almost like another step in recovery.”
The amount of support Woods received made her glad she spoke out in a BBC interview last summer. She’s since revealed how she overcame bullying and depression, and also explained why talking about women’s periods in sport should no longer be a taboo, encouraging others to do the same. “I never quite realised how much of an impact it would make until I did it and I’m so proud of myself. I have a story to tell.”
For Imani Lansiquot, sport opened the doors to self-discovery. “At a time when I was quite an unconfident and self-aware teenager, it enabled me to really break free and embrace my body and myself,” says the 100-metre sprinter. At 23, the South Londoner is 2020 British champion and at the top of her game. She’s now using her growing platform to make sport more accessible. “As athletes, it’s very easy to be boxed into one thing. You go on social media, you post a video of yourself in the gym, flexing your abs, and that’s what people think your life is. But I’m quite an introspective person and I take being a Black woman extremely seriously.”
When the world was galvanised by BLM last summer, the thought of not being part of the conversation left Lansiquot uneasy. “Diversity, inclusion and equality are all extremely important to me, especially within British athletics,” she adds. “Now, I take part in monthly online meetings where we have really honest, uncomfortable conversations about how to make the sport more inclusive by the time of the next Olympic Games.”
Celia Quansah fell out of love with athletics. “I was 21, at uni in Loughborough and had a few injuries. It was time for a change,” she remembers. So, she switched to rugby. Within six months of playing for her uni team, Quansah had signed her first contract. “I always said to myself, if I’m going to do this, I want to play for England. I want to be the best.
Now 25, the southwest Londoner is one of the England Sevens hoping for a plane ticket to Tokyo this July. She’s finding her voice off the pitch, too. “The Black Lives Matter movement last year was massive for me,” she says. “I thought, how have I not educated myself more? As a queer Black woman, I began being vocal about LGBTQ+ rights. I realised my voice needs to be heard, and so do other sports people’s.”
Kyra Edwards is the first to admit that rowing isn’t a very diverse sport. “I mean, I’m still the only Black person on the GB rowing team, but I’m not the only one in the whole world,” she says emphatically. The resurgence of the BLM movement thrust the 23-year-old into the media spotlight, and gave the Nottingham athlete the motivation to be a role model for her Black and LGBTQ+ peers.
“A lot of people talk about me being the first Black person as if that’s an achievement. But it’s not to me whatsoever,” she insists. “There have been barriers in place that have not allowed it to happen until now. What I can do is make sure that there is a visual representation.” Aside from building the conversation with young people around inclusion, the sculler is striving for a stellar Olympic summer. “I’ve been unfortunate with a couple of bad back injuries this season, but it’s not over till it’s over!”
Hair: Amidat Giwa
Make-up: Siobhan Furlong
Nails: Jessica Thompson
Set: Patience Harding
Photographer’s producer: Elizabeth Cooper
Production assistant: Abi Smith
Photographer’s assistants: Evie Shandilya, Thomas Pigeon, Florence Omotoyo
Stylist’s assistant: Florence Armstrong
Hair assistant: Avrelle Delisser
Make-up assistant: Sunao Takahashi
Set designer’s assistant: Sophia Willcox