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‘We had this look in our eyes like this is our day’

December 5, 2016 in Interviews

“You’ve got to believe in yourself because if you don’t believe it’s going to happen and you don’t make it happen, it won’t.”

Nicola White is recalling the advice her mother gave her long before she won women’s hockey Olympic gold in Rio de Janiero.

White lives by those words and is honest when discussing the turnaround that led her from failing to make her first England trials at the age of 15 to becoming Great Britain’s hero as her late equaliser to make it 3-3 in the final against reigning Olympic champions the Netherlands forced the game to a shootout decider.

White and the GB hockey squad ensured hockey became compelling viewing in Rio. When it comes to discussing the team’s journey from London in 2012 to Brazil four years later, White’s steely undercurrent and strong motivation becomes apparent.

“My journey wasn’t particularly perfect,” she admits. “I had my first England trials when I was 15 and I didn’t make it. I didn’t get my second England trials until I was 19 and I was quite a latecomer really because under 16’s and under 18’s is crucial for the development. To come in at under 21 level fairly late, I was really lucky.

“One of the things that we worked really hard since London was our culture. There’s 31 of us that train and it was sometimes hard to agree on something and get the best out of ourselves, but we improved our values and we embraced it.”

Competition 

Her and the team’s success is a result of perseverance and dedication but it is also a tale of competition. “Everyone in the squad had a responsibility to do their best,” she says.

“We wanted to make a difference and it created this massive bond of trust within the team. I think one of the most amazing things was stepping onto the pitch having built this culture. The competition for places was so high and we used to play high-paced games on a Thursday within the squad.

“The coaches would send out the game plan on a Wednesday night so we knew what we had to bring and what we had to do.

“Everyone brought their best games, and it ensured this amazing standard of hockey and brought out the best in us all.

“These little things impact hugely because when you get into an Olympic final, the pressure is massive but you know how to deal with it.”

Golden moment 

White is still overwhelmed by the team’s stunning success this summer. When it came to Rio and taking on the Netherlands, who were vying for a third Olympic gold in a row and huge favourites, there was a determination among the GB players.

The game was drifting away at one point, but Britain’s never-say-die attitude led by an indomitable White performance, paid off when she made it 3-3 in the final period.

Goalkeeper Maddie Hinch then pulled off some stunning saves in the shootout as the GB girls achieved history.

White remains refreshingly low-key about her golden moment. 

The forward says: “I knew we had eight minutes to go and we were losing against the reigning champions of the world.

“Holland are historically a really good team and I was so glad we played them because they were the elephant [in the room] and people thought we couldn’t beat them when it came to the crunch.

“All I remember is we had a short corner and I was just on red alert, and I’ve never been on red alert like that before and I thought if we can get this level, I knew we would hold on and it would go to penalties.

“The ball just fell and I put it towards the goal and I thought nothing else of it. Everyone’s faces were the same as we had this look in our eyes like this is our day. We just had this confidence about us.”

Overwhelming 

Looking back on the summer heroics, White admits the feeling of winning an Olympic gold medal has only just recently sunk in.

“It’s a real cliche, but it’s pretty much a dream come true for me and my team-mates. I’ve started to come back down to earth now but at the time it was just so overwhelming.

“I had so many emotions going through my head when we actually won it. It was just sort of flicking from happiness and emotion and I had happy tears, but it was an amazing experience.

“The girls who took the penalties were confident and I knew that if we stuck to what we did, we would win.

“We all knew, as much as we were nervous at the time, that if anyone was going to win it, it would be us. We are so used to that feeling of being under pressure in penalties that we thrived on it.”

Support

The support of her family has been key for White, particularly in picking her up from that England trials rejection aged 15.

“My mum has supported me massively on my journey. I remember she used to tell me a lot when I was young that you’ve got to believe in yourself because if you don’t believe it’s going to happen and you don’t make it happen, it won’t.

“That’s probably what’s stuck with me the most. Her telling me that if I keep working and don’t give up in the first hurdle, it’ll all pay off, and she was right.”

Spotlight

With success comes greater attention, and White agrees that more interest from the media and general public in hockey can only be a positive thing for her sport.

“We have gained lots of media attention as a team,” she says. “That’s really good for our sport, and I think the biggest thing is how much the sport has grown.

“I guess the legacy started at London 2012, when we won bronze, and has grown since our gold medal.

“When we go around the country, people tell us how they didn’t watch hockey before but now they love it.

“People have warmed to us and that’s probably the biggest change because people are now talking about it.

“When I say ‘I’m Nicola White, I’m one of the hockey girls’, they’re like ‘we love you’! Previously they would have been confused as many people didn’t know about us, so it’s nice to now hear them say that.”

Mindset

As a seven-year-old in Shaw and Crompton, Greater Manchester, White dreamt of being a hockey player.

White and the rest of the GB women’s hockey team

“I was lucky that my school played hockey because a lot of schools didn’t,” she explains. “I was lucky to get involved with it at such a young age, and that my teacher was involved in the pathway to internationals.

“She was in the county and regional set-ups, had the best hockey knowledge and knew where to go and how to make it happen. She guided and started me off.

“Skills-wise you’ve got to have a certain talent to be good at any sport. What I’ve realised on my journey is that your mindset is just as important.

“It’s all good and well having the talent but you’ve got to apply yourself. Every day you have to wake up and want to give it your all, and it’s that commitment, that desire and hunger that’s needed to be successful.”

Women in sport 

As a youngster, the GB hockey star idolised female athletes such as Kelly Holmes and Tina Cullen, and says she has seen progress in the amount of media attention women in sport receive.

“I think there’s more of an acceptance that women are successful and need to be given as much credit as the men get, and it’s a major thing that’s been highlighted probably in the last decade.

“Women haven’t had as much recognition as they should have had. People are pushing for more equality. Tennis now offers the same wages for men and women, and things are becoming more equal.

“That should be the norm and moving forward, I think it will be. It’s being driven by the successes we have had in football, hockey, rugby union and other sports.

“I love it and I’m so proud because that’s all we ever wanted. We just want people to accept us for what we’ve done and give us the recognition.”

Tokyo 2020 

White regularly refers to her competitiveness in her downtime when playing other sports like tennis and golf with her two brothers, but the main objective is to get prepared for another four years of gruelling build-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Preparation is well underway, and White says it will be harder to stay at the top of the tree in 2020 because everyone will be aiming to knock GB off their perch.

“We have to not just be happy with the gold we won, but say to ourselves that we can win it again”

“It sounds so scary thinking about how we will be back in four years time,” she says. “No doubt we will be looking for a gold medal because you cannot go from this success to not target another gold medal.

“I remember our coach Danny Kerry, after the Olympics we sat in a room in Rio and he was talking about success on success and how much of a difficult challenge it is and that’s what we are accepting.

‘As much as the journey is hard to get to the top, it is much harder to stay there. You’re now at the top and everyone’s chasing you, so it’ll be about rebuilding the culture, replacing the players who have retired with new players.

“There’s nothing holding us back now so we have to relish it. We have to use it and not just be happy with the gold we won, but say to ourselves that we can win it again. That’ll be the challenge but we are aiming to go for it again.”

You can follow Nicola White on Twitter @NicolaWhite28 and on Facebook @NicolaWhiteGB28 

‘I was naive about Paralympic sport – I thought it was easy’

November 21, 2016 in Interviews

Athletes across the globe dream of one day having the opportunity to showcase their talents to the world whilst wearing their nation colours,  but for table tennis player Aaron McKibbin, that dream has already become a reality – twice.

At the London 2012 Paralympics, McKibbin fulfilled that ambition, but his adventure had the happiest of endings as together with GB team-mates Ross Wilson and Will Bayley, he clinched a bronze medal in the men’s team class 6-8 competition (moderate to severe limb impairment).

“It was a bit crazy, we didn’t expect it [to take a medal home],” he explains.

“We went in pretty blind; we were young. And being a home games, which was an amazing experience, we didn’t really know what was going on. It felt like a dream!”

Rio 2016

Fast forward four years to the Rio 2016 Paralympics, and the 25-year-old was part of the team that repeated that medal-winning feat, but he admits to a feeling of disappointment at only managing to finish third again.

©Supercharge ParalympicsGB

“We were so close to beating Ukraine in the doubles, and if we’d done that, we were most likely going to win the match and play Sweden in the final for gold,” explains McKibbin.

“On the other hand, to take a bronze there meant so much more than in London. The teams we beat along the way were so strong, and we saw our draw and knew it was going to be a tough ask.

“We beat Belgium, the former world champions in the first round. Then we beat Spain, the London 2012 silver medallists in the quarter-final, and then lost to the gold medallists in the semi-final.

“Finally, we had to beat China, the current world champions, who had the Rio 2016 gold medallist in their team.”

Tokyo 2020

After two consecutive bronze medals, looking forward to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, McKibbin has his eyes on an upgrade.

“I’m very determined [to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics],” McKibbin emphasises.

“I reached the quarter-final of singles in Rio, and my aim is to be competing for a singles medal at Tokyo 2020.”

Should McKibbin qualify for Tokyo 2020, it would be his third Paralympic Games – something he admits he never thought possible.

“My aim of going to London was simply because I had a dream of playing on the world stage and at a home games,” says the Londoner. “I didn’t even know about Brazil until after London 2012!”

European Championships and PTT Open

Whilst Rio and London are McKibbin’s biggest successes so far, they are not the only ones – he has also won medals at the 2015 European Para Table Tennis Championships and China PTT Open.

“They can’t compare to a Paralympics or World Championships. They are the most special competitions you can play in.”

“To win medals at any competition isn’t easy; the standard is getting harder and harder,” McKibbin says.

“Winning the China Open was possibly my most pleasing result outside of the Paralympics. I beat the world number two from China in the final and I had to win the competition to seal my qualification for Rio.”

While McKibbin clearly enjoyed those other triumphs, he admits neither comes close to the experience of Paralympic success.

“They can’t compare – things like the Paralympics or world championships are the most special competitions you can play in.”

Transition

Winning medals playing table tennis was not always McKibbin’s goal, however.

As a youngster, he dreamed of success on the tennis court, until he was forced to quit at the age of 14 because of his bilateral talipes – the medical condition more commonly known as club foot.

“It was was pretty hard, I couldn’t achieve what I wanted,” he admits.

“I was very naive to Paralympic sport – I thought it was easy and not serious”

“I fell out of love with the sport as no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t able to compete with the people I used to beat. My dream as a child was to play at Wimbledon so, once I knew that wasn’t a reality, then it [the decision to quit tennis] was sort of made for me.”

It was not until his first international table tennis tournament in Romania that his ambitions to compete at the highest level were reignited.

“I wasn’t really expecting much. I went because I was offered and thought it would be a cool experience,” he says.

“I was very naive about Paralympic sport; I thought it was easy and not serious. But once I arrived and saw how high the level was, how professional it was, I made my decision [aiming to compete at London 2012].”

Challenges

McKibbin eventually moved up to the National Table Tennis Centre in Sheffield to train full-time in a bid to make his Paralympic dream come true, and he admits the step into the unknown was a tough experience.

“At first I didn’t [find it difficult to leave London for Sheffield], I just made the decision. I needed to go and that’s it.

©Wikimedia Commons

“But then I think after a while I did. I had never left home before, and I was suddenly living 170 miles away from my family, looking after myself, while not knowing everyone that well being so new to the team.”

Several successful years later, McKibbin faces new challenges, such as balancing his time between playing table tennis and studying for a part-time Sports Science degree at Loughborough University.

“It’s hard as I have to drive to Loughborough two times a week, so it’s a lot of driving. But it’s something I must do as I know I a need a degree for my future,” he explained.

“The key is being organised. I have my year planned out; I’m in good contact with my tutors and lecturers. I’ve started back full-time training now, and it is hard after a long day of lots of physical work to come home and focus on learning.

“But I will find a way. I’m not the first to do it and sure won’t be the last.”

Next generation

At 25, and with several international honours to his name, McKibbin is in a good position to give advice to the next generation of future Paralympians – and his key message is the importance of a strong work ethic and mental resilience.

“It will take a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice but, if you have a dream, you should go for it and never let anyone tell you otherwise,” he explained.

“There will be lots of ups and downs, but it’s the down periods that make you learn the most about yourself. Enjoy the lows because they make the success taste that much sweeter!”

Aaron is on Twitter @Kibsta91. Featured image ©Supercharge ParalympicsGB

St Mary’s on track for more success as Worlds head to London

November 15, 2016 in News & Features

The clock is ticking and the race is on to qualify for the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London.

Next summer, elite competitors from all over world will descend on the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, reviving memories of the 2012 Games.

But can the magic of that hugely successful event – and the medal haul they generated for Team GB – be recreated five years on?

With London at its multicultural and vibrant best for the Olympics and Paralympics, the achievements and record-breaking moments of 2012 still feel fresh in the mind.

As does the joyous spectacle and bouncing energy, the pride and joy that filled the Olympic Stadium – compared to the rows of empty seats and lack of atmosphere at the Rio 2016 Games.

From the athletes to the fervent crowds and army of ever-helpful ‘Games Makers’, London showed how the Olympics should be, and for the world to see.

Great show

At St Mary’s University’s Endurance Performance and Coaching Centre (EPACC) in south-west London, staff are confident that the 2017 IAAF and IPC World Athletics Championships can match will have a similar feel-good factor.

“Seeing the likes of Farah and Bolt training here just gives them so much inspiration”

“It was fantastic, I have never seen a crowd like London,” said Rowan Axe, an assistant at EPACC. “I don’t think you will ever beat what we had, the home support was just fantastic.

 “London in particular, it’s so multicultural, they just get behind everyone, whether they be a British or American or whatever, the crowd is behind them.

“And for athletes, competing in front of their home crowd provides inspiration. Next summer is going to be brilliant – London always put on a great show.”

St. Mary’s has played an important role in the achievements of British athletics, with the likes of Mo Farah and Jo Pavey among its success stories in recent years.

Endurance

“For distance it’s right up there,” said Axe. “I think we produced around 40% of the endurance squad selected to represent Team GB for the Rio Olympics.

“That’s a testimony to the Centre, and looking ahead to the Worlds in 2017, I think there will be a similar number of EPACC-supported athletes competing for Britain.

“Andy Vernon in 5k and 10k, you might have Adele Tracey for the 800m, the list can go on. I think the Centre is helping to produce the great endurance athletes that we need. The continued support from the London Marathon is crucial to enhancing those athletes to get to that next level.”

As well as helping to hone British talent, EPACC’s reputation for sporting excellence has also seen it play host to some of the world’s greatest athletes.

Like Farah, Jamaica’s nine-time Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt  has occasionally trained at the EPACC in preparation for major events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Ambassador

“It’s a huge benefit to both British athletics and endurance running if it inspires student athletes to try and get to that level. If they can see those calibre of athletes  it inspires them to push themselves,” Axe said.

“A lot of these students are still very young and have a long way to go. But seeing the likes of Farah and Bolt training here just gives them so much inspiration.

“We need to get the profile of athletics out there a bit more, but hopefully it will continue to grow, and we will get more people watching it”

“It’s great that Farah is a huge ambassador for our university. A lot of these students look up to him, and it definitely gives them a lot of fuel to achieve some success.”

According to Axe, the EPACC has played a big role in the Somali-born runner’s feats, which this summer included defending his London 2012 5,000m and 10,000m titles in Rio.

“Farah used the Centre to his advantage, he progressed year on year, looking to take that extra step, and that is ultimately what to took him to the Nike project in America.

“But without the support that he had from the Centre, he might not be the athlete he is today. It definitely helped his career.”

Right direction

However, even Farah’s success and with the 2017 Worlds on the horizon, Axe believes British endurance running still needs plenty of nurturing and support.

“In the UK, you go to some of our track meets around the country and there will be very little media coverage, there won’t be any big-name sponsors, it lacks a bit of that environment.

“I think they we need to get the profile of athletics out there a bit more, but hopefully it will continue to grow, and we will get more people watching it.

 “It’s definitely going in the right direction, it is getting there.”

Medals for Team GB at next summer’s eagerly-awaited athletics extravaganza in Stratford can only help that process.

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