Action Woman Awards winner Rachel Atherton barely had time to try her crown for size before Britain’s sportswomen began staking claims for this year’s prize.
The hunt for BT’s Action Woman of the Year 2014 is underway and every month BT Sport will be highlighting potential contenders.
There’s a distinct Winter Olympics feel to February’s offering after Team GB’s women dazzled in Sochi, while we’ve also acknowledged standout achievements from cycling and motorsport.
But it’s not just down to us – we want you to nominate the sportswomen who have impressed you most, using the #BTActionWoman hashtag on Twitter.
A final shortlist of 10 nominees will be produced at the end of the year and put to a public vote to decide the winner.
To get us underway, here is the first batch of sportswomen to have marked themselves as Action Woman 2014 contenders…
Ahead of Sochi, the expectation on Lizzy Yarnold was huge. Slapped with the label of a medal favourite well before she even boarded the plane, all eyes were on the 25-year-old from Sevenoaks tasked with delivering Great Britain a fourth consecutive Winter Olympics medal, and second successive gold, in the women’s skeleton.
Britain have enjoyed remarkable success in recent years in the sport which involves hurtling down an icy track on a glorified tea tray at speeds of up to 80mph, negotiating tricky twists and turns along the way.
Yarnold was aiming to follow in the prestigious sled tracks of Alex Coomber, Shelley Rudman and Amy Williams, with Britain’s notable progress in the sport translating into bronze, silver and finally the elusive gold medal over the course of three Winter Games.
Lizzy Yarnold - Key stats:
- 19 - Yarnold's age when she first took up skeleton.
- 17 - The number of corners she negotiated on the 1500m Olympic track of Sochi’s Sanki Sliding Centre on her way to gold.
- 29 - The amount of kgs her sled, Mervyn, weighs.
- 90 - The speed, in mph, she can reach when hurtling down a skeleton course.
If Yarnold was feeling the pressure, she hid it well. Aboard her sled, fondly named ‘Meyvyn’, she made a solid start in her first two runs to top the leaderboard overnight by a significant 0.44 second advantage.
Being made to wait until the following day to finish the job might have tested the nerve of some but Yarnold kept her apparently impenetrable cool, revealing in her post-Sochi blog: “What does one do during the overnight gap between the two most important days of your life? Watch Poirot.”
What does one do during the overnight gap between the two most important days of your life? Watch Poirot.”
The next morning, there was no wobble, no hint of a collapse. Yarnold’s dominance of the event saw her all the way through stellar third and fourth runs and right to the top of the podium, bringing home Britain’s first Sochi gold with a whopping 0.97 secs advantage to send the trackside ‘Yarnie Army’ wild.
But even with the medal around her neck, Yarnold insists the hard work isn’t over yet as she aims to introduce more people to the sport. “The most important thing for me is to get into schools and show people the medal. It’s not just something I hold, by myself and sit at home looking at. It’s important to tell people about the sport, skeleton, and tell them all about how to get into the sport and the magic of the Olympic event.”
When Dannys Baker and Kelly played curling in the BT Sport studios with frozen chickens, it was the ultimate cultural signal that the sport had really gone mainstream. No greater accolade could have been paid to GB’s Sochi Olympic medalists, led by their respected skips, Dave Murdoch and Eve Muirhead.
Muirhead was a revelation in the Ice Cube Curling Centre, with her precise and icy blue-eyed glare and a steely resolve that only broke into tears when the final stone was delivered to defeat Switzerland 6-5 in the bronze medal playoff match. The sedate, slithering progression of that stone was in marked contrast to the violence of the screaming at the televisions and radios across the country until it settled, virtually inch-perfect, on the target.
Excelling at the sport once rudely dismissed as “housework on ice”, 23-year-old Muirhead from Blair Atholl - famous for its castle, distillery, horsetrails and now her - became the youngest ever skip, male or female, to win an Olympic medal. Her final play after 11 painfully intense days, earned the medal that made Sochi the greatest British performance at a Winter Games in 90 years. “Oh, I didn’t realise it,” she said afterwards. “I’m glad I didn’t know that when I played it.
Eve Muirhead - Key stats:
- 4.5C degrees - Ideal temperature to do her stuff on the ice.
- 4 - World Bagpipe Championships in which Muirhead has competed.
- 19 - Years old when she led the team that failed to qualify for the Olympic semi-finals.
- 1541 - The first reference to curling when a notary recorded an apparent match “throwing stones across ice” between a monk at Paisley Abbey and a relative of the Abbot.
“Maybe I come across as bit stern-faced, quite focused. Inside maybe I’m not as hard as everyone thinks I am.”
Ironically, she and her teammates, Claire Hamilton, Anna Sloan and Vicki Adams, had suffered a 50% funding cut in 2012 by UK Sport because they had “only” been ranked sixth in the world at the time. Something that probably didn’t come up when Muirhead was invited to meet the Prime Minister at Downing Street as part of the post-Sochi celebrations. “I made so many personal sacrifices after the funding was chopped. At one point, I asked myself if I needed to go and find a job”, she had told the Daily Record in 2013.
In which case it would probably not have been too difficult to find one. Professional golfer (she plays off scratch) and full-time bagpiper would have been amongst the options. “I’m one of those people that’s very stubborn, so that when I start on something I have to master it.”
The compilers of pub quizzes will be “stoked”. Not necessarily the word they would have used, this being a relative newcomer to the nation’s vocabulary. They will be stoked because they have a whole new line of questioning: “Who was the first winner of GB’s Olympic medal on snow after all 22 previous winter medals over 90 years had been won on ice?” Answer: former schoolgirl gymnast, chalet girl, cardboard inspector, fencing teacher, doughnut seller, and, now Olympic bronze medalist, 33-year-old Jenny Jones from Bristol.
Everyone was stoked. Andy Murray and Jessica Ennis Hill who followed her on social media, her friends in the BBC commentary box who earned praise/damnation for the symphony of screeches that accompanied her medal-winning run, and the nation, suddenly introduced to slopestyle snowboarding, a world of tricks, adrenalin and wildly-obscure metaphors.
“Riding switch is like writing left-handed while wearing a chip hat and being attacked by seagulls,” said one of the whooping commentators. (No French accent, so it wasn’t Eric Cantona.)
Jenny Jones - Key stats:
- 2 - Brothers, David and Sam, who she “tagged along with”, e.g. jumping off rocks in Cornwall or riding the unicycle their parents bought them for Christmas.
- 3 - X-Games slopestyle gold medals (2 global, 1 European)
- 300 - Complaints to the BBC for the commentary on her bronze medal but immense backing on social media from people who loved it and knew what “stoked” meant.
- 1 - Appearance on the Jonathan Ross show and probably Jack Whitehall’s phone number, who looks like he’s just itching to go slopestyle.
Lying fifth after her first run in the final at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, Jones was awarded 87.25 for her second which took her into first place and bequeathed her the torment of watching 10 rivals follow her down the immense and challenging course. When Austrian medal prospect, Anna Gasser fell on the final run of the day - to whoops of unsporting stokiness in the commentary box - Jones’s place on the podium, and in history, was assured.
It was the moment that attached Britain to the Sochi Winter Olympics and most particularly to the modest X-Games champion who learned to snowboard at 17 on a dry slope in Somerset. She was not impressed by trailing behind her two elder brothers. “I was a bit jealous. I was like, ‘Right, I’m not having this.'"
She did not have it. She went on to become the pioneer for British snowboarding for over a decade and despite suffering a concussion before Sochi (where she banned herself from high heels, skateboarding and Irish dancing to limit risk to her ankles), she brought slopestyle in from the cold. “It’s the challenge and the fear”, she said of her attraction to the sport.
“It’s still sinking in - the history part. Hopefully I’ll be in a few pub quizzes now”.
There are few sports as male-dominated as Formula One. It’s been more than two decades since a woman took part in a grand prix weekend, and almost 40 years since a female last qualified for a world championship race.
But forget bikini-clad dollybirds smiling inanely in the pit-lane, umbrellas held aloft to shelter the male drivers. Susie Wolff is shaking things up.
The 31-year-old from Oban, Scotland isn’t a new face on the motorsport circuit – she’s been living life in the fast lane for years. After taking up go-karting aged eight, Wolff competed against future stars including Lewis Hamilton as she took the first steps of her driving career.
Susie Wolff - Key stats:
- 14 – Wolff’s age when she shared a racing podium with Lewis Hamilton. He came first and she came third.
- 53 – Her weight, in kgs (“on a good day”)
- 2 – The number of seconds behind four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel that she finished on the time sheets at the F1 Young Driver Test last year.
She hit the headlines last month when Williams, for whom she became a development driver in 2012 after seven years in the German Touring Car championship, announced she will drive in two free practice sessions later this year at the British and German Grands Prix.
Not since Giovanna Amati, who failed to qualify in the 1992 Brazilian Grand Prix for Brabham, has a woman taken part in an F1 event. For Wolff, it marks what could be a crucial step towards becoming the first British woman to compete in an F1 race.
The next natural progression will be taking part in a race."
"If you can take part in the Friday practice sessions, then of course you have to be looking at doing an actual race,” said Wolff.
"I said the minute I joined Williams I didn't want to run before I could walk.
"For me it's about doing a good job each step of the way and if I do that in the practice sessions then the next natural progression will be taking part in a race.”
She must feel like the makers of Gravity this week. Sometimes the honours just come in bundles. While Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi drama scooped seven Oscars on Sunday night, Joanna Rowsell put in a spectacular performance to win both team and individual gold medals in the pursuit at last week’s World Track Cycling Championships in Cali, Colombio. Then Chelsea, her beloved football team, went top of the Premiership.
If it sounds like luck, it isn’t. Rowsell, one of the three London Olympic pursuit team members, along with Laura Trott and Dani King, roused 17 million viewers in August 2012 to great heights of elation when they won gold at the velodrome. But along the way crunching falls, debilitating illnesses, and broken bones have littered her path.
After her double-gold performance, she admitted that it had been “touch and go” whether she had boarded the plane to Cali due to a chest infection, otherwise known as “pursuiters’ couch” - the dry hack that develops as the lungs regularly try to cope with intense effort in dry, dusty velodromes. Last year she was obliged to miss a chunk of training with a broken collarbone, sustained by an over-the-handlebars fall prior to the Ride London event.
Joanna Rowsell - Key stats:
- 5 - Medals won in Cali by the Women’s track cycling team.
- 0 - Medals won in Cali by the Men’s track cycling team. “This whole week’s been a bit of a nightmare,” said Ed Clancy, part of the men’s pursuit team that finished 8th, their worst result at the World Championships in 15 years.
- 3:30:318 - Rowsell’s time - a personal best - in the Individual pursuit.
- 2016 - The year of no more heroics in the Individual pursuit. It is scrapped from the Olympic programme.
But, working on the theory that what doesn’t end your career makes you stronger, she took on the current world record holder in the individual pursuit, Sarah Hammer from America, roared to any early lead in the 3,000m event and never surrendered to the woman who has won five world titles since 2006. It was a ferocious and dominant performance.
“Can’t believe I’m Individual Pursuit World Champion!!! What an amazing week!” announced Rowsell, Oscar-style. Now she looks forward to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where she has ambitions to compete in the pursuit but perhaps also in the road time trial.
“I’m so excited for the Commonwealth Games. I didn’t do it last time in Delhi because I was ill with glandular fever. We’ll see how that goes nearer the time. I’ll prioritise the pursuit. I’d love to compete in both though.”
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