Annie Last: On track to be Team GB's Last champ
The first woman mountain biker to represent Britain for 12 years is poised to win her team's final medal of the Olympics. Emily Dugan meets Annie Last
Emily Dugan is social affairs correspondent for The Independent, i and Independent on Sunday, covering Sarah Cassidy’s maternity leave. She was previously a news reporter for The Independent on Sunday. Her investigations into human trafficking have twice been awarded Best Investigative Article at the Anti-Slavery Day Media Awards and her human rights journalism was shortlisted for the Gaby Rado Memorial prize at the 2012 Amnesty Media Awards.
Sunday 05 August 2012
Sitting wide-eyed beneath the strip lighting at Team GB House, a windowless tower that all British athletes pass through on arrival in Stratford, Annie Last looks a little bit lost. The 21-year-old mountain biker has come straight from a training retreat in the Swiss Alps and the hype of the first week of the Olympics looks like it is finally beginning to hit her.
"It takes a bit to sink in", she says. "The Olympic Games feel a long way away at the top of a mountain in Switzerland. On the flight over I was in my GB kit and there were lots of people wanting their photo taken with me. It's the most photos I've ever had to do on a plane journey."
Last still seems amused and a little baffled by the experience, but it is probably one she will need to get used to. You may not have heard of her yet, but this time next week Last will have made British history. Even if the promising rider does not take home the medal that many predict for her, she will become the first woman to represent Britain in the sport of mountain biking for 12 years. She may also – appropriately enough with a surname like hers – bring home the last medal of the Games for Team GB. On Saturday morning, the penultimate day of the Olympics, Last will be pedalling over the lumps, bumps and precipitous rocks of the purpose-built course at Hadleigh Farm in Essex.
For now, she is just getting used to the fact that her Olympic showdown is almost here. "It feels real now", she says, stepping out tentatively into the crowds on the edge of the Park. She doesn't yet know the way from Team GB's headquarters to the Olympic Village, so I help her navigate the dizzying round of pass checks and security screenings to get there while she takes in the unfamiliar location, her eyes on stalks.
This is all a very long way from the rural Peak District where she first grew to love the outdoors. Growing up in Bakewell, she preferred riding horses to bikes and only took up serious off-roading when she was 10, following a bet with her older brother Tom. He said he would have a go on a horse if she entered a mountain bike race. Tom only sat on a horse for a few minutes before getting bored, but Annie was hooked on cycling after one race.
Even without the bike, she would have had a rosy future. Flying through school with four As at A-level, she has deferred a place at Sheffield University Medical School to give life on two wheels a shot. "At some point I might go back to medicine", she says, "but at the moment this is what I'm enjoying."
Her mum, Jane, is a teacher and head of a school deaf unit, and her dad, Adge, runs an Outward Bound centre. They and her brother Tom will be among the crowd watching on Saturday, as will her grandparents, who live in Leigh, just a few miles from the venue.
Last believes that having them there, along with an army of Britons, may give her the edge she needs to succeed. "There's going to be 20,000 people there and most of them are going to be GB supporters, which hopefully means they'll be cheering for me. Having that crowd can only help."
Mountain biking became an Olympic sport only in 1996 and despite combining the daredevil jumps and stunts of BMX with the stamina of long-distance endurance racing, there is still relatively little public interest in it, so the crowd will be a novelty. "In Britain mountain biking is nowhere near as big as track or road racing but having it at a home Olympics will hopefully encourage people to give it a go," she says.
I first met Last back in March, when she took me out on a very wet, muddy and cold cycle ride at her local playground, the Lee Quarry near Manchester. She managed to keep smiling even when the rain went horizontal and the mud threatened to send everyone careering backwards downhill.
Though cycling is her job, you get the feeling she's the sort of person who would be out in the rain even if it weren't. "I love what I get to do", she says. "The places I get to go to as a mountain biker are incredible. It's not like going to a gym or cycling in traffic; you get to be in the woods or bridleways. That's really special.
"There has never been a day when I've thought cycling isn't what I want to do. There's always a day when you get up and think 'Do I really want to do four hours in the rain?' but I've never wanted to give up."
At 21, Last is an infant in mountain-biking terms, but she is already making the kind of podium finishes that others take a decade more to reach. Three weeks ago she came in third in a World Cup race in Val D'Isère and in June she took first place in the Davos racing cup, beating the current Olympic champion, Sabine Spitz. She will go into the race ranked fourth – and her form has improved since the rankings.
"This year everything has been going in the right direction and everything has been improving – my last results have shown that," she says. "I'd like to think that if everything goes right on the day I could be in with a chance for a medal."
Last had only been to the Olympic Village once before our meeting and she will not be back for another week. For the rest of the Games she will be at a hotel in Essex to be near the track, only returning to the village on Sunday. Unlike others in Team GB, she won't have long to enjoy the village after her race, but she plans to stay as long as she can. "I definitely want to make the most of it. I'll probably stay until Monday or Tuesday," she says.
Since her two recent race successes she is looking forward to the moment when she can finally let hair down. "We bought some champagne already after the last race. It's great to get a result like that, and I'm saving the celebration until after the Games."
Since I met her five months ago her race positions may have shot up but the size of her ego has not. She's still reluctant to reveal her successes – and it is her coach, Phil Dixon, who interjects to give a proud run-down of her latest finishes.
As she gets up to go I notice her tracksuit trousers are hemmed with pins where she has taken up the legs. "They'd run out of my size," she laughs, pulling at the back of the voluminous trousers. "Look, the arse is massive," she chuckles. It is a sign of how far she is from the prima donnas of sport that when she went to get her GB kit last month and they didn't have the size 8 she needed for her tiny frame, she just made do with what they had.
It is hard to imagine a medal turning her head, which is just as well, because when she races this week in the closing moments of the Olympics, there's a chance she will show that Team GB have saved their best until Last.
7 September 1990 Born in Great Longstone, near Bakewell, Derbyshire to Jane, a teacher, and Adge Last, who runs an outdoor activities centre.
2001 Attends Lady Manners School in Bakewell, Derbyshire.
2008 Wins the junior section of the British National Mountain Bike Championships.
2009 Defers a place at Sheffield Medical School after getting four As at A Level to join British Cycling Olympic Academy programme.
2010 Represents Great Britain in the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Cyclocross World Championships, finishing 11th overall.
2010 Wins a silver medal in the under-23 UCI Mountain Bike & Trials World Championships.
2011 Wins silver again in the under-23 UCI Mountain Bike & Trials World Championships.
January 2012 Signs for the Milka Superior professional mountain biking team.
May 2012 Qualifies to compete in mountain biking for Great Britain at the 2012 Olympic Games. She is the first female to do so in 12 years.
July 2012 Wins Davos BMC Racing Cup, beating Olympic champion Sabine Spitz and silver medallist Maja Wloszczowska in the élite women's race.
11 August 2012 Represents Great Britain in the Olympic mountain biking race at Hadleigh Farm in Essex.
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