Becky James: 'I've bathed and fed my disabled sister... it gives me perspective'
She became a double world champion and Britain's new queen of the track last week but the health of sibling Bethan and their remarkable family will keep her grounded
Wednesday 27 February 2013
This is a peloton with a difference. "We're the Jameses, we're the cyclists," says Becky James. "I think everyone knows that."
Everyone, the newly crowned double world champion means, in Abergavenny and no one in Abergavenny can keep up with the Jameses. It is a challenge the rest of the cycling world may have to face up to in coming years as the latest shining talent to roll off British cycling's golden production line might, by her reckoning, not even be the best rider in the family.
Meet the Jameses: Rachel, 24, the eldest and aiming to ride for Wales at next year's Commonwealth Games; Ffion, 15, a mountain biker who rides for the national development squad; Megan, 12, the national road race champion in her age group. "She's an animal," says Becky, 21 and the first Briton to win four medals at a world championships. And then there is Christine, their mother, who only took up cycling because she worried about her daughters going alone on long training rides. Last year she finished runner-up in the over-50 category at the national mountain bike championships.
"The house is always full of bikes," says Becky, "Sometimes if I go out on a recovery ride it will be me, my mum, Ffion, Meg, George, my sister's boyfriend Luke, Rach. Meg is just a daredevil. She loves coming on the road rides. She sits at the back and if there are no cars around she will go for a sprint. They are all really good cyclists."
Even George? "He does all right," says Becky, a fact confirmed by Megan, who likes to use him as her domestique on family rides. George is George North, Becky's boyfriend, the Welsh rugby international. They have seen little of each other recently, divided by sporting priorities, but he, along with some of his team-mates, made it to the welcome-home party held at the family home on Tuesday night. "I was baking all morning," says Rachel.
Becky arrived home at 2am that morning, her father David having collected her off the plane from Minsk, where she changed her life over the course of five remarkable days of riding; two gold medals in the individual sprint and the keirin and two bronzes in the team sprint and the time trial. A former junior world champion, James had endured a tough couple of years after stepping into the senior ranks, hampered by illness and injury, culminating in being left out of the London Olympics. Then she was told, despite being a reserve, she was to stay in Manchester through the Games. It was Shane Sutton, the team's head coach and dictionary definition of a straight-talking Australian, who delivered the news.
"Shane just tells you how it is," says James. "There were a few tears. It was everyone's dream to go to the Olympics and missing out, it was upsetting, it was hard. It took a few days to get over it all, a few weeks.
"Me and my mum were talking about it this morning and however hard it was at the time, I'm so glad I put it behind me and continued training through and didn't take any time off, kept going. It gave me more motivation and seeing everyone winning, I thought I want to be doing that one day.
"I never thought I would ever want to quit because I love riding my bike but it is always hard when you go from winning junior world titles to not winning anything. People train to win and I was wondering how long it would take for me to win again. It gave me the drive and motivation seeing everyone else winning and thinking, why can't I be doing that?"
Last year was not a good one for the Jameses. There is a fifth daughter – and a son too, Gareth, himself a former talented squad cyclist – called Bethan, who has been severely disabled since birth.
"I've only seen Becky race twice in the last two years," says David James, their father. "Bethan needs 24-hour care and attention. She spent 12 weeks in hospital last year, it was a very tough time."
David and Christine were helped through that time by the Barkers – parents of Elinor, the 18-year-old who won a world title of her own in Minsk – who live near the hospital where Bethan was treated. It offers a stark contrast to the blooming health of the rest of their family.
"It brings everything into perspective," says Becky. "When I start getting upset about racing or if I'm worrying about things too much, my mum will always put things into perspective and it makes me think of my sister. It just makes you want to kick yourself.
"Bethan's 17. She was born with fluid on the brain and needs 24-hour care. My parents have been the most amazing people in the world. They never believed in getting carers in so up until this last year they did it all themselves. This last year has been really tough, though.
"When she's poorly, it's hard. It makes you appreciate everything you have so much more. She got really ill [last year]. They didn't know how much permanent damage was going to be done. She was rushed into Cardiff for emergency surgery and thank goodness she's come round and she's back to her normal self. It took a long time.
"In the past, I'd help feed her and bath her and, if my parents wanted to go out, I'd be there to look after her. It's hard to do it on your own. My parents have been absolutely amazing, being able to do that.
"You don't know if she even knows what you're talking about but she's smiling and she'll be happy and it's like she knows. I'll definitely show her the medals. I'll be like 'Beth, I'm a world champion! Can you believe it?' And she'll probably smile and laugh and you'll think 'I wonder if she can really hear me'. You really hope she can and is just taking it all in. You just want to tell her everything like a normal person. I've always wanted her to share in my successes."
Becky's successes have established her, three years out, as a strong prospect for the Rio Games. The Australian sprinting great Anna Meares, Victoria Pendleton's old rival, will be back from her break from the sport to take on a new British challenge. Meares has long acknowledged James's talent – after the Briton's 2010 Commonwealth silver, Meares sent her a specially inscribed copy of her autobiography congratulating the Welsh medallist.
Rio 2016 could yet prove the first of several Team James Olympic outings. Megan and Ffion like to train on the climb up Sugar Loaf, one of the Black Mountains that loom over their home town, in pursuit of their own lofty ambitions. A somewhat better known Sugar Loaf could prove the backdrop to their older sister's crowning glory. "We've never been abroad before," says Megan of her and Ffion, "that would be a nice holiday."
First her big sister has a holiday of her own – a trip to Argentina and returning in time to watch Wales and North take on England. "I've been told I'm not allowed to touch my bike," says Becky. "I've got to allow my body to recover because it's been such a hard year. But I can't wait to get back on my bike."
Sporting stars: Family affair
The eldest sibling, 24, is aiming to ride for Wales at next year's Commonwealth Games. Won three events in a row last summer, taking the Welwyn omnium, the women's omnium at Herne Hill and the Meadowbank GP.
Younger sister, 15, is a mountain biker who competes for the national development squad. Won first national mountain bike championships in 2011 when she won the one-lap juvenile women's race.
Youngest sister, 12, is the national road-race champion in her age group.
Brother was formerly a talented squad cyclist.
Becky's mother finished runner-up in the over-fifties at the national mountain bike championships.
Don't forget the boyfriend...
Becky's beau is a certain George North, no slouch in the sporting department either. For the uninitiated, North, 20, has 29 rugby union caps for Wales and helped them win last year's Grand Slam.
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