When Cindy Ofili took up the hurdles, her older sister Tiffany Porter advised her to stick to volleyball. It was a comment without any sororal jealousy, back then just a reality check for a sister six years her junior who, it had to be said, was all over the place when she first tried her new sport.
Britain’s hurdling sisters have raced against each other just once in their lives over 100 metres, at the British Championships, where age overcame the exuberance of youth for a family one-two and booked the pair their place in the British team at next month’s World Championships.
Quite how they came to be hurdling sisters is a mystery to both of them. “It started off a little rocky,” says Porter, 27, casting her mind back to their days growing up when Ofili decided to take up hurdling. “At first, I was like, ‘Sis, volleyball would be good too’.”
Ofili is even more disparaging of her first attempts over the hurdles. “I wasn’t really a hurdler, more a volleyball player and basketball player,” admits the 20-year-old. “And yeah, it was a rocky start. I didn’t know how to three-step so I did all kinds of things wrong. I was all over the place but it got progressively better and I eventually started winning.”
Her trajectory has been such that Ofili could yet go on to be the better of the pair. At the same age, Porter’s personal best was 12.73sec, Ofili has already run 12.60 this season, enough to rank her ninth in the world this season just three spots and four hundredths of a second behind her sister.
But for Ofili, there was never any plan to follow in her footsteps, just a keen interest in trying out most sports before literally stumbling into hurdles to become a global force and the newest member of the British team, having been part of the quintet that recently transferred allegiance.
As they prepare to race against each other in the Anniversary Games in London, Ofili’s form this season, though, has surprised everyone, including Porter, who says: “Now I’m like, ‘Oh my God’. She’s surprised me more than herself.”
At the time of those early stumbles, Porter had said confidently that should her baby sister ever beat her over the sprint hurdles, she would immediately call time on her career.
“Back then, it didn’t seem a risky thing to say,” admits Porter. Should youth overcome experience at the Anniversary Games – the pair line up against each other – will retirement beckon? “I’m not going to retire,” says Porter. “I hope I can prolong having to eat those words.”
Off the track, Porter is more outgoing, Ofili a little reserved and very respectful of her sister. So as the older of the pair, can Porter be bossy? Ofili admits: “At times but that’s the big-sister mentality.”
Porter, who does not deny that and doubles up as Ofili’s hair stylist, says she keeps her sister in check out of a protective nature. “She’s a good kid and if I’m this protective of my little sister then I can only imagine what I’ll be like as a mum.”
As the older sibling, Porter has been more vocal, most notably in the Plastic Brits row which accompanied Ofili’s nationality switch last month – both were born and raised in Michigan but qualify for citizenship through their London-born mother, Lilian.
Ofili seems unfazed by it all, saying: “It’s been fine, I literally focus on running well so I’m not too focused on the outside stuff.” As for Porter, it is a similar standpoint: “I just think as an athlete it’s easy to get caught up in stuff that’s not about athletics so I’ve always just tried to worry about hurdles. I love to run, compete, represent my country and put on a good show.”
They insist they never argue, although that is partly down to the sizeable age gap that has meant Ofili has always been the baby of the family.
“Well, she’s always been my baby sister but I’m struggling with the fact that’s changing and she’s going to be 21 in a couple of weeks,” adds Porter. “But the older we get, the closer we get. We kind of look out for each other.”
For now, they mostly train apart, Porter based with Rana Reider in the Netherlands while Ofili is finishing the last year of an education degree back home in Michigan, although they plan to use the Netherlands as their base after the Anniversary Games.
Porter is married to the American hurdler Jeff Porter, who briefly doubled up as Ofili’s coach in her early days. Porter jokes “we like to keep it in the family” of the threat that her husband may coach an athlete quicker than herself.
Porter has the medals her sister does not: European gold, Commonwealth silver and world bronze, as well as indoor titles at world and European level.
But she argues that her sister could yet eclipse her. “She definitely can be better than me,” Porter says. “She shouldn’t limit herself by saying she wants to be like her sister but be better. I’d love her to be better than me, just not while I’m running! I want to leave my mark, then turn it over to her to do even better things.”
So what would the ideal result be? Both are after a one-two, just with a different winner.
They will shake hands in the warm-up room beforehand, wish each other luck and then any sisterly notion dissipates immediately.
“On the start line for those 12 seconds she’s another competitor,” admits Porter. “Once I’ve finished I look for my result, then hers and then, ‘Good job, sister’. But I can turn it off for 12 seconds.”
For Ofili, London is a step up, a race she admits is comfortably “the biggest of my life”. Her sister will style her hair before giving her a required pep talk, and then it’s each for herself.
Tiffany Porter and Cindy Ofiili will be competing at the Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games at the Olympic Stadium, London. Tickets are available via britishathletics.org.ukReuse content