Olympic blues: The stars of London 2012 remember their moment in the spotlight - Olympic News - Olympics - The Independent

Olympic blues: The stars of London 2012 remember their moment in the spotlight

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Six of the Games' sporting heroes describe the delight, disbelief and doubt that followed...

Nicola Adams

Boxing

Adams is the first female boxer to win an Olympic gold medal. She thrashed China's Ren Cancan 16-7 in the final, dancing for the crowd even before the referee raised her arm in victory.

The 30-year-old, who spars with both men and women at her gym in Sheffield, almost gave up boxing after struggling to secure funding. She took jobs as a painter and decorator, and appeared on Coronation Street and Emmerdale as an extra. Adams says her triumph was a special tribute to her mother, Dee. "She was so happy," says the boxer. "With all the ups and downs and tears we've had with the boxing, and the injuries, she was just so happy to see me make my dream come true."

What's she been up to this past year?

The world's top-earning boxer, Floyd Mayweather, is known for his ostentatious spending sprees, but Adams says she couldn't be more different. "I'm still the same person that I always was. I haven't changed anything. I still walk my dog in the same park that I used to, things are just a bit nicer now. I'm not really one for new cars, but I did get a nice pair of new shoes." But, she concedes, the number of people who approach her when she goes out means that "going shopping is a bit complicated – I tend to do most of it online."

Adams took just one month off training after the Games to prevent losing fitness, and is now back on "full cycle". In between training she became the president of the charity Us Girls, to help girls from disadvantaged areas get into sport. "I met a girl in Manchester who is 12 years old and has just started boxing – that was the age I started. I hope when I retire I'll see her progress through the ranks and see her become the next Nicola Adams."

Boxing is ideal for people without huge resources, Adams claims. "You don't need a lot of money to do it. You just put your gloves on and do it. It's easy to get involved and it's not too expensive."

What does the future hold?

"I want to be the first woman to win a gold in the Commonwealth Games," she says instantly. It was a "really easy" decision to stay amateur, she says, because "there's still a lot that I feel like I need to achieve".

Her victory meant a lot to women's boxing. In the 1990s, the "Fleetwood Assassin" Jane Couch was called "demented" for trying to fight professionally, but since the Olympics the sport has won a new respect. "It's brought it out of the dark ages and into the light," says Adams. "Everybody's been able to see that it's a good technical sport. People could see how much passion we have for it. The general public keep on asking when I'm next going to be boxing, and will it be on TV, so the demand is definitely there."

Gary Connery

Opening ceremony

Daniel Craig's James Bond sequence with the Queen was one of the most talked-about parts of Danny Boyle's Opening Ceremony. Stuntman Gary Connery, who has worked on films such as Batman Begins and Harry Potter, dressed up as the Queen and parachuted from a helicopter and into the stadium.

Just two months prior to the ceremony, he became the first person to jump out of a helicopter and land safely without a parachute, using a 'wingsuit' to descend from 2,400ft into a pile of 18,600 carboard boxes. But the Olympics stunt, though simpler, was just as nerve-racking. "There was no room for error," he says. "It was a one-off, one-hit opportunity to get things right in front of a vast live TV audience. It's not like in film where you can call cut and go back and do it again." His focus and concentration, however, meant he "didn't capture a lot of the moment for myself".

Connery has had many opportunities since to savour what happened. "I honestly thought my work would be over when I landed the parachute on the Friday night at the ceremony. I couldn't have been more wrong. It will always live on and that moment will never go away."

What's he been up to this past year?

It's been a quiet year for the stuntman. Perhaps, he says, "people think I'm either too expensive or I'll always be busy". He's not instantly recognisable to your average man on the street ("I'm not a David Beckham"), though when people find out about his stunt they "expect me to arrive diving through the window". It is, he says, "a lovely thing to be able to talk about and I never get bored of it."

What does his future hold?

He's upping the danger levels of his stunts. "I'm hoping that I get permission to land the wingsuit again in cardboard boxes," he says, only this time, he wants to dive from a fixed structure rather than a helicopter. His "philosophy" on danger has an alarming logic. "Things are only dangerous if they hurt you. People would label a 2,400ft wingsuit jump as dangerous, but later that day, I picked up a coke can and sliced my finger open. Now what's more dangerous? On that day, specifically, it was picking up litter."

Jade Jones

Taekwondo

Nicknamed the "head hunter" because of her tendency to aim kicks at the head rather the body, Jones won the under-57kg taekwondo gold medal when she was just 19 years old. She put on an aggressive display in her final bout, outscoring China's Yuzhuo Hou 6-4 and throwing her helmet into the air in jubilation. Disappointed with her silver medal in the previous year's World Championships, she went into the Games with "so much pressure, it was ridiculous".

On winning gold, Jones, from the small town of Flint in North Wales, was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. "Still it really hasn't sunk in," she says. "People say 'I can't believe you're Olympic champion' and to be honest neither can I. I keep looking at my medals just to remind me."

What's she been up to this past year?

Flint enjoyed the glory of winning. There was a homecoming parade, a leisure centre was named after her and the local butcher sold Olympic-themed sausages. "There was a kickin' chicken sandwich" too, "or something like that," she says.

Jones trains in Manchester, but she travels to Flint most weekends to see her family. "My mum watches my fights every day on the telly. I'm like 'Mum, come on, it's a year ago now'.". Her family and friends keep her grounded, and would "give me a slap" if she ever started acting like a diva. She insists her success hasn't changed her personality, but says, "I've definitely had to grow up faster than I would have. I've just been chucked in the deep end and had to deal with the pressure of the Olympics. I've gotten a bit older, [I'm] starting to get grey hairs already from all the stress."

Despite her new responsibilities, she still feels lucky. She has a Jaguar car and acknowledges her privilege in comparison to her old school friends, some of whom are "working in factories and things like that".

Jones comes across as incredibly normal. Unlike some other athletes, who got back into training immediately, she took a full three months off, enjoying the spoils of the Games and having a holiday in Ibiza. She got excited when Justin Bieber followed her on Twitter, only to find it was actually a Bieber fan with a similar name. "I was devastated," she says. "I'm not supposed to be a fan of Bieber but I like a couple of his songs on the sly."

Jones had a bit of a bumpy ride on her return to competition, losing her comeback bout at the Swedish Open. She won gold at the German Open in March, however, and she's currently tapering down ahead of the World Championships in Mexico this month.

What does her future hold?

"Every time I fight, everyone wants to beat the Olympic champion and everyone raises their game," she says. "Even in training, if I have a test match, people are celebrating wins as if it's the world championships. It's like, come on, it's just training!"

Her busy schedule means she hasn't had time for a full overhaul of her game, but she promises: "I've got a few tricks up my sleeve."

Jonny Brownlee

Triathlon

Jonny, the current triathlon world champion, managed to grab a bronze medal behind his brother Alistair and Spain's Javier Gomez. He was forced to play catch-up after incurring a 15-second penalty for mounting his bike too early in the transition to the energy-sapping 43km cycle portion of the race. It left him exhausted.

"I crossed the finish line and collapsed," he says. "My first reaction was being so pleased it was over because it hurt so much, and then I put my tracksuit on, my nice Olympic tracksuit, and thought – I'm getting a bit hot here, something's not right. I was sweating and sweating and sweating, and my clothes got super wet." He started spewing up the green-coloured energy gels he'd taken during the bike ride and the medal ceremony was delayed by an hour so he could be given oxygen and medical attention.

Having received his "bloody heavy" medal, he was ushered into the usual parade of interviews that greet medal winners following their race. But his fatigue meant he recalls very little of what happened and was mostly thinking "please be over" as people festooned him with questions and congratulations. "I just wanted to sit down and go back to the hotel. Which is kind of a bit sad now," he says.

More than anything, he wants to experience another Olympics so he can savour each moment. "You keep hearing athletes say 'It goes too quick', 'It was a whirlwind'. And it is just so true. I never really knew what they meant but I do now. You see clips on the internet and on TV and think, it did actually happen?"

What's he been up to this past year?

After the Games, Jonny admitted he had a bit of a comedown. "The Olympics is just one day: 7 August, 11 o'clock. We'd talked about it for so long, and we'd trained towards it with one aim." He counted towards it, "minus 10 weeks, minus nine weeks, and once it's over, you think 'what do I do?' No one really considers what's going to happen afterwards, and it changed our lives completely."

He "never went to the Olympics to be famous", but he doesn't really have a choice. He's astonished by the number of people who come to his book signings and still finds it bizarre when people say they cried as they watched him. "I'm there thinking – you cried watching me?" The Brownlee brothers both received a letter in the post from a pensioner with £10 enclosed to say well done for what they had achieved. "We kept it somewhere safe," he said. "We don't want to spend it."

Though he still trains with Alistair, he moved out of his older brother's house after the Games. They live outside Leeds just a few minutes apart, but it's given 23-year-old Jonny some much-needed independence. "It's far, far tidier, and it's nice to have a bit more space for my kit," he says. "I don't have to go downstairs and search for my shoes and find Alistair's nicked my gloves. I can cook my own food and watch my own TV. It sounds stupid but it is quite nice. You don't have Alistair saying he wants to watch a housing programme when I want to watch a football match."

What does his future hold?

Jonny is well on his way to retaining his world title, with wins in the Yokohama and Madrid races of the World Triathlon Series. He claims he's gotten better since the Olympics, having leapt back into training just a few days after arriving home from London so he didn't have the chance to feel sorry for himself after getting bronze.

His main hurdle remains his gold-medal winning brother. Jonny has never beaten Alistair when he's been fully fit. "Alistair's always beaten me so I kind of expect it now," he says. "If we're neck and neck maybe I do give up a little bit. But the way for me to overcome that is to just start beating him – in training first and then during races."

Now his efforts are focused on the 2014 Commonwealth Games and Rio in 2016. He'll be 26 when Rio comes around, the "perfect age" for endurance sport. "To win in Rio would be very special" he says.

Sarah Storey

Paralympics

One of our greatest Paralympians, Dame Sarah Storey added four gold medals to her collection in London with victories in the road time trial, road race, 500m time trial and individual pursuit. What was perhaps more astonishing than the gold medals was the margins of her victories. The 35-year-old opened up a five-minute lead by the halfway point in the road race, while the pursuit had to be stopped after she caught up with and passed Poland's Anna Harkowska on the velodrome track. Born without a functioning left hand, Dame Sarah, 35, has amassed 11 gold medals across swimming and cycling events over 20 years.

Even in comparison to the other medal winners, her determination borders on frightening. "In London I was the best-prepared athlete and left no stone unturned," she says, claiming that, despite her incredible haul, she still feels as if everything rests on the next performance. Though Dame Sarah looks back on the Games fondly, it almost didn't matter that they were in London. "The athletes were focused on the first event," she says. "They weren't bothered where the start line was; your job doesn't change wherever you are in the world."

What's she been up to this past year?

At the end of June, Dame Sarah gave birth to a baby daughter, Louisa May Storey. She became pregnant soon after the Games by her husband of six years, Barney. "This is a time for me to enjoy something different," she says. "I've been so focused for 21 years on me, and now I'm doing something for me and Barney."

She says she didn't experience any pregnancy cravings because they're "something the body is lacking already" and she "had the range of nutrients the body needs" by virtue of "starting out in such good shape". We spoke a few weeks prior to the delivery date, when she was still training for up to two-and-a-half hours a day, though there had been some concessions. She usually trains in the Peak District, but she'd been driving to flatter terrain in late pregnancy.

Dame Sarah protests she isn't a "control freak" in all aspects of her life. "I'm not going to say 'This is exactly how you must make spaghetti bolognaise'. You have to have an easy-going side in order to be able to function as a person." Since the Games she's made some time for her family. Her parents travelled the world with her to see her compete, queuing for hours to get the best seats at the Paralympics, but because of her competition routine their meetings were sometimes restricted to just waving from the crowd.

"I could see them for five minutes once the medal ceremony was over and that'd be it," she says.

What does her future hold?

She won't be retiring, and when we spoke still intended to defend her World Championship titles in Canada in August. "I can't wait to be back in that competition environment with a baby Storey mascot in tow," she says.

"It's funny because when [Barney and I] are on a ride together and I start talking about the Games, I actually start going a little bit quicker and you realise you have to slow down because you're pregnant, and I go 'Oh, I'm out of puff now'. If we were ever wondering whether it was the right time to retire – it's not, given my unconscious reaction."

Though her devotion to cycling remains unparalleled, it's no longer the most important thing in Dame Sarah's life. "Obviously," she says, "the priority changes when you've got a baby."

Carl Hester and Valegro

Dressage

Hester was part of the dressage outfit that won team gold ahead of Germany and the Netherlands. His pupil, Charlotte Dujardin, partnered with Valegro to take individual dressage gold with an Olympic record score. Valegro, and Hester's mount, Uthopia, both enjoy five-star treatment at his stables in Gloucestershire.

It was a "stressful year" for Hester. "Not only was I a competitor, but trainer and owner as well," he says. "I didn't have time to enjoy it. It wasn't the joyous occasion I thought it was going to be. Winning gold was a huge relief."

Team GB's success in the equestrian events helped garner more respect for the sport, especially, says Hester, when you compared our riders with the hapless showjumpers in the modern pentathlon. "That was quite scary, wasn't it. They were shockers. Some of them, you thought holy shit, they're not going to be able to survive, let alone jump round. I think it brought home to people the partnership you have to have with your horse to achieve gold-medal standard."

What's Valegro been up to this past year?

"He's living it up, with his own dietician and fitness regime. Some more gymnastic exercises have been introduced to his schedule, and he goes on a water treadmill twice a week." In December, Dujardin and Valegro won the Olympia event with another record score, so "he does hold a lot of world records now". The horse was then rested, and has only been back in training for three months ahead of August's World Championships. After that, he's going on the market.

"I don't come from a moneyed background," Hester explains. "I'm running a business. You don't make money out of keeping and training horses, and you don't make money out of teaching people. The only choice you have is to sell your horse if you have something everyone else wants. And a gold-medal horse is something people want to have because they can ride it for their own country."

There's a legal battle over Uthopia, but he should soon be up for sale too. It was rumoured that he would be sold for £7m. "I wish it was true," says Hester. "Two years ago the first dressage wonder horse came along, called Totilas, and reputedly sold for about £10m. But then everybody assumed that if your horse was a successful medallist it was worth that sort of money."

What does his future hold?

"I've been out with a new horse Dances With Wolves this year," he says. "That is my passion, producing new horses." After Athens in 2004, it took Hester "a few years" to get his enthusiasm back for riding.

But post-London 2012, "I'm actually enjoying my competitions, because now they are a little bit for me again rather than for so many people," he says.

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