Tension can get to Olympic athletes, but what about their families and friends?
Their nerves must be in shreds as they watch their son, daughter, brother, sister or partner fulfil a lifetime ambition. Here, those closest to some of Britain's greatest Olympians tell how they snuggled up in bed, hid in the wardrobe, and fought their superstitions to savour their loved ones' triumph in Games past. They spoke to Alan Hubbard
Sunday 22 July 2012
Leroy DeGale, 55
Father of James, middleweight boxing gold medallist, Beijing 2008
His mum, Diane, and I had stayed behind to allow his amateur trainer to go with him. We didn't want "Chunky", as everyone calls him, to be focused on anything but the boxing. We didn't want him worrying about where we were and what we were doing. So we went off on holiday to Cyprus, but there wasn't a good TV feed out there and I decided to come back and watch it at home. I saw all of the bouts up to the final. When it came to that, I just couldn't do it, so I hid in a wardrobe and opened the door now and then, shouting out to our daughter and some friends who were there, "What's the score?" Then I shut the door tight again. When it came to the last round, I thought, "I should really watch this." But I couldn't until they yelled out that he'd won. Then it was all "whoopee", and jumping up and down. Mum was on a beach in Cyprus with another son, Lewis, who was on the phone to us at home and giving her a running commentary. When James won, she squealed with delight and apparently startled everyone around her. I've watched every fight James has ever had, amateur and pro, at home and abroad, since he was 10, and I've always stayed cool and calm. I'm usually very stoical. At the end of the bout, he usually leans over the ropes and gives me a thumbs up, but this was one fight I just could not bear to watch. I was brought up as a strict Catholic, but at 15 I lost touch with religion. But believe me, on that night I prayed again. I still sleep with his Olympic gold medal under my pillow.
Jon Bigg, 46
Husband of Sally Gunnell, 400m hurdles gold medallist, Barcelona 1992
Sally and I got engaged three years before the Olympics and planned to marry soon after. Up until Barcelona, I had never been to watch her in a major championships, a formula that worked well, and we thought to change it might be a bit of a jinx. I watched her win the semi-final on TV, went to work the next morning, and as I sat at my desk, I thought, "What the hell are you doing here?" I knew then I needed to be there for her big day. I managed to book a flight that afternoon and at that moment Sally rang to say she had been given two tickets for the final by a sponsor. My mum packed a bag for me and met me at the airport with it. When I got to Barcelona, I walked for miles to find a hotel, but they were all full. I was on my way to sleep on a bench at a railway station for the night when I suddenly found a small place in a back street that had one tiny room left. They told me it would be "Olympic rates". I booked it for three nights. When I unfolded the registration form, I saw that I had signed for about £200 a night – a fortune for me in those days. I didn't have that sort of money, so I found a phone box, called my dad and he agreed to help me out. Next morning, I made my way to the stadium but found my seat was at the start of the 100 metres. I knew I had to be at the last hurdle on the home straight because Sally's coach had always reckoned that if she was at least level at that point she would go on to win. So I pleaded with one of the Spanish girl stewards to let me sit near a step opposite that hurdle and when she went over it I leapt to my feet cheering like mad. The crowd around me must have thought I was crazy because the race wasn't over. But, of course, she won. I watched her get the medal with a lump in my throat. I walked out of the stadium and stopped off at about half a dozen beer tents for a celebratory glass or two all the way down the hill. When I got back to the hotel, I found the BBC there waiting to whisk me in a car to be taken to the studio to be interviewed with Sally by Des Lynam. Suddenly, I became very sober and coherent.
Frank Dick, 71
Coach to Daley Thompson, decathlon gold medallist, Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984
Although I was head coach to the GB team in 1980 and Daley's personal coach four years later, I never actually saw him win those gold medals because, strange as it may seem, that was the way Daley wanted it. So I spent most of the time in the warm-up area with other athletes while the scores were relayed to me. Daley has always been a loner. That's where he is different from someone like Seb Coe, who liked his coach around him. Daley's philosophy was that, on the two days of the event, all our preparation had been done and now he wanted to do things his way. He was meticulous about every event in the decathlon. He knew not only the points he would have, but what his rivals would do. He had counted them all out, one by one. The last thing he wanted was to consult his coach when he was out there on his own. But I had been working with him every day up to then, and I knew the ins and outs of how this particular phenomenon worked to create his own excellence. He was not an easy guy to be with in the two weeks leading into the competition and the people he was closest to probably got it in the neck most. It was almost as if he was rehearsing for the hardness he would need in the arena. There could be no emotional attachment for him out there, I have never known anyone so single-minded. He even trained on Christmas Day, as he knew others wouldn't. There would be no wild celebrations after he won, although he was known for liking to have a bit of a laugh when it was all over. But almost as soon as I had congratulated him, he was already thinking about what to do in training the day after for whatever competition was coming up next.
Kay Adlington, 52
Mother of Rebecca, 400m and 800m freestyle swimming gold medallist, Beijing 2008
We weren't in Beijing for Becky's first swimming medal, but were watching her on the box at home at some ridiculous hour in the morning. Quite a few friends and family were packed into our living room in Mansfield. That was the first competitive race she had been in and my husband Steve and I had missed it as we didn't have tickets. We had been caught out in a ticket scam, having paid over £1,000 for two sets of tickets for the finals via a company we found on the internet. It went bust without delivering any of the promised tickets. [The company was later charged with fraud.] Obviously, once Becky had won the first medal we were desperate to see the second, and in the end it was the swimming correspondent of a national newspaper who helped us out. So we bought air tickets and flew to Beijing for her second final. It was fantastic to be there and see her swim in that wonderful Water Cube. We managed to get down to the poolside when she came out of the water and on to the concourse with her coach, where she was absolutely mobbed. We managed a bit of a group hug and then they had to call security to get us out of there. The Chinese were going wild. To say it was an exhilarating experience would be an understatement. When you have children, you never dream that anything like this may happen, and of course Becky's life has changed dramatically since. Obviously, we are crossing our fingers for these Games.
Margot Wells, 59
Wife of Allan Wells, 100m gold medallist, Moscow 1980
I was there with Allan, as his coach and the BBC had wanted to interview me as he got to his blocks. But I said, "No way". So they did it before, but left the cameras running, so everybody remembers me screaming my head off when the gun went. I thought it was a bit intrusive, actually, because it was exceedingly stressful. When you have been involved with someone every step of the way, and he's your husband, well, if was humanly possible for someone to want to win the medal more than he did, then it was me. The last six months had been geared to those 10 seconds on that day. No stone had been left unturned. The 100 metres is a different event to watch from any other because it all goes in a flash and you don't have a chance to evaluate what's happening. I actually thought he had lost because I was standing just beyond the finishing line. But when I saw it on the big screen, I thought maybe he'd won. I went racing up the stairs to the BBC commentary box and David Coleman kept replaying it to me. It was only when the names went up in Russian that I finally knew for sure, because I knew that there were fewer letters in "Wells" than there were in the name of the Cuban [Silvio] "Leonard", who was second in the same time [10.25 sec]). It seemed hours before I got to Allan because he had to go through dope control and many interviews, but I finally managed to talk my way into a press conference to be with him. I always knew he had a chance, but thinking that was the only luxury I allowed myself. Allan is now a 2012 Olympics ambassador and works as a systems engineer at Guildford University.
Pat Luton, 59
Elder sister of Tessa Sanderson, javelin gold medallist, Los Angeles 1984
Tessa's final was at night time here and we were all in my bedroom in Wolverhampton watching it on TV. It was mainly family: our mum, Murphy, and dad, Leonard, two brothers, another sister and a couple of cousins. Some of us were snuggled up in bed together. We were all yelling our heads off. There hadn't been much happening for Britain till then in those Olympics and we hadn't been winning many golds. Then Tessa came along and did it with that great throw – the first black woman to win an Olympic gold for Britain. When she climbed on to the podium, all of us were crying and hugging each other. We were so proud of her and we still are to this day. She had done so much for young people in sport. I wish she had been asked to have been more involved in these Olympics. I think they have done her an injustice. It seems such a shame because we all regard her as an icon.
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