The woman who did her own Olympics
East Ender Jen Offord was so captivated by London 2012 that she decided to tackle all 38 disciplines herself
Sunday 01 September 2013
When Jen Offord puffed her way across the fin-ishing line after a five-kilometre run through London's Bushy Park last weekend it signalled not only the completion of her first triathlon but the culmination of a remarkable Olympic odyssey in which she attempted every one of the 26 sports on the London 2012 programme, embracing 38 different disciplines, in the course of a year. Now all she wanted was a pint.
"I was gasping, exhausted," she said, "but exhilarated at the same time. It had been some journey."
One which began when the curtain came down on a London Games the 30-year-old civil servant from the Olympic heartland of Hackney had actually wanted to get away from. "I have always been a bit sport-phobic, and living in the East End and working in Westminster I thought the disruption would be horrendous and I would be getting it both barrels," she said. "I was a real cynic about the Olympics, and it got to the point when I seriously considered leaving London for the duration."
But she stayed, to be captivated by them. "What grabbed me most was the variety of sports. I felt we had been so saturated in the media with football that we had forgotten there are so many other sports that are truly amazing and quite inspirational. Afterwards I thought I'd like to have a go at one, but I wasn't sure which."
A friend jokingly suggested she should try them all. "I thought, that's not a bad idea. Let's have a bash at the lot."
It was an astonishing volte-face for someone who admits she used to bunk off PE at school. "I did the London Marathon in 2009, but that was as much for exercise as anything. I also went to a few gym classes, but the primary motivation for that was to enable me to eat more cake!" So, hard on the heels of Lord Coe's Inspire A Generation came Inspire A Jen, a one-woman mission of truly Olympian proportions which she started with a canoe sprint at the Stoke Newington reservoir: "Tremendous fun and so exciting."
Following this she ran the gamut of sport from archery to wrestling, producing an illuminating and amusing blog* which attracted support from Dame Kelly Holmes and offers of tuition and advice from several members of 2012's Team GB. Among them was Sebastian Prieto, who taught her the rudiments of handball, and hockey's Chloe Rogers.
The former Olympic medallist Kate Allenby took her through the rigours of the modern pentathlon — fencing, showjumping, running, swimming and pistol shooting — and was sufficiently impressed to report: "Jen put herself outside her comfort zone on so many occasions, yet she was really positive and outgoing about the whole challenge. She was very easy to coach, taking information on board and putting it into practice."
Offord says water polo was the hardest discipline and synchronised swimming the weirdest, the latter "all rather cliquey." Boxing she found the most fascinating. "Trying it totally changed my view of the sport. Beforehand I thought it was about a bunch of gnarly-eared blokes lumping each other's brains out. It turns out there's quite a bit more to it — it's incredibly skilful, for a start."
After trying the Girls in Gloves scheme with instructor Naomi Gibson at the Body Studio in Shoreditch, she blogged: "Naomi tells me, 'Keep your arms up to protect your boobs — you do NOT want to get punched on the tit.' Damn straight. I don't really want to get punched anywhere. This sport has taught me that I'm all mouth and no trousers, a massive wuss and surprisingly averse to the idea of punching someone in the face, but the training sessions are amazing."
Offord says she has enjoyed so many sports that it is hard to choose one to stick with permanently. "I was surprised to find I was quite good at gymnastics and track cycling, so cycling is high on my list. But I have learned that you don't have to be good at sport to enjoy it."
Although she never envisaged her groundbreaking project as a giant step for womankind, she does offer a message that sport should have no gender barriers: "Unless participation actually depends on you having male sex organs, how can a sport not be 'a woman's sport'? If you've ever believed anyone who told you that participation in a sport depended on you having male sex organs, frankly, you've been had.
"I also think that we're not exposed to enough variety of sport. Teenagers aren't necessarily inspired to try anything beyond the mainstream sports that are on offer at school, so they don't think there is something out there for them.
"I'm almost certain that anyone could find a sport that they enjoy, and take considerable health and social benefits from – they just don't necessarily know what it is yet.
"In light of my experiences my views on sport have completely changed. I'm fitter, stronger and happier as well." And full of the Olympic spirit.
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