Trouble and strife in store for GB Olympic hopefuls

Denise Johns and Jody Gooding share a life – and an all-consuming ambition. The next few weeks will determine whether one or both will see their hopes of summer glory dashed. Sue Mott finds frayed nerves across every sport in the Games

Mrs Gooding frequently receives calls from the other side of the world. She often cannot see her Skype caller clearly. He is in the dark, and in bed. All she can make out is a fuzzy silhouette. "Hey, Jody," she reminds him. "Light yourself up with the torch on your phone." If he's not too tired he complies and there he is, her husband, Mr Gooding, a few thousand miles away, swimming into vague visibility. Welcome to the world of would-be Olympians. This is what passes for connubial bliss when husband and wife are both trying to qualify for London 2012.

This is arguably the most stressful period that athletes across all the Olympic and Paralympic sports will ever know. It could mean the fulfilment of ambitions nourished over decades. Or it could be the sudden abandonment of every hope and dream. We are reaching that moment where every sport has to announce which athletes will be taking part in the only home Games of a lifetime. And, crucially, which will not. This is the psychodrama of selection.

After four, six, eight years of training, preparation, believing, praying, willing and not even having a drink, many athletes will discover they are surplus to requirements.

"At its worst, it's horrendous," said Dr Steve Peters, a consultant psychiatrist to Britain's cycling team, among others. "An athlete lives for this opportunity, often from a very young age and if this moment disappears – and it's the nature of sport they may never get it back – it's very hard."

That's why Denise Johns, as Mrs Gooding is known in her day job as a member of the GB women's beach volleyball squad, has criss-crossed the world this year, from New Zealand to Europe to California to Brazil to Shanghai, in search of the points and form that could qualify her, with her partner, Lucy Boulton, for Horseguards Parade. When she married the GB men's beach volleyball playerJody Gooding last year, on a beach in Charleston, USA, she wore a dress she had ordered online because there was no time to go shopping. She never did find the right shoes, and went through with the ceremony barefoot. That's how it is. They see each other maybe three months in 12.

Her husband flies similar air-miles with his partner, Gregg Weaver, vying with two other teams for the one host nation place.

"I'd be gutted if I don't make it," said Johns. "But incredibly excited if Jody does, so it would be bittersweet."

That's one word for it. There will be others. Mindful of the potential for trauma, GB Hockey have asked their players how they would like to hear the news – both squads must be cut from near 30 to 16. Text, email, face to face? It was pointed out to Jason Lee, the men's head coach, that maybe this was a bit touchy-feely. He thought about it.

"Well, I've spent the last four years telling these players they are the best in the world. Now I'm going to kick them in the nuts. It's not that touchy-feely really."

Niall Stott is one of the hockey players. He hated being first reserve in Beijing and has devoted the last four years to making up for it. He missed out on selection for this week's test event. "We're fully aware they'll be some very good players that don't get selected," he said, "just because of the strength of this squad. Some good players won't be there. That's the reality. It makes it even harder. You're good enough to be there but for whatever tiny reason you're not in London.

"I've asked for an email. I'd like to hear the official news in my time. So if I want to go away and sit on a hill and open the email, I can. It's horrible, it's horrific. Because I know that as soon as I see an email from Jason Lee, my gut will be doing somersaults.

"It's not be all and end all, but we're athletes. If you find out you're not playing – it hurts! I want to play. I want to compete at everything I do."

The British women's indoor volleyball coach, Audrey Cooper, likens the process to being made redundant. "Some will take it very personally and it could affect the athletes who remain too. Girls are nowhere near as ruthless as boys. There will be tears and they'll be sad to see people in their group say goodbye. All we can be is open and honest and look players in the eye."

Dr Peters, who will sit in on GB Cycling's selection panel, takes the view that it goes with the territory in elite sport. "Selection can be destructive if not handled well, but it remains a fact of sporting life. Don't even start on a career in sport if you don't accept the rules and regulations.

"If an athlete is the type to feel they've wasted four years of their life by not being selected or not winning a medal, you don't have to be a psychiatrist to imagine that whenever they have an injury or a disappointing result they could be actually traumatised. There will be an enormous struggle with this athlete just to keep them motivated and committed. You have to keep things in perspective. It's sport. It's just fun. Although it's hard to see that at the time."

Pity then the equestrian coaches, who have to worry about six legs per athlete rather than two. "It's six times the trouble," said the coach Rob Hoekstra, who has the delicacy of fetlocks to consider as well as human frailty. He also has to whittle down a dozen claims for selection to four. Among them is the 2008 Olympian Tim Stockdale, who hampered his preparations for London – rather extremely– by breaking his neck last autumn.

Yet he is still in contention, almost fully recovered and calmly winning three-star events in France. His secret? At 47 he's seen it all before.

"You can't get carried away. If you become so overwhelmed buy the process of selection, you end up buggering it up. I'm an intense competitor, but you've seen what happens to people like Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll when they put too much pressure on themselves. I try and stay really chilled out."

This is easier said than done when UK Athletics reckon that the selection trials in Birmingham at the end of June are going to be the most competitive since 1992. In the women's 1500 metres there are four world-class runners contending for three places; that kind of dilemma is replicated in the high jump, the discus and the men's 400m.

"It was the same in 2009 just beforethe World Championships," said the 1500m world silver medalist Lisa Dobriskey. "I learned my lesson then. I was coming back from injury, three of the girls had already run the qualification time and it was so stressful. I felt like panicking."

Now she is just getting fit on an underwater treadmill at Aston Villa and politely not mentioning the football results.

But for all the good advice, selection time is still hell.

"It turns my stomach just thinking about it, to be honest," said the volleyball player Nathan French. "I hope I find out through email, just in case I don't get selected and I can cry hysterically into my pillow without the rest knowing.

"Not everyone can go. I understand that. Only 12 of us, and there are 16 soldiers still standing. From the start we described this journey as a 'mission' and like every mission some people will fall and not make it. It's going to be heartbreaking for them. If one was me I'd try not to think the last four years was a waste. I'd try to remember I'd given my all."

Take your pick for Team GB

Athletics

After UK Trials in Birmingham on 23-24 June, the first two athletes in each event reaching the "A" standard will qualify. A third place can be awarded on a discretionary basis. Selection to be announced on 3 July.

Hockey

Women's selection to be announced on 18 May (including squad reduction from 28 to 16). Men's selection to be announced in mid-June (reduced from 27 to 16), after Azlan Shah Hockey Cup in Malaysia.

Cycling

Road race, time trial, team pursuit, team sprint, keirin, ominium and sprint teams announced on 13 June.

Beach volleyball

Men's and women's teams to be announced on 29 June. One host nation slot each, plus possibility of a second women's team, dependent on results over the next two months.

Volleyball

Men's and women's indoor teams (12 players, two reserves) to be announced on 29 June.

Showjumping

Four horse-rider combinations and one reserve to be announced following the FEI Nations Cup event in Rotterdam, 20-24 June.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence