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
Sunday 06 May 2012
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
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.
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.
Road race, time trial, team pursuit, team sprint, keirin, ominium and sprint teams announced on 13 June.
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.
Men's and women's indoor teams (12 players, two reserves) to be announced on 29 June.
Four horse-rider combinations and one reserve to be announced following the FEI Nations Cup event in Rotterdam, 20-24 June.
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