Maggie Alphonsi throws herself into Rio dream after conquering the world

Following her glittering rugby career, the England star tells Matt Majendie she is aiming for the Olympics – at shot put

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The Independent Online

Maggie Alphonsi has been transported back to virtually where it all began.

Barely a few hundred metres away from the cement circle where she first hurled the shot put as a 13 year old, she has returned to do exactly the same thing.

Instead of the now defunct Salisbury Secondary School, her sporting home is Lee Valley Athletics Centre, where she shares the terrain with the likes of track athletes Christine Ohuruogu, Adam Gemili and Dwain Chambers.

The once teenage sporting hopeful has notably more experience under her belt 18 years on – admittedly in the altogether different sporting sphere of rugby union.

Alphonsi bowed out of the game last month having helped guide Saracens to the Premiership title. A glittering 11-year career, which included seven Grand Slam titles with England  and three World Cup appearances, including that famous triumph last August, had finally drawn to a close.

So having achieved everything possible in one sport, what do you do? In the case of Alphonsi, she is targeting a place at the Rio Olympics next year in the shot put.

Perhaps a berth with the England Sevens team might have been the easier route to those Olympic rings but Alphonsi argues – no doubt unconvincingly to those who have played with and against her – that she lacks the speed for the high-paced nature of sevens. So while her former colleagues get ready to do battle in the Six Nations, which gets under way on Saturday, Alphonsi will be slowly coming to terms with the nuances of her new event.

Of that ultimate ambition of Rio, which she admits may prove elusive, she says: “It’s dangling in the distance. I’m putting myself out there and having a go. I’m doing  everything I possibly can to get myself there. I’ve only got a short window to get there but I’ll give it a go.”

The current dominant force in the event is New Zealand’s Valerie Adams, a two-time Olympic champion with four consecutive world titles to her name, who measures in at six foot four inches tall and 120 kilograms. In contrast, Alphonsi is a foot shorter and nearly 50kg – roughly the same weight as double Olympic cycling champion Laura Trott – lighter.

But the former rugby player is well versed in being told she is too diminutive to shine in sporting circles: her 70  England caps say otherwise.

“People think you need to be big but you get different types of athletes and my strength has always been my power so it won’t be a case of bulking myself up,” she says. “I’m really quite strong and well built, I just need to be quicker.”

There have been issues to get used to. Going from a dressing room with at least 14 team-mates to solo sessions in training has taken some  getting used to, not to mention the vagaries of an entirely  different sport. “I knew it would be a challenge,” she says of the first few weeks of training, “and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but I’m not letting that faze me. It actually came back quite easily.”

Her greatest concern under the tutelage of coach Tracey Quarty is her technique, to the extent that neither athlete nor coach have been measuring the distances thrown.

“Obviously you can see roughly the distance you’re throwing but it’s important not to focus on the outcome right now but just the technique. But we’re going in the right direction.”

Alphonsi has her first competitions looming although they will be at low-key events she choses not to divulge so that she can enter the athletics fray in a careful fashion.

Athletics’ apparent gain is a loss to women’s rugby, where Alphonsi has done so much. The peak was undoubtedly last August’s World Cup win in Paris. She admits it might not have been her rugby-playing swan-song had England not lifted the trophy, with the lure of another four years and a still elusive World Cup triumph. However, she has moved on, in her mind to “let another youngster in”.

England will be favourites to win the women’s Six Nations tournament even with the sudden departure of head coach Gary Street virtually on the eve of the tournament.

“I didn’t see that coming,” is Alphonsi’s take on Street’s exit. “But I guess it was a natural evolution. Players move on and coaches do too. So close to the Six Nations, it’s a bit of a surprise but I imagine there’s been a lot of talks about it. But I don’t think it will affect the girls – they’re too focused for that.”

Whatever the headlines, she is merely happy to have the women’s game in the spotlight. Having stumbled into rugby union by what she calls a miracle on the suggestion of her PE teacher Lisa Burgess, who used to play for Wales, there was virtually no spotlight on women’s rugby when she began.

So to be greeted after the World Cup triumph with photographs on the front and back pages of the newspapers – all of which she has kept for posterity’s sake – was, she says, surreal and crazy.

The same could be said about Alphonsi’s latest sporting venture.