Sophie Heawood: Suddenly, excellence is the new normal

Sophie Heawood
Sunday 05 August 2012 09:36

I thought we were all in this together. I thought it was understood that if you were a British woman, healthy enough, you'd make all the right noises about getting fit but then sit on the sofa chain-scoffing Pringles, promising to go to aerobics or Zumba twice next week instead.

I distinctly remember the time my friend Nicola emailed asking if I could go for a drink after work and I said, "Oh God, help no, I paid upfront for a course of six yoga classes and I can't miss the fifth one when I've only been to two." "Of course you can," she said. "You're supposed to miss them all when you pay upfront, that's how it works!" So we went to the pub. Because that's just what you do.

Except, watching the Olympics – in fact finding myself manically GLUED to the Olympics – it transpires that it isn't what so many, many women do.

I mean, I knew about Jessica Ennis and Rebecca Adlington but I hadn't really watched all these glorious others. The wind-like runners. The unbelievable cyclists. The rower who says she only took up the sport when she saw a marketing campaign encouraging women to take it up for London 2012, so she got into it – and won a gold medal. The judo gold winner who first took a class aged six – taken there by her mum.

For all these British women winning medals, there are the ones who nearly made it on to the team, and all the ones behind them who nearly made it to nearly making it. Suddenly I am nervous. How far back does this flowchart of hard work go? I was quite comfortable in my floppy Britishness, my French and Saunders-ness, my snooze button. My lack of winning streak. I thought that was normality.

Suddenly, excellence can be normality too. As I write this, Jessica Ennis is standing on the track, telling the BBC that, "There's a lot of pressure but it's a nice pressure." She sounds so normal, she could be queuing for a sandwich in Marks and Spencers.

So I try to remember the last time I ran as fast as I possibly, possibly could. I can't. I think I'm frightened that something might break. And then I read a British athlete saying that she really feels the burn in the last 20 metres and she loves that bit the best because she knows she's pushing herself beyond what she's capable of. Not to the very limit – but beyond it. And then Gabby Logan speaks on telly about a Britain no longer afraid of winning. It seems winning no longer has overtones of humourless superhuman androids. Of authoritarian government programmes and of people with weird bulging calves, as if they're trying to smuggle hamsters.

And so embarrassment has shifted to the other foot and it is we – maybe there is no we – it is me, seated here, no longer comfortable in my slump, wondering how to begin. Fortunately I am delusional enough to watch these games and still think that if I start tomorrow I can stand a chance of gold in Rio 2016. But starting tomorrow won't do anymore. We are starting today! The minute I get off the sofa that I am currently stuck to as never before, watching the Olympics, that is.

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