Meet the Lancashire athletes competing at Rio 2016
PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 August 2016
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Andy Greeves speaks to some of the athletes who will be flying the flag for both Great Britain and Lancashire in Rio this month
Sport: Hammer (Olympics)
Burnley-born hammer-thrower Sophie Hitchon will attend her second Olympic Games this month and will hope to build on her twelfth place finish at London 2012.
The 24-year-old Blackburn Harriers athlete said: ‘London 2012 was an amazing experience with my first Olympics taking place in Great Britain. I learnt so much from much from the Games and I came away with a personal best at the time too. While I was a bit disappointed with my performance in the final, it was still very positive in terms of where I was in my career at that time. Going into Rio, I can draw on that experience of London without any doubt.
‘My preparations for Rio have been going well and I’m in a better place than I was 12 months ago. My performance at the World Championships last year was really good as I twice broke the British record on the way to finishing fourth in Beijing.’
Born in 1991, Sophie was inspired by her parents to get involved in sport from an early age. She prospered at various athletic events before focusing on the hammer. In 2007, she got the opportunity to represent Great Britain for the first time at the World Youth Championships.
‘My family were involved in track and field sports themselves,’ Sophie said. ‘I joined a local athletics club and I was doing other events, like shot put, when my family encouraged me to have a go at the hammer when I was aged about 14 or 15. I never looked back from there.
‘My career highlight to date would have to be my bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 and obviously competing at London 2012.’ Level-headed to the last, she added that she will travel to Rio focusing on her performances rather than thinking about medals.
‘For me, it’s all about getting through the various stages at a major championships. Qualification can often be the hardest thing, but if you achieve that, you just look to continue things a step at a time and prepare for the final. When you’re in the final, it’s then a case of seeing what happens with regards to medals.’
Living and training in Loughborough these days, Sophie still gets back to Lancashire whenever she can to see friends and family in the Burnley area.
‘The county of Lancashire and my home town of Burnley mean everything to me,’ she smiled. ‘I grew up there, went to school there and it’s where my athletics career started. School was a lot of fun, even if I wasn’t the most academic person! I went to Ivy Bank Business and Enterprise College shortly before it became Hambeldon Community College.
‘One of my earliest memories is days out with my grandmother and my sister and taking our dog for a walk around Towneley Park. I spent a lot of time in the Mechanics Theatre in Burnley too as I used to dance and we did performances there.
‘These days, being back in Lancashire is all about relaxing and seeing family. It’s hard to get home as we are pretty much competing every weekend during the season but I’m hoping to spend some time there after Rio.’
Sport: Athletics (Paralympics)
If, as expected, wheelchair sprinter Isaac Towers is named in the Paralympic track and field team announced in late July, he will be one of the youngest British athletes heading to Brazil this summer.
The 17-year-old, who is currently in sixth form at Cardinal Newman College in Preston, has been competing at senior international level for a number of years.
He won silver and bronze in the T34 800m and 400m events respectively at the IPC European Championships back in 2014 while he also competed in the IPC World Championships last year.
Towers believes the experiences of those major competitions will stand him good stead ahead of his expected appearance in Rio.
‘All being well, I’ll be competing in the 100m and 800m in my class (T34) at Paralympics,’ says the youngster from Catterall. ‘As this is my first Paralympics, I think it’s a starting block for future Games and as much as anything else, it will be about the experience of being there. If I was to win a medal, that would be fantastic, but it’s fairly unlikely. This will be about preparing me for events down the line.’
Isaac was born with cerebral palsy, which affects his lower limbs and fine motor skills in his hands. Despite difficulties with walking too, Towers enjoyed an active childhood taking part in a variety of sports while he was at St Michael’s-on-Wyre Primary School and the Arnold KEQMS School in St Annes.
‘My parents encouraged me to try lots of different sports when I was younger,’ he said. ‘When I was in secondary school, I went to a few trial events from wheelchair tennis and basketball to seated throws. But after a period of time, I started wheelchair racing and loved it. It was then I got put in touch with my coach Peter Wyman, who I train with in Liverpool, and things went from there.
‘I didn’t compete for my first year of wheelchair racing as I learned my technique and built my fitness. After that, I entered a few national events and was picked up by the British Athletics’ world-class performance programme, which helps develop young athletes and funds them to be able to compete. My biggest highlight to date came in 2014, winning a silver and a bronze medal at the European Championships in Swansea.’
Another big moment in Towers’ career came in 2013, when he was nominated for the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year.
‘It was a fantastic feeling to be nominated,’ he said. ‘To be recognised within your own sport is one thing, but to be given national recognition like that was great. The ceremony was over in Leeds and it was brilliant. It was a great atmosphere and experience.’
As Rio draws near, Towers continues to prepare with Peter Wyman in Liverpool and also attends his home athletics club Blackpool Wyre and Fylde twice a week where he trains with Paralympic legend Shelly Woods.
Sport: Taekwondo (Olympics)
Heavyweight fighter Bianca Walkden made history at last year’s Taekwondo World Championships, becoming just the second British athlete to win gold at the event after Sarah Stevenson. Her victory was all the more impressive given that the Liverpool-born star had just completed a rehabilitation period after undergoing knee surgery.
‘Being up on the podium is the ultimate in sport,’ she said. ‘It’s the thought of medals that is the main reason you train every day. All the hard work you put in and the tiredness is all worthwhile if you can secure titles and that World Championship victory was obviously a very special moment for me.’
Bianca is in fine form ahead of this summer’s Olympics, having won gold at the European Taekwondo Championships in Switzerland back in May. This was her second European triumph, having also claimed gold in Azerbaijan two years ago, meaning she heads to Rio as reigning European and World Champion.
‘All the preparations for Rio are going very well and I can’t wait to get out there to be honest,’ the former Broughton Hall High School pupil said. ‘I’ve never been to Brazil, so my trip to the Olympics will be my first visit. I hope it’s a memorable one with me coming back with the gold medal around my neck.’
Walkden’s confidence and optimism ahead of Rio is in stark contrast to four years ago when she failed to make the selection for the Olympic Games in London.
‘Missing out on London 2012 was absolutely heart-breaking,’ the 24-year-old said. ‘If it was on a scale of one to ten of disappointment then it would be 100! The experience has made me stronger though. I’m so focused for Rio it’s untrue and the disappointment of 2012 has made me even more determined to land gold four years on.’
Born in Liverpool on September 29, 1991 and raised in West Derby, Bianca was introduced to taekwondo when she was eleven.
‘I pretty much loved the sport from the word go and going along to the taekwondo club with my friend was the best decision I have ever made in my life.
‘Not long after being introduced to the sport, I was training regularly and one of my coaches was Steve Jennings. Steve has competed in an Olympics himself and is one of the coaches for the GB national team now. He took me for a test day at the GB headquarters when I was a teenager. In all honesty, I didn’t know the significance of the day. I just went along, did well on the day and ended up getting selected for the team. I was 16 at the time and I quickly ended up moving to Manchester.’
Bianca lives in Beswick in Manchester, close to the GB Taekwondo centre at Ten Acres Lane. She divides her time between Manchester and her home city of Liverpool and on the rare occasion she has some downtime, she loves to hit the shops.
‘My favourite places are Liverpool One and the Trafford Centre. I like adventurous activities too. I went to a Go Ape centre the other day and that was great fun, climbing and swinging from the treetops. I really like go karting too. I’m definitely a bit of a tomboy.’