Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Olympic dreams: England international distance-runner, NICOLA BAMFORD explains the ups and downs of being an aspiring Great Britain international.

All too often are the Press filled with the diaries of international achievers; detailing their rise to fame and global success, when rarely do we gain an insight into the lives and minds of the rest of us mere mortals; equally passionate and driven to chase our sporting dreams, patiently in the background.

I’m far from being a superstar. Ranked amongst the top-30 seniors in Britain for 5km, 5-mile and 10km on road and with the odd international outing and national medal under my belt, I did however, feel that by sharing my story of mixed heartache, frustration and glimmers of hope, could with any luck, inspire fellow athletes to persevere through testing times and see the bigger picture.

I remember when I used to reluctantly clean the toilets at my local sports centre in Nottingham and say to the staff "one day I'll be in the Olympics!" - The point to this is that everyone has a dream, and whilst it's important to be realistic in your aims, you should always set your sights high. Each of us has a path in life that we hope will ultimately lead to us reaching our goals. We must remember though, that there'll be many obstacles to overcome down that path until we reach that ambition - the key is to persist.

I particularly like the quote from Stephen King's The Shawshank Redemption; "get busy living or get busy dying". Regardless of whether or not I achieve my dreams one day, at least I’ll have really lived whilst striving for them; the highs, despite being outnumbered by the lows, are all part of a learning process and invaluable life experiences. Sport helps us to live life through a different perspective and sometimes we have to stand back to realise just what we’ve achieved.

Being a world-class athlete and reaching the 2016 Olympics has always been a dream of mine. The London 2012 Games will be the most awe-inspiring and motivational sports event to happen in the United Kingdom in our lifetimes. Like many athletes, I’m 100% focused and determined to get to Olympic level, but if 2016 comes too soon for me, then my mission is 2020!
Every athlete has a different reason for taxing their bodies’ day in, day out. For me, it’s the intrigue as to just how fast I can be and the persistent voice in my head craving to be number one. My desire to succeed in sport also stems from the goal of making my coach and family proud.

The motivation to join my local athletics club (Notts AC) came from the death of my mother when I was 12. I wanted to keep busy and escape the grief somehow - sport provided and still provides that for me. The promise I made to my mum that I’d always try my best and make her proud drives me on.

Shortly after my first competition, I set myself goals of representing my county, region and country, which luckily followed; although the latter took seven years to achieve.

Athletics is my life – I try to ensure that I do everything as perfectly as I can; methods to avoid injury, eating correctly, enrolling on a sports degree and now centring my career on it. While it's great to dedicate your life to your passion and achieving your dreams, it's also a good idea to have another outlet for if and when things go wrong. This is where support is vital; surround yourself with a reliable, knowledgeable support network. Athletes need to be psychologically strong to succeed in elite sport- self belief and an athlete's lifestyle in my opinion, are the definitive factors in reaching the pinnacle of your sport.

I believe there's no point in doing something half-heartedly, I always know that I have always tried my best and given 100%. My motto; “Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits,” pushes me on through the tough times.

I was stuck in a rut for the first six years of my running career, nowhere near national let alone international standard but I always believed I'd get there in the end through persistence. To be number one, you have to train like you’re number two. If you're not getting the results you want, you need to consider making changes. I changed my coach and my lifestyle and have never looked back.

I train religiously yet sensibly - typically running sixty to seventy miles a week, training twice a day - on the road and in the home-gym. To aid my recovery, I try to have a weekly sports massage and during the hard graft of winter training, I’ll sit in an ice bath for twenty-minutes every day - it may sound crazy but there's method behind that madness!

I'm not naturally gifted so I have to work very hard and I choose to live the lifestyle of an elite, full-time athlete. I’m tee-total, rarely see a bar, have a strict, balanced diet and ensure I get at least eight hours sleep every night. But you don't have to live like a nun like me to get to the top! - Everything in moderation - a healthy-balanced lifestyle is key.

Through sport I've made friends from all over the UK and had the chance to compete over in Europe. I've gained international experience by racing in internationals in Brussels, Belfast, Edinburgh and Germany. My main achievements include representing England at cross-country, coming second in the 2006 English under23 5,000m track Championships, coming third in the 2007 British University 5,000m Championships, winning the 2007 senior Midland 3,000m and 5000m Championship and I've competed for the Midlands several times.

My short-term aim two winters ago was to make the Great Britain under23 European cross-country championships team. Training was going brilliantly but I got ill right at the wrong time and my dream slipped away. I was initially heart-broken but now I'm more philosophical about it- it just wasn't my time and everybody has an off-day from time to time.

You have to learn to take the rough with the smooth; its part and parcel of getting to the top in sport. I reminded myself of all my achievements; I hadn't lost my talent overnight, and I vowed to bounce back stronger. I’ve had many similar disappointments since, but what doesn't kill you makes you a stronger athlete and person - it makes you even more determined to succeed. These are hard lessons, but lessons well-learned.

Participating and training for sport has helped me grow as a person. The dedication, discipline and mental strength required to succeed in sport transfers over into my career and personal life.
Despite not yet being at the level to attract a sponsor, I’ve been lucky enough in the past to receive financial support from local councils and Sheffield Hallam University, from which I was very grateful. During my final year at university, I was lucky enough to be accepted onto the Hallam Elite sports programme. There were several benefits to being such a scheme and an obsessive athlete like myself made the most of what's available. I soaked up the access to free physiotherapy sessions, sports nutrition advice, gym membership, fitness assessments, workshops, psychology and sports science support.

Personally, the psychology and nutritional support was the most pivotal in my development as an athlete. It shames me to say that the niggling voice in my head teasing me about my weight and figure has, at times, threatened my sanity and health. Athletes should see their body like a car – it’s nice if it looks good, but what really matters is if it gets us from A to B and passes its MOT. The human body is the most precious gift we’ll ever receive, so we must make the most of it and be proud of what it can accomplish.

There's no better feeling than pulling on your national vest and representing your country, whilst doing something you love. That feeling, honour and privilege is only experienced by a limited few and is just rewards for dedication top sports people give to their sport.

My aims are to be a regular senior international and to compete in European, World and Olympic competitions; but mainly I want to reach my potential, whatever that may be. I'm not limiting my challenges, I'm challenging my limits. Resigning myself to the fact that it’ll most likely take another seven years for me to get where I want to, I remind myself; the longer and harder the journey, the sweeter the success will be.

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