The women who inspired us to gold: Olympic heroines launch Femail's hunt for Britain's most inspirational women
11:36 GMT, 13 September 2012
Today, the Daily Mail proudly launches our sixth Inspirational Women Of The Year Awards, in association with The Sanctuary Spa and the charity Wellbeing of Women.
Over the next four weeks, we'll be asking you to nominate the special women who deserve to be recognised – from an exceptional carer or extraordinary teacher to someone who's changed their community for the better.
The awards are being conducted in association with The Sanctuary Spa in London and the Wellbeing of Women charity, which is dedicated to improving the health of women and babies by investing in research projects and training specialists.
Five finalists will enjoy a complimentary day at The Sanctuary in Covent Garden and an all-expenses-paid trip to London in November, staying at the Mayfair Hotel. They'll meet Samantha Cameron at 10 Downing Street before attending the Awards Show Gala. The overall winner will also receive a 5,000 luxury break.
To nominate your inspirational woman, simply fill out the form below and send it in, or email your entry to [email protected] by October 10, 2012.
To launch the awards, INDIA STURGIS spoke to some of the incredible women who inspired us this summer – our gold-medal-winning Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Here, seven of them reveal the person who inspired them to win gold…
Mum told me: Don't complain, just do your best
Sarah Storey, 34, lives in Manchester and is Britain's greatest ever Paralympian, having won 11 gold medals in swimming and cycling. She nominates her mother, retired nurse Mary Bailey, 62, from Macclesfield.
There's nothing remotely starry about the woman who's my inspiration. She is my mother, who has supported me tirelessly from the moment I was born.
Golden girl: Paralympic cyclist Sarah Storey, who was born without a left hand, has never felt disadvantaged thanks to her mother, Mary
When I was born without a left hand – my arm became entangled in the umbilical cord while I was in the womb – Mum could have been distraught. Instead, she vowed never to treat me any differently or expect any less of me. And that's been the making of me.
Thanks to Mum's positive attitude, I always took part in able-bodied sport at school. If I complained that competitors had an unfair advantage with two hands, Mum retorted: 'Do your best and you can hold your head up high.'
Unbeatable: Sarah in action on the bike in the London 2012 Paralympics
At 14, when I competed in my first Paralympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, Mum was thrilled when I won two golds. But I knew she'd be just as proud if I came back with nothing – as long as I had done my best. All my medals are special, but winning my third 2012 Paralympics gold on Mum and Dad's 43rd wedding anniversary was particularly sweet.
Sarah Storey was funded by the National Lottery which helped support 9/10 Team GB competitors.
It all began when Paula gave me her autograph
Helen Glover, 26, lives in Caversham, Reading, and won gold in the rowing women's pair with Heather Stanning. She nominates long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe.
Even though we now compete in different sports, it was Paula Radcliffe who inspired me to be a sportswoman. In my teens, I was a budding middle-distance runner – I only started rowing in 2008 after my mother saw a newspaper advertisement looking for tall people to take up the sport.
Role model: Rower Helen Glover looked up to marathon runner Paula Radcliffe, right
I met Paula at a race when I was 15. I was competing in the junior event while Paula, who was quite well-known by then, was in the seniors' race. She spotted me staring at her and even though she was about to race, she came up to say hello and signed my race number. I was sold!
Since then, she's consistently raised the profile of female athletes, winning title after title and breaking multiple marathon world records. She's increased funding and media interest, not only through her own performances, but through her tireless campaigning.
She looks at the bigger picture and uses her influence on sport in a positive way. I hope to be able to do the same, and, as a former PE teacher, plan to focus on getting more children into sport.
Start of the gold rush: Helen Glover and Heather Stanning won Team GB's first gold of the games
For sheer grit, Dame Kelly is my guiding star
Heather Stanning, 27, lives in Reading
and won gold in the rowing women's pair with Helen Glover. She is a
captain in the Royal Artillery regiment. She nominates Kelly Holmes.
Watching Dame Kelly win two golds in the 800m and 1500m during the 2004
Olympics in Athens was a pivotal moment in my life. It was the summer
after I had left school, and her determination and sheer grit were truly
Blazing the trail: Kelly proved to Heather that you can have an Army career and sporting success
Though I'd been a successful runner at school, I was more
interested in my career after winning a British Army scholarship that
funded me through university. Until then, it hadn't dawned on me I could
be an Olympian and an Army officer. I learned that Kelly had also been
in the Army – she was a physical training instructor – until she went
into athletics full-time in 1997. She'd entered the men's events at
Army athletic competitions because she was too fast for the girls.
Heroine: Kelly Holmes won gold over 800m and 1500m at the Athens Olympics
university, someone suggested I try out as a rower because of my height.
I quickly realised that was where my sporting talent lay. Thanks to
Kelly blazing the trail before me, I knew I could follow both dreams. I
met her in the Olympic Village and was so excited I could barely speak.
If we meet again, I hope to hold it together enough to say: 'Thank
Sarah showed me losing my hair was no big deal
Cyclist Jo Rowsell, 23, lives in Manchester and won gold in the women's team pursuit alongside Dani King and Laura Trott. She nominates Paralympic cyclist Sarah Storey, 34.
I've never met a competitor like Sarah. She is one of the greatest athletes I know – a true friend, an inspirational training partner and a fierce opponent.
Winning five gold, eight silver and three bronze medals in the Paralympic games as a swimmer is incredible enough, but to think she didn't give up when an ear infection drove her from the water in 2004 and switched to cycling instead is testament to her willpower and natural sporting talent.
Mind-blowing: Cyclist Jo Rowsell, left, thinks her friend and teammate Sarah Storey is extraordinary
Now she has won six golds for cycling and is the most decorated Paralympian – she is mind-blowing.
She refuses to let her disability get in the way of her career. She competes and wins in disabled and able-bodied categories, and has brought a whole new audience to para-cycling and women's road racing.
Having alopecia, I know what it's like to be looked at differently because of your appearance. Sarah hates being referred to as brave. Her disability – like my alopecia – is only super-ficial. We're athletes first and foremost.
Girl power: From left, Dani King, Laura Trott, and Jo Rowsell with their gold medals
Even now, Mum still comes out training with me
Cyclist Dani King, 21, who lives in Hamble, Hants, won gold in the women's team pursuit with Jo Rowsell and Laura Trott. She nominates her mum, Lynn King, 53.
After we'd won gold, there was one person I knew would be more proud than anyone else: my mother, Lynn. She knew exactly what it had taken to get to that moment.
Without her help, I would never, ever have won gold. When I started cycling aged 15, Mum bought a bike and started riding to keep me company. She still comes on the less strenuous rides with me – and sometimes she even manages to keep up!
Support: Dani King's success is thanks to her mother, Lynn, right
Mum has a gift of always being encouraging, but never pushy. She is delighted I have won a gold medal, but I know she would have been proud of me even if I hadn't won anything.
Financially, it's been a struggle for her. Mum's had to give up nice holidays and even swapped her BMW for a people carrier so we had a car my bikes would fit in. She's always been there for me, but supportive doesn't even cover it.
She would do anything for my sister, Sarah, 19, or me. Hopefully, I'll have children one day, and if I can be half the mother she's been to me, I'll be happy.
My brave crew mate survived so much tragedy
Anna Watkins, 29, lives in Wokingham, Berks, and won gold in the rowing women's double sculls with Katherine Grainger. She nominates Carla Ashford, 34, her previous team-mate.
Carla has suffered terrible tragedies in her life and come through them in a way that is not only inspirational, but exceptional. She was 28 when her father, Paul, died of a stroke in 2007. Then, nine months after the Beijing Games – at which we'd competed together – her mother, Christine, died suddenly from an aggressive form of oesophageal cancer.
Family first: Rower Anna Watkins, left, admires Carla Ashford who gave up her professional career to care for her sisters after their parents died
Carla had to retire from rowing because she had three younger sisters to look after: Christiana, then 18, who has Down's syndrome, Francesca, 20, and Anastasia, 22. Most people would have gone to pieces, but Carla possesses the most incredible selflessness.
She became Christiana's main carer, even moving her in to live with her and her husband, Jonno. She rented a bigger home so they could all fit in, and helped Christiana settle in at a lovely new school. She juggled everything to turn what was a disastrous situation into a happy family again. As an athlete, you put yourself first. Carla put everything aside and stepped up when she needed to.
Proud: Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins celebrate winning the women's double sculls at the London 2012 Olympics
Rebellious Aunt Kate made me believe in myself
Katherine Grainger, 36, lives in Maidenhead, Berks. She won gold in the rowing women's double sculls alongside Anna Watkins. Katherine nominates her late aunt, Kate Bagnell.
Throughout my life there is one woman who has left a greater mark on me than any other, and that's my Aunt Kate.
She was a real maverick: rebellious, fiercely independent and a firm believer in grabbing opportunities. Kate refused to let herself be curtailed by others, and without her I'm not sure I would have had the daring and self-belief to pursue my sport. I was 18 and studying law – with a traditional, academic path in front of me – when I discovered a talent for rowing. It was a big decision to put law on hold, but Kate helped me believe it could pay off.
Always try your best: Katherine Grainger was inspired by her late aunt Kate Bagnell, right
She once said to me during a game of Trivial Pursuit: 'Win or lose, it doesn't matter. You have to get involved. The biggest failure is not to try.'
I've lived by that mantra ever since. I had been rowing for five years when she died suddenly from an underlying heart condition, aged only 58. It was devastating for the whole family. I wish she could have seen me win gold. I would have given her a big hug and told her she was right.
For more information go to www.sanctuary.com/inspirationalwomen
Pictures: STUART HENDY, NICK HOLT & JOEL ANDERSON. Styling: BARBARA McMILLAN. Hair & make-up: JOY GOODMAN AGENCY