The agony and ecstasy of being an Olympic mumFrazzled nerves, heart-bursting pride – and a ready hug when disaster strikes. Enchanting interviews with the mothers of our top medal hopes
21:35 GMT, 25 July 2012
Her son is one of Britain’s greatest-ever Olympians, a man so legendary he’s been picked to lead Team GB into the stadium at the opening ceremony tomorrow night. So, naturally, one assumes that Sir Chris Hoy’s mum must have devoted her life to pushing him to succeed from boyhood.
It comes as a shock when Carol Hoy reveals her reaction was anything but positive when Chris announced he wanted to be a cyclist half-way through his degree. ‘He came home to say he wanted to switch courses from Physics and Maths to Applied Sports Science,’ she says. ‘We asked him why and he said he wanted to be a cyclist.'
‘His father and I weren’t very happy. But that’s what he did. Of course, we know the rest. But I’ve got an elderly aunt who still asks when Chris is getting a proper job.’
Olympic mums: Top row from left, Kim Tancock (swimmer Liam), Pat Payne (swimmer Keri-Anne) Pauline Pendleton (cyclist Victoria), Carol Hoy (cyclist Chris), Alison Rushgrove (Paralympic runner Ben). Seated: Rose Kwakye (sprinter Jeanette) and Pat
Radcliffe (runner Paula)
It’s certainly an eye-opener meeting the mums of Team GB’s brightest hopes. As well as Carol Hoy, there’s Pat Payne, mother of long-distance open-water swimmer Keri-Anne; Kim Tancock, whose son Liam is a backstroke swimmer; Pat Radcliffe, mum of marathon runner Paula; Pauline Pendleton, mother of cyclist Victoria and Alison Rushgrove, whose son Ben is a Paralympic runner. There’s also Rose Kwakye, mum of sprinter Jeanette.
Carol Hoy, while brimming with pride for her famous son, confesses she frequently cheers on the wrong competitor. ‘I’ve been known to shout for somebody, and my husband says “not only is that not Chris, but it’s a woman”,’ says the 63-year-old retired nurse, with a smile, though it’s hard to imagine how anyone could get a woman’s thighs confused with her son’s pistons, which have a circumference of 27in.
She’s not alone. While you’d think maternal instinct would make it possible to pick out your offspring anywhere, Pat Payne, a 56-year-old sports club organiser, even cheerfully admits to videoing the wrong races.
The mistake will only come to light when her open water swimmer daughter later points out that ‘it’s not me swimming there, Mum’. Still, it can’t be easy watching your daughter swim in rivers, lakes and oceans which can be infested with stinging jellyfish, or even polluted by the odd dead dog. ‘I’ve got my heart in my mouth for two hours when she’s swimming,’ Pat admits.
Britain's got talent: A young Chris Hoy with mum Carol, left, and right, doing what he does best – winning cycling races
Four years ago, Stockport-based Keri-Anne, 24, won silver in the open-water 10k swim in Beijing, despite getting entangled in the course’s buoy ropes along the way. ‘I was watching her on the television and I saw the rope wrap round her, and she sort of turned on her back, unravelled it, turned round and carried on swimming. I was gasping, saying “she’s tangled up” and afterwards she just said “Oh yeah, did you see it” as though it was nothing,’ says Pat.
‘It’s not easy to watch her. On the plus side, I always say I get a lot more for my money than anybody else. A lot of the swimmers go into the pool for two minutes — at least I get two hours.’
Alongside her, Kim Tancock, 50, a teaching assistant from Exeter, nods in agreement. Permanently frazzled nerves are clearly a given if you’re the mother of an Olympic contender. Her son, Liam, 27, holds the world record for the 50m backstroke and is a medal hopeful for the 100m race this summer.
‘I swim every race with him,’ she says. ‘I’m exhausted by the end of it, not physically, but emotionally, from the minute he walks out to those blocks. My stomach is absolutely churning through pure adrenaline. You know what they’re capable of doing but it’s a question of “can he do it on that day”
And even if everything looks good you can never ever know until the end.’
Olympic contender: World record swimmer Liam Tancock with his mum Kim, left, and in action in the pool
Carol Hoy agrees: ‘It’s nerve-racking. Even before they come out you know them so well that even when you can’t see them you know what they’re doing, what they’re feeling. And you feel every bit of it, too.’
Alison Rushgrove adds: ‘People say you must be really excited and you are, but until they are there, in the stadium, you can’t take anything for granted.’
The fragile nature of being an elite sportswoman is something Rose Kwakye knows all too well.
When I interviewed the mums, her daughter Jeanette, 29, was hopeful of a place in the athletics squad.
Rose, from London, had every reason to be positive. Jeanette had been the only European woman in the 100m final at the Beijing Olympics, and despite spending almost two years on the sidelines afterwards, following knee surgery, the worst looked to be behind her.
However, since our chat, disaster has struck. Crippled by more injuries, Jeanette missed the UK team trials and failed to get a place in the Olympics. It must be nothing less than heartbreaking, for the competitor of course, but also for the parent who lives every high — and low — with them.
As Rose acknowledged: ‘You’re living life on a bit of a knife-edge, because you want to be excited but you can’t be because they may not be there through illness or injury, and everyone asks because they’re excited, too, and you have to try to put the brakes on, to keep things normal.’
'Rent a crowd': Paula Radcliffe's mum, Pat, pictured left with Paula as toddler with her baby brother Martin, is the marathon runner's loudest cheerer when her daughter is competing
Pat Radcliffe, mum of marathon runner Paula, says that she and husband Peter are known on the long-distance running circuit as ‘rent a crowd’ due to their adrenaline-fuelled cheering for Paula, 38. But in 2008, Pat, from Bedford, did miss a race — her daughter’s second New York marathon win.
It later emerged she had discovered a lump on her breast, but selflessly kept the news from Paula so she wouldn’t be distracted. Pat was later diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy, but is now in remission.
Of her role as chief cheerleader, the former head teacher says: ‘One particular memory stands out. Paula was running the 10,000 metres at the world championships in Munich. It was the last race of the evening, it was absolutely bucketing with rain and she ran the whole race in a half-empty stadium because everyone else had gone home.'
'It was so wet, and it was just her against the rain and the clock. She missed the world record by half a hundredth of a second or whatever it was, but my lasting sense was of her sheer determination. I’ve got that photograph on my wall.’
While their children have shown commitment and drive beyond most people’s imaginings, what’s also striking is what little idea these women had of what lay in store when their children pulled on that first pair of trainers, dived into the local swimming pool or clambered onto their first bike.
In the genes: Pauline Pendleton said her daughter Victoria gets her talent for cycling from her father
Because, as they share their stories,
what comes across very strongly is that their offspring’s sporting
talent emerged by accident rather than design. These
are not children who were groomed for sporting stardom from
toddlerhood. Take Chris Hoy, 36, who was furnished with his first set of
wheels aged six when his mum spotted a second-hand bargain at a church
bought the bike for a tenner, we sprayed it black and put a pair of BMX
handlebars on it and he was chuffed to bits,’ Carol recalls.
it didn’t last long: just two weeks later, he broke it doing wheelies,
and pleaded with her for a replacement. A bargain was struck: he could
have a brand new one, but only if he paid half towards it from his
pocket money. ‘I think he ended up having a whip round among the relatives. He was quite enterprising,’ says Carol.
Little did she know it, but her son was on his way to sporting glory, competing in track cycling by his teens before deciding to pursue his dream while at St Andrews University. Alison Rushgrove, 53, whose son Ben, 24, won silver at the Paralympic 100 metre final in Beijing, confesses it was something of a leap to see her son as a professional athlete.
Diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child, Ben was educated at a specialist school for disabled children in Hampshire, a three-and-a-half hour round trip from the family home in Bath.
‘For a few years his PE teacher had been saying: “Look, Ben is a really good runner, you ought to start taking him to athletics clubs”,’ she recalls.
‘But we didn’t do it, because it was a fair amount of time away from school, even more time away from home and I don’t think we really believed that Ben had a special talent until he was spotted at an athletics event by the UK Athletics body and they said they wanted to take him onto their books.’
She adds: ‘But even then, you still don’t think that he would be winning medals.’
Medal-winning son: Alison Rushgrove, left, whose son Ben, won silver at the Paralympic 100 metre final in Beijing, confesses she still can't believe her son is a professional athlete
Victoria Pendleton’s mother Pauline, meanwhile, believes her 32-year-old daughter’s cycling success story was the consequence of her being something of a daddy’s girl: her father Max is a former British National Grass Track Cycling champion.
‘He encouraged the children to have a go and two of them decided it wasn’t for them. But Victoria, I think, basically wanted to please her dad, so she stuck at it and then found that she had a bit of a talent.’
Talk about understatement. Victoria won her sixth Track Cycling World Championship sprint title in April. But of all the mums, Pauline Pendleton, 64, is perhaps the most sanguine about watching her child compete, despite seeing her daughter sustain nasty burns earlier this year after crashing to the ground from her bike at 40mph while competing in Sydney (she still went on to win a gold medal).
‘She’s a big girl and she knows what she’s letting herself in for,’ says Pauline, from Stotfold, Beds. ‘She’s had a few falls over the years and as her mum you have to get used to it. Very early on in her competitive career I remember I got a phone call from a coach or somebody to say Victoria’s been taken to hospital and she may be slightly concussed, and there was nothing I could do about it.'
‘Thankfully it was very minor. It’s not always easy but it’s her choice and obviously I’m incredibly proud.’
Making their mums and country proud: Swimmer Keri-Anne Payne, left, and sprinter Jeanette Kwakye
These Olympic mothers are modest are about their own input, too. For all the hours they have spent ferrying their offspring to training sessions, not to mention the time spent cheering them on, they insist their contribution counts for little. They all vehemently object to the suggestion that they have made any ‘sacrifice’.
‘Can I just say I hate that word,’ says Carol Hoy. ‘Me too,’ chips in Pauline Pendleton. ‘We all feel the same way,’ says Pat Radcliffe. ‘If I had my way I’d like to ban it.’
‘Everyone always brings it up,’ adds Pat Payne. ‘But the way I see it our kids are the ones who have made all the sacrifices. We’ve just supported them, like any mum.’
In fact, they all admit to being in awe of their children’s determination and commitment. ‘They’ve sacrificed way more than we’ve sacrificed,’ Pat Payne explains. ‘Keri-Anne has never been around for her birthday, for her friend’s birthdays. When her friends were doing the things normal kids do she was training, or away. It takes a lot of willpower to stick to it.’
But while they don’t see it, being an Olympic mum involves a lot of willpower and dedication, too. In fact, for all their immense pride and excitement about London 2012, you suspect the mums are probably quietly looking forward to the moment their children retire and they can repair their frayed nerves — not that they’d ever admit it, of course.
‘Every mum in this room could win a gold medal for being really supportive,’ says Carol Hoy. It’s hard not to wholeheartedly agree.
Visit YouTube.com/pg to see these women’s stories in the P&G Raising An Olympian film series.