On International Women’s Day, track cycling Olympic champion Katie Archibald explains how female sporting heroes have shaped her own career, and her attitude towards sport, life and success.
“What’s a hero?
“I’ve had role models, and I’ve had idols. Whereas role models influence who we become, I feel idols are usually a reflection of who we already are. I flip flop between which I tie semantically to the term hero based on how embarrassed I’d feel if one of my role models heard me calling them “my hero!” in an interview.
“Which is a silly thing to be embarrassed about. When it comes to hero worship, it would make more sense to cringe over the memory of decorating my teenage training diary with a collage of Olympians. (I tore the pictures from a magazine. You can find them online if you search for Olympic Bodies: British Athletes – in pictures.) I was 18, so ‘teenage training diary’ is also pushing it slightly. But when a girl becomes a woman, she doesn’t give up on hero worship like she gives up on calling to say she’ll be home late. Women need heroes, too.
“I’ve never told Shanaze Reade this. That I had her picture taped over a lined notepad that was two parts diary to one part training. Of course I never expected that one day we’d meet, never mind be teammates training on the national team together. She was an idol. Which is to say she was someone I knew nothing about, bar her success, onto whom I imprinted my own ideals. I did the same with Victoria Pendleton, whose entry into the mainstream after the Beijing Olympics can’t be overlooked when considering her impact on cycling.
“If a young woman wanted to be a track cyclist, Victoria Pendleton told them such a thing was possible every time she featured in the mainstream press. More than that, she told other people it was possible. We acknowledge that representation matters to the individual (“you can’t be what you can’t see”) but I think we overlook its impact on those around the individual: the parents, teachers, and sports coaches charged with guiding young people into a world that will accept them. It’s just as important for my brother to see Dame Sarah Storey’s name on the SPOTY shortlist as it is for me. My brother was my first role model. If he didn’t believe girls were welcome in sport, it would have put the whole burden of believing in myself on, well… me.
“Incidentally, I’m fortunate enough to count Sarah among my role models, too. I raced for her road team and as her team-mate from 2014-16. Around the same time I started training with Joanna Rowsell, another important role model for me, on the national track squad. One is reserved, measured in how she shares her opinions, rarely impulsive. The other sees right from wrong very clearly, and tells you one from the other without frills. As guests at a dinner party, they are very different. But what they share, and what I may always envy, is a deep knowledge of themselves as athletes. I’m still aspiring to match the level of self-awareness I saw in Joanna and in Sarah and, of course, the excellence it led them to.
“Before them, it was Charline Jones and Eileen Roe on the Scottish national team (one the motivator, one the tactician) that I dreamt of emulating. Before them it was the women playing for the first team at my hockey club (Hillhead Ladies) and before them it was the older kids at my swimming club. I could probably go all the way back to tumble tots, but the truth I really want to share is this: I had posters on my walls of superstars, of idols, but it was instead these role models I saw up close, the real and messy and sometimes flawed but always unique women, that inspired who I want to be today. It’s them I truly idolise. They’re my heroes.”