In episode 12 we talk with Jeanette Kwakye about her sprinting career, the stress of injury and what it was like stepping out into an Olympic final. We also talk about her transition to life in the media and what it’s like being on the other side of sport.
Jeanette Kwakye was a three-time British champion over 100m in 2007, 2008 and 2011. She competed at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, finishing sixth in the individual 100m with a time of 11.14 – a personal best – and was unlucky to miss out on a medal in the 4x100m relay when the British team failed to finish due to a mix-up in the final changeover. At the 2007 European Indoor Championships she recorded a time of 7.17 seconds in the 60m – the fastest time by a British woman since 1986. (This record is still un-beaten – however Dina Asher-Smith matched it in 2015.) Since retiring from athletics in 2013, Jeanette, a qualified journalist, now works for the BBC and Sky Sports as a sports reporter and writes for The Guardian on issues affecting women in sport.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 15.3.17 – Ep 12. Jeanette Kwakye – from sprinter to journalist and being the other side of sport
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
TP: Welcome to a question of performance. I am Tammy Parlour and in this series, I will be talking to leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance. Join me for 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.
TP: Today I am with Jeanette Kwakye who at the Beijing Olympics became the first British woman to reach a 100-meter Olympic final in 24 years. We discuss British records, the shift from sprinting superstar to a job in the media and what it is like now being on the other side of sport. Jeanette, you are very outgoing, extroverted very social yet you did an individual sport. Can you talk to me about sport, can you talk to me about why sprinting.
JK: I do not know if I should be happy that you called me extroverted, I thought I was a wallflower, Tammy.
TP: Oh right. [laughs]
JK: I think track and field, especially the sprints has always been known to be the extrovert’s event. You go out there, you are going to run fast, it is explosive, it is fun, it is such a glamorous event so I feel like in terms of my personality I am quite well matched with that particular event and watching it on the television when I was younger the characters that took part in that event, Flo Jo, Linford Christie, Carl Lewis, they were extravagant characters so I really really took to it.
TP: The event itself is, if we use your words, extravagant, but the training I would imagine is very much more individual.
JK: Very much so, what you tend to find with track and field athletes is that a majority of us do train within a training group so there is that camaraderie that you have every day which is the team environment which I can only assume happens in team sport but when it does actually come down to it yes, you are competing by yourself and you are on the track alone however away from the track there is just such a great spirit especially if you have got a great group of training partners so I was always very lucky to have that, I had a massive group of training partners for the years that I did train.
TP: At the Beijing Olympics you were the first British woman to reach 100-meter Olympic final in 24 years. What made that possible?
JK: To be honest, I only even found that stat out when I actually finished competing. I had not really thought about it because you do not really think about it as a British sprinter to be up there with the best in the world. I actually just went there and felt in fantastic shape but more importantly mentally I was in a really really good space. I did not have the best build up leading up to the games, I did actually have a bad injury between the Olympic trials and the Olympic games so I was trying to nurse that alongside making sure that I was performance ready so there were a few challenges that I had to overcome but once I got into my flow in Beijing I just completely rose to the occasion and to be able to get to the final eight in such a world class esteem filled was pretty special for me.
TP: Did you achieve what you wanted to do?
JK: And beyond. At the Olympic Games 2008 I achieved what I wanted and beyond, to be honest, I did not think for a minute that I would make that final simply because every single woman that was in that final at some point had run under 11 seconds, I had not even seen under 11 seconds so for me it was pretty special but in terms of my career, God no, I do not think any athlete that you would ask, unless they have done everything, I doubt very much that they would say that they wanted to do everything they could, even if you asked somebody like the great Jessica Ennis I am pretty sure she could probably pick one or two things that she did not quite do that she wished she had.
TP: I remember watching you on television at the Beijing Olympics and it was so exciting sitting there on the sofa glued to the television. Can you remember what is was like yourself coming out onto that stage?
JK: Yes, it was something pretty special actually and a feeling that I will never ever forget. I only had three hours between the final and the semi-final of the Olympic Games and when you have only got that short amount of time you have to really be efficient in what you think about so I could only really think about the event. I did not want to call parents, friends or family, I did not want to know what was happening in the UK, I was in this bubble and I pretty much liked it because that bubble meant for me where my performance was going to come from. Anything external to that probably would have affected me.
Walking out onto the track with the other seven ladies, I had a bit of an imposter syndrome which I call it where I did not quite feel like I belonged but after a little bit of a slap around the legs and a slap around the face I thought you know what, you have earned it, you have done three rounds so far and you have made it by right and lets go and that is what I thought was quite gritty and determined of me to be able to go there and say, well actually I have dreamt about something like this since I was quite young so why would I run away from it.
TP: You still hold the British indoor 60-meter record, is that right?
JK: Yes, I share it now, I share it with Dina Asher-Smith.
TP: How does it feel to share that?
JK: It is a weird one, the year that she actually equalled the record I thought she was going to break it so I was pretty much ready to let it go but to share it….
TP: What was the chances of that in your sport?
JK: Yes I know it is very rare, very very rare and I think that to share it with someone like Dina who is phenomenal, I would share it with her all day long, and she can take it when she wants. To say that we are sharing a record is pretty good and I would not be surprised this season actually if she does take it.
TP: What would a day in the life be for you as an elite athlete?
JK: At my peak, a day in the life would be up 07:00am at the latest probably getting ready for a training session. My coach was very much a stickler for training very early, he liked us in and pretty much out and gave us time in the rest of the day to really just make sure that we were recovering properly and we were eating correctly and to get in at that time, do a real good fast or hard session or a speed endurance session or a weight session and then a bit of physiotherapy or psychology if we needed it or if we felt like we needed it and then go home and really chill out and relax but it is always quite hard if you have nothing else going on outside of athletics to just go home and relax, you end up watching races and trying to work out what is the next best technique to push you on that little bit more.
TP: Yes, talking about relaxing and psychology and so forth, where did you find the biggest stress issues came from?
JK: For me personally, and we are all very different but for me personally my biggest stress issues came from my injuries. I was very unfortunate as an athlete to not necessarily have the most robust body for the event that I love to do so I spent a lot of time thinking about how best to come back from an injury, how best to prevent injuries and that did become quite stressful and ultimately it was the thing that kind of put me out of the sport but I think for myself it was injury.
TP: Any advice you would give to someone starting in athletics now?
JK: Again it is down to the individual, I think there are a lot of young women who love the sport, who really want to do well in their sport but you need to relax. I think that is probably the biggest word I would have I think to take a bit more of an easier approach to things. Do not overcomplicate the processes, remember why you got involved in the first place, a lot of women or young people who got involved in sport did it because they loved to win and they loved to run around on the playground and I think that fundamental feeling of loving what you do is something that you always have to go back to when you feel like it is getting too much.
TP: I’m interested in exploring the transition from sprinting superstar to a career in the media. Sprinting is incredibly competitive, you did not medal but a GB athlete getting into the final is absolutely extraordinary. How do you make sense of that in the real world, did your success on the track translate over to the world outside of sport.
JK: Yes and no, I personally think I was a little bit unfortunate with how my career went in terms of yes, I did really well in the Olympic games but within a matter of weeks of coming back I was injured and injured for a long time so quickly dropped out of any type of spotlight or any type of exposure I would have had, so, yes it did translate in the sense of if you were an athletics buff or a sports mad person you would kind of maybe have an idea who I was and then listen to me on the radio or took my opinion for any type of value however, for the bigger picture in media it is always very challenging if you are not a household name to try and then make a name for yourself in the media because people would be like well who is she, or who is that so I had to do things a little bit different in terms of how I stepped up and tried to make a name for myself in the media and still am actually.
TP: How do you find being on the other side of it.
JK: Very interesting, the other side is very interesting, there is a lot you take for granted as an athlete but when I see it now and just basic things like logistics, those are the things that are hidden away from you as an athlete, you are basically told to get on a bus at a certain time, be ready to run, go home and drink protein shakes. When you are organising something it is very different and I think I have much more appreciation for those who are putting events together especially major events. I have a lot more appreciation for the media who have to ask tough questions to athletes who do not necessarily want to be asked. I experienced that at the Rio Paralympic Games, questioning David Weir after what was just a horrendous game for him, I felt so bad for him.
This was someone who is a national treasure who is not quite performing and I know what that is like as an athlete and I just want to give him a hug but the reality is my listeners and people want to know what is going on so, unfortunately, I had to be that person to get that information.
TP: Do you think it gives you an advantage being an athlete asking those questions.
JK: Yes, I think it does and I think that that is why a lot of broadcasters employ athletes because they are aware that there is a rapport and a level of communication that you may not get as a journalist or just a standalone journalist so I think that there is just a little bit of that but at the same time you may receive a bit of backlash as a former athlete because people are thinking why are you asking that type of question, you know what it is like and it is taking that personal side away from things and really try and be as objective as possible.
TP: Is there anyone you would really love to interview?
JK: I would love to have a proper sit-down interview with someone like Serena Williams, I think that what she has been able to do and what she has gone through especially as a young black woman, I would love to be able to hear her experiences because she is on another level, she is in a different playing field when it comes down to levels of greatness so I definitely feel like she is somebody that I would want to interview. I saw her being interviewed on the Usain Bolts film and it was so funny what she did, she mentioned a load of great sports people and I am sat there thinking, why have you not mentioned your own name and right at the end of the list she mentions her own name and she gives a wink to the camera and I just thought wow, that is the kind of personality that I think I would get along with. She is someone I would love to interview.
TP: This podcast is about performance, it is about how different people view success. How do you define success?
JK: Success for me is being able to reach your goals, whatever those goals may be, I think it is important that you do not look at what other people have achieved, I think it is important that you make sure your goals are personal to you, your ability and how much you believe in yourself. If you can go past those goals then it is more than success and I think that is quite important. It is always very hard in a sport not to try and compare yourself to someone else’s journey. I think it is key that you actually stay in your own lane, is a metaphor that I would probably use.
TP: What is fuelling your competitive drive currently?
JK: Currently, right now, to be honest, it is lacking, very much lacking. In terms of the media world, it is very different to performance and how you are on the track. I think the track is very black and white, you run across the line and you are either first, second, third, fourth, fifth, whichever but in the media it is very much about making sure that you are in the right place at the right time performing at your best at that particular opportunity so I suppose in sport that is quite similar but then you are not necessarily the decision maker.
However, as my husband continuously tells me is that we now are in an age where the platforms available to us allow us to put our own work out there to make sure that our own content can be recognised among our own fan base and beyond so that probably in terms of driving me competitively is making sure that whatever I do produce or put out there with a broadcaster or not is something that I would be proud of the same way that I would be proud in a race.
TP: Are you still running.
JK: No, I do not like running, in fact…
TP: You do not like running.
JK: The only thing I love to do is probably go to the gym, I love the power side of things. I do remember sharing briefly my story at the last Woman Sport Trust Awards about running a park run, I have done two in my lifetime, the first was a nightmare and the second one was even worse so I decided very quickly that my long distance career was over before it even started.
TP: I have just heard from the background that I think Peppa Pig has possibly just finished so I have just got a few quick questions to ask you before you are pulled away. Your favourite piece of sports kit?
JK: I love a really good sassy pair of running spikes, loved, loved, loved the colours. I was very lucky in terms of sponsors and they always made sure that the colours represented my personality so I do love a great pair of spikes and also to train with probably a nice big good quality pair of headphones, the music, that was always a big driver for me to make sure I had great players to train to.
TP: Sporting hero?
JK: Sporting hero, I have mentioned her already is probably Serena, from a domestic perspective is somebody like Denise Lewis, again, so great at what they do and so graceful, I loved her class and her gracefulness.
TP: Most useless piece of advice you have either received or given to someone else?
JK: The most useless piece of advice always came from photographers who would constantly put me in a stupid sprint start position as a pose and I would be like, I do not look like this when I am about to run, I do not look up at the camera and smile when I am in sprint start position so please do not make me do it. That is the one thing that really used to irritate me or if you are in pain, you have got lactic acid in your legs and people are just telling you to breath and I look at them and think if I was not breathing I would dead, so that is probably was my useless bit of advice.
TP: Last one, best performance enhancer?
JK: Best performance enhancer, a sound mind, I think if mentally you are in the right space and you have got great friends, family and a support network around you then that will enhance your performance because you very suddenly realise that you are not just doing it for yourself you are doing it for others that really believe in you.
TP: Brilliant, it has been fantastic talking to you today, thank you very much.
JK: Thank you.
TP: Thanks for listening, you can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also do not forget to subscribe online to aquestionofperformance.com