At times during the Olympics it seemed as if the media and public were so focused on the medal tally that they forgot that Great Britain’s growing list of achievements were more than just numbers. Despite this, heroes and heroines have risen as ambassadors of Britain’s success. The likes of Katherine Grainger and Jess Ennis, for example, will be remembered for overcoming adversity and succeeding in the face of pressure. There’s little doubt that Britain loves a good back-story; we’re an X Factor generation, where personal tragedy often carries just as much weight as actual talent.
Of course, in the Olympics the public can’t vote for their winner. If that were true, Tom Daley would have matched Michael Phelps’s gold medal haul on sympathy votes alone. However, in the end it was Daley’s hard work and mental ability to use his own personal tragedy as a source of motivation that earned him a place on the medal podium. In the wake of Team GB’s success in London, we will look at the British athletes who have overcome personal tragedy, public pressure and past demons to achieve their Olympic dreams.
Daley was just a 14 year old school boy when he burst onto the scene at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After success at the European Championships earlier that year, his young shoulders carried the weight of the nation’s hopes. Despite failing to make it to the podium, Daley was not discouraged. The next four years would see the young Brit excel in his diving career, while juggling school and his ever growing celebrity status. Tragedy struck in 2011 however when Daley’s father – and number one supporter – lost a long-fought battle with cancer. On the back of this personal heartbreak, Daley went on to win bronze at the 2012 Olympic Games.
When Katherine Grainger stepped off her boat in the 2000 Sydney Games, the young rower was no doubt pleased with her hard-fought silver medal. Always aiming for gold however, the disappointment was etched on Grainger’s face when Athens produced an identical result. Fast forward another four years to 2008 and the gold had never been closer. But a last gasp charge by the Chinese in the quad sculls final resigned the British to silver. At 36, 2012 presented Grainger with possibly her last chance to taste Olympic glory. Overcoming her demons and twelve years of mounting pressure, Grainger finally won her gold medal in the Women’s Double Sculls.
Unlike the other athletes on this list, Sir Steve Redgrave did not have to overcome previous disappointments or personal tragedy. In fact, the only thing that Redgrave had to face in 2000 was his own success. After winning four consecutive gold medals, the British rower defied his critics by seeking a fifth gold. After having virtually put an end to his rowing career following the 1996 Olympics, Redgrave faced nagging health problems and the restraints of aging (he was forty at the time) in the lead-up to Sydney. Despite this, Steve Redgrave became the first Olympian to secure five consecutive gold medals in a long-endurance sport. His win in the Coxless Four is often voted the greatest Olympic moment of all time – with due cause.
In 2003, while suffering from depression following successive leg injuries, Kelly Holmes probably couldn’t have envisioned her impending success a year later. In fact, the British runner admitted that she was suicidal during this time. After balancing an army career with athletics, Holmes was a relative latecomer to the international stage – with the nation’s athletic hopes on her shoulders. Despite this pressure, she succeeded; describing her two Golds in the 800m and 1500m as a culmination of “twenty years of dreaming”.