There are times in our lives when we experience a pivotal moment, one so profound that it stops us in our tracks and changes everything.
I had such a moment at a panel event organised by the Mintridge Foundation back in 2019. If you haven’t come across Mintridge before then you definitely need to know about them - they are a wonderful charity that bridges the gap between elite sport and the next generation, matching athletes with young people to develop confidence, resilience and promote mental and physical wellbeing. Seriously, check them out.
One of the other speakers in an impressive line-up was the founder of the Mintridge Foundation herself, the amazing Alex Wallace, who opened up her session by sharing some insight into the inspiration behind the charity. She took us back to her own childhood, speaking about the role models who influenced her:
“I had two sets of role models; the Spice Girls and Jonny Wilkinson. I loved sport, and Jonny was a brilliant idol to have, but I didn’t have any female sports role models to look up to in the same way. I feel that if I had, my story would have been different.”
The concept of a lightbulb moment always sounded quite cartoonish, but honestly I was struck by a giant flash of realisation. It forced me to re-examine my memories, strongly held beliefs and years of decisions, which came clashing together, falling into place and making total sense.
To look at a role model and see yourself represented in them can have a powerful impact on the way we think and act.
During school visits, the Mintridge Foundation encourages us to share our role models with pupils, to show that we athletes were just like them at that age, with hopes, dreams and heroes. But my hero didn’t come from the world of sport. Mine was Cherie Blair.
Okay, hear me out.
I was always encouraged to dream big. I was told that I could be anyone I wanted to be and do anything I wanted to do. I had some enormous goals, but I was also influenced by other, more subtle messages, which impressed certain ideas on me about the roles of men and women in society. The result was that I developed the belief that women’s careers were less important than men’s. It was their job to give up their career to raise children, or find a way to fit work around it.
One evening I was watching the news with my Dad, some political piece that featured the then Prime Minister Tony Blair. Dad made a throwaway comment about the woman standing next to him. That was his wife, Cherie Blair, and she earned more money than he did.
I couldn’t believe it.
The Prime Minister was the most influential man in the country. And his wife earned more than he did. Queue another defining moment. Cogs whirred, ideas exploded and I started to rethink my assumptions about my future. If other women could manage a high-flying career, then so could I. Cherie Blair opened my eyes to the world of possibilities in front of me, and influenced my early career aspiration to become a lawyer. Most importantly, she kindled the belief that I deserved to have a meaningful career.
But, just like Alex, I didn’t have any female sporting role models growing up. I ended up going down the athlete route more by accident than design, a hobby that boomed into an exciting career. And as a child, with my future wide open to millions of choices, I didn’t even consider sport as a vocation. Even if I’d dismissed it at the time because I didn’t think it was right for me, it would still have been nice to have known that it was an option.
I didn’t realise the impact that role models (or rather, the lack of them) had until I heard Alex’s words on that stage. This enabled me to see how the accessibility of role models affected the paths I’d taken and shaped my future – without me even being aware of it.
Visibility matters. Representation matters. Role models matter.
The Mintridge Foundation does a brilliant job at connecting athletes with young people and harnessing the power of positive sporting role models to drive real change. I hope that I can play a small part in increasing the accessibility of brilliantly talented sportswomen so that other girls don’t automatically assume that this is not a career for them.
My latest children’s book Run Like A Girl features stories of 50 female athletes from around the world, and showcases the resilience, determination, and confidence of these amazing women. I wanted to highlight that no two paths are the same: some athletes overcame unimaginably tough barriers to achieve their sporting dreams, some lead teams, and others are using sport as a vehicle to make the world a better place. I loved researching each one, and I really hope they inspire you as much as they have me.