When we think about physical performance, we have a tendency to ignore the journey in favour of the result: how much, how high, how long, how fast. A career of effort, persistence and ambition can be judged on milliseconds, but a sporting life isn’t just measured by one’s personal best or the number of medals on the shelf.
As the theme of this issue is strength, we decided to speak to four women who are dedicating their lives to physical excellence. Although their pursuits and stories differ greatly, they’re each united by the same determination, the same bloodymindedness, the same audacious grit.
Megan Giglia, Paralympic track cyclist
Achievements: C3 world records in 3km Individual Pursuit and 500m Time Trial, gold at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Individual Pursuit, gold in Individual Pursuit and Time Trial at the 2016 Para-cycling Track World Championship, and an MBE for services to cycling.
How did you become interested in cycling? In January 2013 I had a brain haemorrhage that resulted in a massive stroke. I have issues with memory and co-ordination and my physical abilities, as well as other neurological problems and epilepsy. I used the bike originally just to get movement back in my right side. It was a way of handling my emotions: when I wasn’t ready to deal with them I’d blast it out on the road. Six months later I considered doing it competitively. My pre-stroke relationship broke down and I ended up cycling 120 miles to a friend’s house with my foot tied to the pedal and my hand tied to the handlebar. I don’t know how I made it there alive. My friend’s mum had terminal cancer, and she told me I couldn’t let others hold me back, that I should find something and take it all the way. I’ve always loved sports – I used to coach – and it’s the one part of me that’s stayed the same. The routine and structure of competition gave me a focus and a new beginning.
What was hardest about the experience? That period, where I’d gone from being completely fine, able-bodied as they call it, having my job, my family, a life around me, and suddenly I’d lost it all and had to create a new past. I couldn’t remember family members’ names, or what I liked, and I couldn’t taste so didn’t even know what food I enjoyed. You have to relearn so much about yourself, and because it’s not something I was born with, I had to work out what was wrong as well. It took two to three years to be able to say, “this is who I am”, rather than always refer to who I was. I call myself Megan the Second now.
What do you enjoy most about cycling? I strive for competition. When you go into the competitive environment it’s a breath of fresh air because it’s about what you can do rather than what you can’t. There’s a quote I like: ‘I’m not what happened to me, I’m what I choose to become.’ Within my C3 category, everyone is there because they cycle. They just want to pedal their bikes.
Have you had to make any sacrifices? You’ve got to be completely professional, focused solely on what you’re doing. It can become unhealthily addictive, and I’m definitely addicted to my sport. It becomes your life. Before Rio I had a partner for two years who I met after my stroke. I never thought I’d find someone who’d love and accept me for who I was, but I actually ended that relationship in order to progress. I didn’t have time for it and couldn’t give her what she needed, and I needed to focus on being the best I could be. You sacrifice so much. Sports is very selfish and I’m beginning to realise that, but I’ve got a better balance now. I have a new partner who’s very supportive and we’re dealing with things as they come along.
What are your goals for the future? I’m hoping to go to World Championships this year in Los Angeles, but we’ll see what happens. I’ve got a long way to go before I’m the best. I’ve got a Paralympic gold and two world records, but that doesn’t mean I’m the best cyclist. There are still so many technical skills I can improve on. I love what I do and that’s the only way I’ll get better. The day I stop loving cycling is the day I stop.
Emily Ackner, multi-sport athlete
Achievements: Completed solo 300-mile run across Cornwall in 12 days, founder of challenge-focused coaching programme Fit for That.
How did you get into an active lifestyle? From a young age I played a huge amount of sports. As I got older, I started skiing and snowboarding and got into coaching. Growing up in Cornwall, nature has always been at the forefront of everything I want to do and create. I like having an outdoor life.
What’s the toughest thing about training? I’ve had to become a morning person. You need to commit to days when it’s raining and horrible and sometimes you might not want to get out of bed, but that’s part of it. If you weren’t able to get through those tougher moments then the joy and celebration of actually completing a challenge wouldn’t be as sweet. If it was easy then you wouldn’t feel like you’d accomplished anything.
What do you enjoy most about it? You discover things about yourself. I love how it feels to push myself physically in the moment of taking a challenge. There’s real focus and clarity that you get from that time, be it on the road, on the trail, or in the open water. You can use your body as a vehicle for fun and adventure rather than just pleasing people with how you look. I want to lead an active life and to ensure through training that my body is strong enough to keep me going. From a coaching perspective, I want to help grow a community of women who enjoy exploring but also are mindful of putting in the work.
Have you had to make any sacrifices? If you’ve chosen something you’re passionate about then it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. My lifestyle has changed greatly over the last few years as I’ve prioritised fitness and that’s not something I regret. It doesn’t feel like it’s one or the other for me.
What are your goals for the future? I’m very much of the mindset that it’s easier to work towards a specific goal if you set yourself a big challenge. Over the last couple of years I’ve focused on endurance challenges which incorporate exploration so there’s something of a journey to be had both metaphorically and physically in getting to the finish line. I like to have one big physical challenge that I can do in a year that revolves around logistical planning, so this year I’m travelling across Croatia with a group of cyclists to raise money for a refugee cause – I’m going to swim 50 miles up the coast of Croatia, cycle from Trieste down to Dubrovnik, swim 50 miles back up and then finish with a 48km mountain race in Italy. Having a training focus like that keeps me going in the bleak winter months. That’s the main thing I’d advocate to anyone – have a goal that excites you. It’s a sure-fire way to ensure that you take the time to commit.
Maëva Berthelot, contemporary dancer
Achievements: Founding member of dance, live music and video collective Collectif Larsen, six years as a full-time member of the Hofesh Shechter Company, work with choreographers including Wayne McGregor and Emanuel Gat.
How did you become interested in dance? I started dancing when I started walking. I was always a very active child and gave anything a try. I had the schedule of a prime minister, and grew up surrounded by contemporary dancers. My mum taught dance, in a very different way from how I do now. It wasn’t strictly dance, but working with little humans to encourage movement and play. I spent Saturdays and Wednesdays at her best friend’s dance school. From nine in the morning until nine at night, going to every single class. It became more focused when I turned ten – I started doing half school, half dance, taking classes for people that wanted to become dance teachers – it was just me and lots of adults.
What’s the toughest thing about it? It’s not physically demanding so much as it’s exhausting. If you’re a full-time member of a dance company you don’t get a minute for yourself. You perform the work again and again, you tour again and again, and when you don’t perform you’re teaching or rehearsing. To be honest it’s been tricky. I could say it’s always fantastic but even as a teacher I try to make my students aware that it’s a hard job. There’s very little recognition or financial reward, so you do it for the love, and the level of commitment and dedication is something else. You work 365 days a year and you’re devoting all your time and energy. You don’t really have a life outside of the company. It’s been hard for me to sustain friendships and relationships.
What do you enjoy most about dancing? It demands everything but the feelings you experience, they’re amazing. My love for it has definitely gone up and down: when your passion becomes a routine it’s easily killable. It’s a daily challenge to make it fresh, to keep something spontaneous and honest in the work. That’s mainly why I teach. In a company, the dimension of enjoyment isn’t what you focus on. You don’t have fun, you work. You work hard. So my class is the opposite. I don’t necessarily teach a style, but try to help people find themselves in dance. Everything is connected to that first feeling when you started dancing, to those bursts of pleasure in movement. Sometimes you have to train to get that love back.
What are your goals for the future? I’m taking this year to do personal projects that I’ve always wanted to try. I feel like I need to work with movement in a different context – video art, photography, film. The dance audience, I know how to play with them, how to grasp their attention. I want to start working in a new way. After 30 years of focusing so much on one craft, it’s time to make sure I don’t fall asleep. I just want to start playing again. I want to keep on challenging myself, to keep learning and growing. I’m in a period of reconnecting with pure creative enjoyment.
Sorrell Walsh, marathon runner
Achievements: Completed five ultra marathons and 15 marathons with a sub-three hour personal best, co-founder of running crew Still Waters Run Deep and women’s collective WMN RUN.
How did you get into running? About five years ago my brother was training for the London Marathon, and I wondered why on earth was he going out running for 20 miles at a time. I was always active at school and then had a stagnant period through college, so I tried a one-mile loop near my parents’ house. I dry heaved the first time I did it but started to build up from there.
What do you enjoy most about it? For me running is about so many things but it gives me balance: if I don’t feel great one day I can go for a run and come back feeling better. I like the feeling that I’m achieving more out of life. Running is a physical activity but it’s very much a mental experience as well. If I achieve something with my own body I never thought I could, then I can apply that to other areas. I’m not saying I can become an astronaut, but it does open your mind up to possibilities of life, career or anything really. If there’s something I think I can’t do, maybe I am able to achieve it.
Have you had to make any sacrifices? I don’t feel like they’re sacrifices. I can always find more hours in the day; if I’m busy, maybe I’ll get some running done at lunchtime. I enjoy juggling life like that. Then again, when I’m home for Christmas and my family are all around, I feel like I have to get my work out in the morning because if I’m running all day it’s not fair to them. Sometimes it can be a bit of a strain but that’s my own responsibility. No-one’s forcing me to do this. If I want to get somewhere then I have to keep at it.
What are your goals for the future? It’s good to have lofty goals – whether I reach them or not depends on what I can actually achieve. I’d love to do the UltraTrail du Mont-Blanc, and the Bob Graham Round challenge in the Lake District, and in my lifetime I’d like to get a marathon time of 2:45. At the moment I’m trying to get faster, so I’ve got a coach now which is really exciting. Place and landscape is a big part of why I enjoy running so I’ve done marathons to see a new place or visit a new city: for instance, last year I ran the Sierra Leone marathon. The media portrays it as a place you should be scared to visit, let alone run around, but actually it was incredible. I’ve never met people who are so welcoming, even though they don’t have much. I only learned that by going. The temperature was about 35 degrees, but it’s more the humidity. You can’t naturally cool down so you have to watch your own body. Not that I would expect to get heatstroke, but they don’t have life support machines there. Obviously that’s a risk, but a lot of running is knowing your own body and your limits. And then pushing them.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Five. Portraits by Liz Seabrook.