Did you know that during lockdown 32%* of women found they couldn’t exercise or take part in sports due to house tasks and caring duties? We want to reduce this ‘Play Gap’ and inspire and encourage women to fit exercise and playing sports into their lives. We also want to focus on encouraging more young women to take part in sports, which is why we’re interviewing athletes, personal trainers and influencers for some inspiration. We spoke to retired Olympic swimmer and Vitality Performance Champion, Lizzie Simmonds, about how she got into competitive sports, her advice for aspiring female athletes and what challenges there are as a woman in sports.
*Research implications for women’s participation, Women in Sport, June 2020. Funded by Comic Relief.
How did you first get into swimming and realise it was a passion of yours?
I always loved being in water, so swimming was a very natural hobby for me. I can’t actually ever remember not being able to swim, but I think I began proper lessons when I was four or five. I apparently got the bug from there because I swum a mile at the age of 6! I always knew I had a passion for it but it wasn’t until I started competing around the age of nine or ten that I realised how competitive I was—it was just the club championships but I really wanted to beat the older swimmers, and the boys!
Were there any obstacles being a woman getting into sports/swimming?
In terms of gender equality, swimming is a great sport to be part of because it’s so integrated. You can’t buy tickets to go and watch just men’s races, or just women’s races, so audiences support and champion both genders. Opportunities for funding and sponsorship are also equal, which I know isn’t the case in many sports. I certainly never felt like being a women held me back in my sport; many of my training partners were male and many of my role models growing up were fellow female athletes.
I think there are challenges for young female athletes though—swimming is a sport where you’re not wearing much and I know a lot of girls find it difficult to feel confident with so much of their body on show, particularly during teenage years when they’re very conscious of being judged. It’s really sad to see young athletes discontinue with the sport because they feel uncomfortable with their bodies.
Is there any advice you’d have for women looking to get into swimming or sports more generally?
I think one of the things that stops girls and women taking part in sport is a societal pressure to always be ‘looking your best’, with perfect hair and make up and a smile on your face. The reality of sport is that sometimes it’s not pretty—you’re sweaty and red-faced, your hair is a mess, and your make up has run or is non-existent. But alongside that ‘imperfection’ there is beauty too—the flushed cheeks after scoring your first goal, the muddy knees after diving on the pitch, the smile on your face when you get out of the water after smashing a tough training session.
My main piece of advice for women who want to take up sport is to allow yourself to be free to fall in love with movement, in any capacity. Try and refrain from feeling worried about how you look when you’re exercising—the shine in your eyes when you experience the joy of sport is the only thing other people are going to be noticing!
You’ve represented team GB a lot – what has your proudest moment in your career been?
The London Olympic Games. An Olympics is really the pinnacle of an athlete’s career, and I feel so fortunate to have competed at a home Games. Finishing fourth was bittersweet, but the crowds and the experience were unforgettable. I also feel very proud to have been part of the team that really did inspire the nation—some of the legacies from those Games are still having huge impact in Britain today.
Another achievement I’m incredibly proud of is being crowned European Champion in Budapest in 2010. The competition was outdoors and there was a real party atmosphere—it was one of the most fun events I’ve ever been too and pretty special to hear the national anthem playing for me!
What has been your favourite/most important personal lesson you’ve gotten out of your career?
You learn a lot of things as an elite athlete: discipline, focus, resilience, team and leadership skills, to name a few. A huge lesson for me was finishing fourth at the Olympics in London—for a long time afterwards I saw that race as a failure. But I slowly started to realised that I was the only person who was seeing it like that and that I had the agency to shift my mindset towards feeling proud of the achievement, rather than disappointed.
Although relevant to building resilience as an athlete, this is also a lesson that I’ve taken into life beyond sport. It’s incredibly empowering to realise that you have a choice in whether you see an obstacle in front of you or an opportunity.
What was it like winning five golds at the European Youth Olympics? Was it strange reaching such success so early on?
Competing as a young athlete was so much fun and I feel very fortunate to have been afforded the opportunity to travel and race in some brilliant competitions. The Youth Olympics are a particularly special memory for me—it was my first experience of competing at a multi-sport Games and feeling part of Team GB! My family also travelled out to watch me compete, so doing so well at the event was doubly special.
I don’t think I worried too much about achieving success at an early age—I knew there was still a long journey to replicating this at a senior level and the experience really just made me hungry for more!
You run a lot of workshops and masterclasses for young people getting into elite sport – what are some of your favourite experiences from these?
I love working with young people and helping them on their sporting journeys. In particular I like to talk about the psychology of performance—it’s often a huge relief for young athletes to know that their nerves are normal and there are ways to manage them. I also enjoy helping athletes with their confidence and showing them ways to shift their mindset towards seeing setbacks and disappointment as a really positive part of their learning journey.
Postponing the Olympic and Paralympic Games has had a big affect on athletes all over the world, but also supporters of the Olympics who have lost the chance to see their aspirations compete. Lizzie Simmonds writes about the impacts and what the future might look like for sporting events.
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