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Jade Craddock sits down with Olympic gold medallist, Sam Quek, to celebrate the bold and the fearless.
If there was one sportswoman from history who you could interview, who would it be?
“Billie Jean King would be up there, Serena Williams, Simone Biles,” Olympic gold medallist Sam Quek deliberates as we discuss her new book, Roar, released last week. The book features the stories of twelve prominent British sportswomen, including the likes of skeleton star Amy Williams, swimmer Rebecca Adlington and 400m runner Christine Ohuruogu, and it is clearly a project that Sam is both passionate and excited about, as she references the amount of progress and positivity in women’s sport at the moment. But choosing the line-up was naturally difficult, she admits.
“There’s so many great sportswomen to choose from, do we go international, do we keep it to British sportswomen? But it comes down to what makes the best blend. Everyone has got a different story and might have come up against different barriers and different backgrounds, but I think the women featured and the challenges that they faced from different generations – from Sheila Parker who was the first Lionesses captain to Sky Brown who’s only just 14 now – produced the right blend of women when it came to their stories and their backgrounds and all the different experiences.”
And that certainly seems the case, as a range of sports from rugby to track and field, as well as a range of athletes, are given the space and opportunity to discuss their journeys, the highs, but importantly the lows, be it bullying, injuries, self-doubt or accessibility. It is the sort of book that, in truth, probably wouldn’t have been published twenty, even ten years ago, but it is the sort of book that is absolutely vital in celebrating the development of women’s sport, those athletes who have paved the way, and giving the next generation an insight into what it really means to be a sportsperson, inspiring them to pick up a javelin like Fatima Whitbred or getting on a bike like Dame Sarah Storey.
Yet for Sam Quek growing up, her female sporting role models weren’t nearly as visible. Indeed, when asked who first inspired her own sporting dreams, as first a footballer before a hockey player, she names Liverpool icon Steve McManaman – “just because I didn’t know of any sportswomen at that age, so all I could look up to and see was male footballers. It wasn’t until I was a little bit older and started watching the Olympics that I remember Kelly Holmes taking the double gold and seeing that emotion, that passion come through. I remember watching her on the podium and I actually got emotional.”
From early promise in football, it was hockey where Sam found her later success, and there is one woman she is quick to point out as inspiring her throughout her career – Kate Richardson-Walsh, Sam’s captain when team GB won that iconic gold in Rio. “When I used to trial for north of England, her mum used to be my coach, so Kate would come and do a bit of a demo day sometimes and help with the coaching and she was England women’s hockey captain and I remember thinking she was so cool. And then getting in the squad with her and just seeing how she did everything with integrity, passion, she just ticks every single box.”
And yet despite sharing the playing field for over a decade and being friends away from the hockey pitch, sitting down to interview her former teammate for the book, Sam admits there were things they’d never really discussed before and that speaking with Kate and the eleven other sportswomen who feature in Roar was both an enjoyable and emotional experience. “The women were really coming out and opening up and I think the fact that I was a fellow athlete, a fellow woman, it was easier for them to open up and it created a really open platform for us. It was really inspiring, learning about stories and backgrounds I didn’t know.”
Inspiring definitely, but also quite hard-hitting at times. Sam doesn’t flinch from tackling the tough issues with her fellow sportswomen, including the traumatic experiences of Fatima Whitbred’s early years through to Sky Brown’s devastating fall in 2020 that left her with a fractured skull and wrist. Being an athlete isn’t easy, and it was important for Sam to represent the positives and the negatives. “That’s the realism of it and you can only commend the girls for dealing with it in their own ways. And sometimes the women I spoke to didn’t deal with it at the time, but they still got through it.”
While all of the athletes in the book, indeed, had their own obstacles to overcome, it is hard not to be struck by the stories of the older athletes, like Sheila Parker, who were part of a very different generation when it came to women in sport. But in terms of the difference between today’s sportswomen and those of the past, Sam is adamant that the attitudes of the women themselves haven’t changed.
“There’s always been a grit, a determination, a belief and a confidence in these sportswomen, but women are facing different challenges now than maybe when Sheila Parker was playing. Sheila Parker had the same attitude as a Sky Brown, in terms of let’s just knuckle down, sometimes you’re going to fall, but we get back up. I think both Sheila and Sky have the same attitude, but Sheila may have faced a lot more hurdles that she had to overcome.” But the process is ever-evolving, Sam points out. “Girls and athletes who are in the limelight now will be facing different issues that an athlete might not face in ten years’ time because they have paved the way.”
Sam brings up the issue of motherhood, which is discussed in the book at length by Dame Sarah Storey, and the criticism she received throughout her pregnancy and her comeback to the sport thereafter. But attitudes have shifted, Sam explains, citing tennis player Naomi Osaka, who gave birth to her first child in July. “Naomi Osaka announced she’s going to come back to competition next year and people are seeing that headline and going, okay, yeah brilliant. It was probably only five years ago when people would have been like, What?! It is constantly evolving, as women in sport break down barriers, be that trailblazer, that means that a few years down the line things become the norm. And it is the Tanni Grey-Thompsons, it is the Fatima Whitbreds, it is the Sheila Parkers who have gone against the grain to show people what women can achieve.”
And achieve they have and continue to do, not least the Lionesses, who Sam is a big fan of. “They’re fantastic role models. I didn’t have any female footballing role models growing up, so I can only imagine how inspired young girls feel looking up to these incredible role models who are winning European championships, getting to World Cup Finals, putting their bodies on the line and showing people what they can achieve. But also, what I find really impressive about the Lionesses is that they’re themselves. They all have their different styles, they all embrace their lives outside of football, where previously I think women would have just been seen as sportswomen and boxed in to that.”
Despite the positivity that surrounds the Lionesses, however, it’s impossible to avoid the controversies that have courted the women’s game in the aftermath of what was, on the pitch, a hugely successful and inspiring World Cup this summer. But Sam is adamant that Spain’s inaugural triumph has not been overshadowed by the more unsavoury headlines. “They are World Cup winners for the first time, and people know that, and it will always be that.” And she praises Jenni Hermoso for speaking out. “It takes a strong woman to put her account out there and it’s on the world stage. It’s not just women’s football, the whole world knows about this story. These are the women we are talking about, these are the women in the book, who really have to put themselves out there.” And for Sam it’s all about learning and understanding going forward, whether that be in terms of the kit debacle that surrounded Mary Earps or Alison Felix starting the movement of maternity pay with sponsors.
Yet Sam acknowledges that this is one of the challenges that still faces women’s sport – a lack of understanding and receptiveness. “Sometimes people don’t want to listen to understand to make change,” she explains. “And quite often, people have a belief and they don’t want to listen to the reasoning behind other beliefs. For women in sport, I think there’s still a lot of this – ‘she’s a woman, she’s going to be weaker, she can’t achieve, she can’t do that, she’s got to have kids, she needs to be at home’. That still exists and we have to be realistic about it.”
So how do we combat it? “Ultimately, to make people interested in women’s sport, you have to be winning medals, you have to be winning trophies and you have to provide a good, entertaining product and that’s what women are doing time and time again, especially in recent years. You only have to look at the Lionesses – winning the Euros, getting to a World Cup Final. We’re doing our part, we’re winning the medals.”
Yet it was seven years ago that Sam stood atop the podium, having won her very own gold medal, so is she pleased at how women’s sport has developed in that time? She cites Roar as being evidence of the development in recent years and how prominent women’s sport now is in conversations.
“Whether it’s people talking about women winning medals, World Cups, in whatever sport, or it is actually the conversations of Hermoso, or someone coming back after having a baby, those conversations are happening now in the public and people are discussing it and understanding. It was probably only 2015 that Heather Watson was the first high-profile sportswoman to say my period affected me, and everyone was like, ‘What?! She’s talking about her period, let alone publicly’. Whereas now we’ve got to a point, only a few years down the line, where things are changing, like kit. The landscape of women’s sports definitely has changed and is still changing and there’s always more that can be done.”
In terms of one of the ways more can be done, the discussion turns to life for athletes once their sports careers are over. While Sam has made what she admits is a ‘pretty seamless’ shift into the media, becoming the first female team captain on BBC’s Question of Sport, although, sadly, not without having to face criticism before she even began, she recognises the inherent challenges in a life after sport. “Being an elite athlete, for both men and women, it’s so rigid and the planning is so far in advance, you know when your tournaments are, you know when you need to peak, you know when you can take time off. As soon as you finish, you get a little bit lost because there’s been so much structure to your life and then to come out of that can be a lonely place. You almost feel a loss of belonging.”
Sitting down to write this book, however, only served to affirm Sam’s belief in a legacy and community of sportswomen that cements a lifelong belonging. “There’s a quote: ‘Every women’s success should be an inspiration to another; we’re strongest when we cheer each on’ and I’m such a firm believer in that. I think when we work together, and we back each other and we talk to each other, we can achieve great things. And I think that’s what this book highlighted to me even more so, having these women come on board, because they believe in the same, it was really inspiring for me, and humbling.”
And Sam is looking forward to being inspired once more next summer with the Olympics in Paris. “I love an Olympics and the fact that women are just getting better and better excites me. Winners create winners and the fact that we had so many female winners in Tokyo, going forward, it’s really exciting. And what I love about the Olympics is that you have these heroines and heroes come out of nowhere and win gold medals and you learn their stories and realise these are just normal people achieving great things.”
Sam is passionate about sport for all, and the importance of grassroots sport in particular. “There will be a sport out there for everyone, it’s just finding it. If there’s a sport you see on the TV or you read about and you think I want to try that, genuinely there’s so much being done at grassroots now to get people involved now.” And it’s not all about the health benefits, she insists: ‘Sometimes life isn’t plain sailing and sport for me, especially now in this generation of social media, it teaches so much – you can learn life lessons, you cope with failure, and you learn to bounce back.”
Indeed, all of the twelve women in Roar, and Sam herself, have had to bounce back and it’s testament to Sam that she has created a book that is eye-opening and empowering, a book that previous generations of aspiring female athletes would have learnt from and been inspired by. Fortunately, Sam has recognised the need to tell these athletes’ stories and from Paula Radcliffe to Shaunagh Brown here are the voices of the women who have led the way.
I tease that there’s plenty of scope for a second book, which Sam doesn’t rule out. After all, there are subjects aplenty for a whole host of future editions and that in itself shows how far women’s sport has come that there could be a healthy discussion over a line-up for another book. What about Heather Watson? Beth Tweddle? Shanaze Reade? Jade Jones? Charlotte Edwards? Kadeena Cox? Or perhaps a line-up of female coaches – Hope Powell? Tracey Neville? Mel Marshall? Judy Murray? There could be a whole Lionesses edition – Mary Phillip? Maryanne Spacey? Fara Williams? Ellen White? And, of course, there is the international edition that Sam herself posed.
And so we come back to that first question, and who Sam would choose for a one-off interview. Sam chooses Simone Biles – “just because I was engrossed with how she managed herself in Tokyo and the reaction and response that she got when she pulled out of the team event in gymnastics infuriated me. But I’m not putting her ahead of anyone, because all these sportswomen achieve great things.”
Hear, hear. And Sam Quek not least of all. Indeed, on top of a glittering sports career, the medals, the trophies, Roar must sit amongst the affable Liverpudlian’s highest achievements, in allowing a line-up of sportswomen to finally be given the platform and opportunity they deserve to share their stories for the next generation of female athletes.
“Pitch is such an excellent title, and I think it's a great addition to the sports press. What I like about it is that it covers all sport, which is great, there was a gap in the market for that, for an all-round title. Excellent design too, the cover is beautiful. ”
Fernando Augusto Pacheco - Presenter ‘The Stack’ by Monocle