Verity Ockenden considers the individuals she would put centre stage – from the star names to those who laid the foundation from which she has been able to dare to dream
I remember vividly my first day of middle school as a small, unshaped person in an oversized uniform. I inscribed my name voraciously in my most perfect handwriting on every crisp new textbook we received. Best of all, I was asked to go home and decorate my Physical Education folder with the image of a person who inspired me. I knew immediately who it would be.
I had watched her from the floor of my grandparents’ living room that summer, my boggling eyes mere inches from the screen because sitting on the sofa was too far from the heat of the action.
I knew nothing about running, and everything about ponies and ballerinas, but every time Kelly Holmes set foot on that Olympic track in Athens, I just knew she was going to win. Perhaps it was my naive kind of childhood belief in such things or perhaps her determination to do so was just that palpable even through the television, but win she did. Twice. After that, the image that splashed across so many front pages of Kelly, arms aloft, braided and rippling with disbelief and delight, remained fried in my brain forever more.
I joined the school cross-country club which met every Friday after class, and when sports day came around and I begged my teachers to let me enter more than just three races, I finally felt “cool”. Here was something I was really good at, and even those outside of my small friendship group began to cheer me on as I brought point after point home for the Eagles.
After I set a school record of something like seven minutes over a grass mile, they began to nickname me ‘Paula’ after Paula Radcliffe, and even though I seemed to be the only person that knew that a mile was a lot less than a marathon, I let it stick because, for me, it was the ultimate compliment.
It was those kinds of women who inspired me to join clubs and go to races long before I realised that I could really be a professional athlete like them. Nowadays, the level of athlete I used to look up to has become my competition and social media brings us ever closer to the person behind the medals, I tend to find my inspiration more in the journey behind the headlines than in the results themselves, knowing that the process of getting there is never as easy as it looks from the outside on race day.
For this reason, as we enter the glitz and glamour of awards season and celebrate the multitudinous athletic achievements of the summer past, Dame Kelly remains No.1 on my list of all-time heroines.
She shared this year, in a courageously personal documentary, the reality behind her Olympic dream. The pressure of being the perfect role model and people’s champion, the depression, the self-harm and the repression of her identity for fear of public judgement. In coming out, not only did Kelly free herself but she will have shown so many others what is possible in contexts extending so much further than that of the 400m track.
Fortunately, we are spoilt for choice for further famous sporting role models in this golden age of athletics superstars, but it isn’t always those on the big screen who leave the largest impact. Having been inspired to join a club and to represent a team however big or small, it is who we find in that team to support us and to believe in us that often makes the difference between staying in the sport and succeeding or not.
Rupert Pepper, my childhood coach, came to watch me race at the Night of the 10,000m PBs this year. He was surprised after so many years of independent growth at an elite level, that 10 minutes before the gun, I still ran over to ask him his opinion on whether I should wear socks or no socks inside my spikes. This was a decision that, had he not been there, I would have happily made alone… but Rupert’s familiarly sage and considerate counsel was a valuable settling influence that also took me back to that simple childhood version of myself who just believed in winning without really thinking about it too much.
In that moment, even the memory of his mentorship was enough to trigger the adjustment in my mentality that I required to motivate myself and perform well.
Likewise, the appointments made with my physiotherapist Kyle Pepperman-Hackett, a founding member of the Blandford Schools Cross-Country Club, have always served a dual purpose. The primary goal of massage and re-alignment at Kyle’s clinic was always to keep me physically running smoothly, but since Kyle happens to have been on my team like a bossy but benevolent and extremely over-achieving older brother since I was 13, I always managed to leave with my head screwed on a little better, too.
Kyle is a person who knows me well enough to give a blunt opinion where necessary and to hold me to the kind of high standards that he has always set for himself in whatever he does, with a strong work ethic and keen eye for detail. He refuses to let me settle for less than he knows that I am capable of, and in return I am motivated to honour his level of investment in my performance by always giving my best in competition.
READ MORE: Verity Ockenden’s previous columns for AW
Thus, over the years I’ve learned to absorb and appreciate the motivation and inspiration I receive from every angle of life. Witnessing the incredible achievements of stars such as Dame Kelly Holmes who have fought their own battles ahead of us opens our imagination to what is humanly possible to achieve.
Being supported in your own battles by those close by you, by friends, coaches and therapists like Rupert and Kyle, give us the kind of foundational strength and belief in our own journey that is necessary to aim for such heights ourselves.
» This article first appeared in the November issue of AW magazine