Meet the women breathing new life into old sports

Meet the women breathing new life into old sports

In partnership withVans
In Britain, traditional, institutional sports are changing, spearheaded by a wave of forward-thinking athletes. With fencing, figure skating and even refereeing getting their 21st century makeover, we speak to the women at the forefront of the change.

Let’s face it: some sports are just cooler than others.

With the greatest of respect to the snooker players and lawn bowlers of the world, it often takes something universally popular or objectively white-knuckle to get pulses racing. A footballer firing a volley into the top corner from 30 yards; a snowboarder hurtling down a near-vertical slope at 70mph; a kick boxer flying in with a first round KO.

But across Britain, there’s a changing of the guard. Led by a host of young woman athletes, some of the country’s oldest – and strangest – sports are getting a new lease of life in the 21st century. There’s the new generation of risk-taking riders changing how London thinks about cyclists; the equestrian vaulters risking their lives to compete in gymnastics on horseback; and the young Somalian refugee diversifying the world of refereeing. We spoke to some of the young women transforming some of Britain’s oldest sporting institutions: who are they, why are they doing it, and what kinds of challenges do they face?

Anna, 19 – Equestrian vaulting

I was about six years old when I first tried equestrian vaulting. Some of my friends did it, so I went along with them. I’d always liked horses, and I actually did a bit of gymnastics as well, so I thought, ‘Why not try them both together?’

My role is a prop: I’m the person holding people up. I’m quite glad that I’m not a flyer – small people who are flying up in the air and looking upside down – because I could never do that. What I do is prop them and try to keep them safe on the horse.

There are so many different characters, so many different age groups. We have people in the team who are 12, and other team members in their 30s. It’s such an age range – everybody is in a different stage of life.

What makes vaulting stand out? Well, you’re basically dancing with a horse! You really have to be aware of what the horse underneath you is doing. You don’t just have human beings next to you – your horse is a team member as well; you always have to think about what it’s feeling.

I’m from Germany originally. I’d say equestrian vaulting is a lot bigger there than it is in the UK, although it’s still not really that popular. It’s just a small sport in general, really – you can go to a high level, but you’ll never get money out of it, because it’s not as supported as dressage or jumping.

But it’s fun doing something different. I would like to see it as an individual sport in the Olympics one day, just to help it get bigger in the world. In the UK, I hope that more people will carry on competing, coaching and maybe open their own clubs. Then there’ll be more competition as well, and competition always helps to build a sport up.

I don’t know yet if I will stay here or go back to Germany to study, but I will definitely keep doing the vaulting either way. Basically, what we’re doing here is trying to get people to know it and to watch it – because it really is an impressive sport to watch.

Ruby, 14 – Cycling

I started riding with the BikeLife crew about two years ago. Since then, I’ve been on the biggest come up. I’ve learnt loads of new tricks.

I started by watching riders like Wheelie Kay, Little Harry, Jake100 – all of them, the big people up there. When you watch people on their bikes, the tricks look so good. It’s impressive to see, so I thought I might as well do it myself – be one of those impressive people. People noticed me from day dot.

What we do with BikeLife is different. It gets people out of trouble – as we say, ‘knives down bikes up’. People put down their knives and pick up a bike. There have been quite a few people that have been in gangs, and they’ve picked up a bike and got out of it all. They met new friends, rode, and got out of trouble.

I’m one of four or five girls in the whole crew. I get loads more respect for that. It is a male-dominated sport and not a lot of girls ride bikes, because most of them my age are proper girly. I’m not one of those people.

My hopes for the future of BikeLife is that it just keeps getting bigger. Take the BikeStormz event, where we do ride-outs. We have 4,000 people doing it now. One day I could see 20,000 people riding through London. I actually could –20,000 people!

I’d be so bored without riding. I’d have nothing to do, except play my PS4. It has given me something to do every single day, and I get so much respect for it. It’s taught me that no matter who you are, anyone can do what they want. Just keep grinding, and you’ll get there. Just keep grinding.

JJ, 24 – Football referee

I first got into refereeing when I got asked to volunteer and cover for another referee who didn’t turn up that week. I was about 19. At first, my role was just to look after the desk and get the girls signed up. Then one time, the lady who was in charge asked me to go and referee the girls’ pitches. Week in, week out, the referee didn’t turn up and so I carried on.

Eventually, I completed a refereeing course. I did two years of youth football and then, in 2016, I started doing the men’s game. I remember for those first matches I brought all of my family and friends: I was way out of my comfort zone and I needed backup. But the players liked me and wanted me to come back again.

My family moved to the UK from Somalia when I was 10 years old. We came here because of the civil war. I remember a lot of crazy things: a lot of death and bombs going off. It was so scary. We were so lucky to get out of there – I could have been dead by now.

My parents are very traditional. They think playing football is not the normal thing a Somalian girl would do. In the beginning, they were happy for me to coach as I wasn’t running around too much. But when I told them I was going to referee, they were like, ‘Oh God, this girl’s not giving up.’

Being a girl is one thing, but I’m also visibly Muslim. I’m just there on the pitch, wearing my head-scarf. I think players often see me as a little girl too, because I don’t look my age. I come into a man’s world and tell them what to do. Sometimes I get respect, and sometimes you can see and feel their dominance. But if you get your job done and do things the right way, you get respect.

I never had a role model. Even now, there’s nobody that looks like me that is in this field. So me being visible for girls – particularly girls of colour and Muslims – it’s just a big responsibility. I have to stick at it and make them see that it can be done. If you’re there and you do the job as good as a man would, then I don’t see why you shouldn't be there.

Alice, 18  – Fencing

The best way to describe fencing is that it’s like a bug. Once you’ve got it, you can’t get rid of it. It spreads like a fire inside of you. You fence, and then you try and do other sports – but they just don’t feel the same.

The first time I tried fencing, I was eight years old. I was so little I had to use plastic swords because I couldn’t take the weight of the metal foil. I started because my older sister did it at secondary school, and I just wanted to copy her. Eventually, it took over as my thing, and she quit. I’ve been doing it for 10 years now.

I competed for England when I was 12, and I got to go to Paris. I remember my bag was much bigger than me, and I was dragging it down the road. The first competition was such a shock because you get there and there are so many different girls from so many different nations.

When I first started, I noticed that a lot of the girls were at private schools. I’m from a state school, but I didn’t really see it as an issue. When you’re fencing, education doesn’t matter: you both have the same brains. Everything you learn is the same, so I was on an equal playing field to everyone. Just because I come from a poorer background than some of the other girls, it doesn’t mean I can’t accomplish the same, or more, than what they do.

For me, my biggest challenge has been my mental ability to pick myself back up once I lose a fight. As I got older, I started beating myself up more: every time I lost a fight, every time I lost a hit. Now, I’m starting to get a more positive mentality. If you’ve been hit, so what? It's fine. It’s one hit. There are 15 more to get – anything can happen.

I feel like fencing has made me a more confident person because it’s an individual sport. You have to believe in yourself, that’s what it’s taught me. I hope it grows and becomes less of a minority sport and more of a popular, well-known one. Personally, my goal is to be in the Olympics and to carry it on for many, many years.

Kristen, 18 - Figure skating

I started figure skating when I was six and I was terrible – I couldn’t do it! I was awful at it, but I loved it. When you’re on the ice, nothing else matters.

Now, my life revolves around skating. I can’t imagine being without it. The feeling when you skate well and hear the crowd erupt, it’s the best in the world.

It’s different from any other sport because of the way it balances sport and beauty. When you watch it, it’s almost like an art. You have to be both athletic and elegant, which is why it stands out.

While figure skating is a very traditional, kind of a stuck-up sport, it’s slowly being modernised. There’s definitely a dominant image of a prim and proper figure skater, who is teeny tiny and skates like a ballerina. For me, it’s important that the sport steps away from that and becomes a bit more diverse in the future.

On a personal level, figure skating has taught me how determined I am. If I want something, then I’ll go and get it. I’ve learnt that if you do work hard at something, you will get there. It’s okay to take longer than other people, too: it took me ages to get my triple jumps. Everyone else was landing them and I couldn’t do them. But if you stick at it, eventually you will get it.

If you go out there and give something 100 per cent, you can’t lose. It doesn’t matter if you fall on your face seven times. Everyone’s terrified of failure, especially when you stand on that ice in front of loads of people. But if you get back up, and you try again, you can’t lose. All you can do is learn.

Read more stories from This Is Off The Wall, an editorial partnership from Huck and Vans.

This story was originally published in 2019.

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