Going for gold: meet the women set to inspire in Rio

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In just two days, the Olympics will take over our TV screens and our emotions. TV presenter Clare Balding pays tribute to the women preparing to inspire us

Photography: Mark Harrison

“When London 2012 came to a close, I tried to take a mental snapshot. I looked at the vast crowds celebrating in Trafalgar Square as we made our way through on open-top buses. I focused on the athletes beside me, some of them crying, as I was, overwhelmed by their collective achievement. I still think about it now.

Because no one can deny that the Games of 2012 were a tidal force of emotion – triumphs, near-triumphs, pride; the feeling that we might not ever feel so together – as a nation or a team – again. But now, we’re four years on. Rio 2016 is here. Finally, we get to do it all over again.

In 2012, our female athletes were given a huge platform to shine upon – with rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning winning Team GB’s first gold and Jess Ennis-Hill starring on Super Saturday, to Nicola Adams winning the first ever gold in women’s boxing and Hannah Cockcroft storming to two gold medals in the wheelchair sprinting. And the nation took note. In fact, the Games delivered the biggest national television event recorded, with over 90% of the population watching the coverage. Consequently, women made the biggest sporting impact ever seen in this country.

I have always believed that sport can provide the most powerful and effective visual images of female strength. In countries where women are still not allowed to vote or even drive a car, seeing women running, riding, sailing, weightlifting, boxing and shooting sends them a signal that should not be denied. Gender should never be a reason for a door to be closed.

And this time around, things are even better for our female Olympians. In the intervening years since London 2012, the profile of and investment in women’s sport has significantly increased.

It means that once again, this summer, our female sports stars will come to the fore. In rowing, Glover and Stanning are favourites for gold, while the women’s eight rowers aim to win a first-ever Olympic medal. What’s more, either Laura Trott or Charlotte Dujardin could become the first British woman ever to win three Olympic golds. But one of the most exciting young prospects in athletics is 20-year-old Dina Asher-Smith, still a student at King’s College, London who recently became the first female 200m European Champion for Great Britain.

For me, I am incredibly excited about the first Games ever to be staged in South America and to be part of an incredibly talented team of presenters, many of whom are women. Within every sphere of sport, British women are flying the flag in Rio this summer. And for that, I could not be more proud.”

Clare Balding is part of the BBC’s Rio 2016 presenting team; beginning on 5 August across TV, radio and the BBC Sport website

Becky Downie, gymnast

Great Britain 24, artistic gymnastics

Why you should watch her: After competing in Beijing in 2008, she failed to make the team for London 2012, but Downie is on top form after winning the 2016 European Championships gold in uneven bars. As well as competing individually, Nottingham-born Downie will be part of the artistic women’s gymnastics team, alongside sister, Ellie – they are known as the Double Downies. They’ll be a fierce challenge for their main competitors, USA.

In her own words: “2012 was the toughest time in my career but it was really significant too. I’ve used [not making the London 2012 team] as motivation, I felt like I had a point to prove. You always get nervous before a competition but once you’re out there you let your nerves go in and out of your system and focus on the routine. We train for what to do if things do go wrong. A couple of days before competing we do podium training – a practice run. It gives the judges an idea of what to expect, and we can work out where the toilets are! We’ve been to Rio for the test event so I know what the equipment is like, which is what makes you most anxious.

Our competition is around 5pm, so I’ll do a stretching session then eat brunch – eggs and smoked salmon – and have a coffee, then fill my bags with protein bars, bananas and Haribo. I’ll take a leotard for each session – I often wash them in between events in the sink.”

One more thing: Becky has a tattoo of the Olympic rings on her ankle which reminds her of “what I’ve worked so hard for”.

Women’s gymnastics starts at 1.45pm on 7 August

Ellen Hoog, hockey player

Netherlands 30, field hockey

Why you should watch her: The Netherlands hockey team are going for their third consecutive Olympic Gold in Rio – and you can bet they’re not likely to let anything get in their way.

In her own words: “We have a terrible pre-match ritual. We think Ryan Gosling’s The Notebook brings us luck – and watch it before matches. We’ve seen it around 45 times. It started in 2005, in a European Championship in Dublin.

The tournament didn’t start well, we weren’t playing our best. We got to the semi-finals and the night before, we watched The Notebook. Suddenly we played brilliantly – and figured it must have been because of the movie. Now we put it on the night before the first match of a tournament, a semi-final and a final. For the first few years I cried at the end. I don’t anymore. In recent years there’s been a lot of focus on our appearance – with media and supporters commenting on our looks, rather than our skills, which is annoying. Look at what we do. Look at how hard we train and how hard we work for it. We want girls looking to go into the sport to see how much we love playing, and playing together – not the focus on our looks. At Rio, we hope that’s the case.

I’m looking forward to the Games. It’s always fun towards the end – it’s one big party. There’s usually a McDonald’s which is empty at the beginning of the two weeks… and the queues get bigger and bigger as the Games go on. The first thing I’ll be doing if we win a medal is drinking champagne. For two months straight, probably.”

One more thing: During hockey games, balls can travel at more than 100mph, so injuries are rife. Hoog has one dead tooth, a twice broken nose and has broken her ankle during her 23 years in the sport.

See The Netherlands v Spain at 4.30pm, 7 August

Larissa França, beach volleyball player

Brazil 34, beach volleyball

Why you should watch her: Since 2002 França, who is now one of the best volleyball players ever, has racked up no less than 57 FIVB (Federation Internationale de Volleyball) career gold medals and won the 2011 Beach Volleyball World Championships with teammate Juliana Felisberta. Despite retiring for two years after London 2012, she returned to the sport to team up with current partner Talita Antunes in 2014 – and the pair won the 2015 FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour.

In her own words: “I don’t really accept mistakes, I just want to work more and more. I dedicate 10 hours per day to beach volleyball. And I hate to lose; even a coin toss. When I’m on the court, I’m a warrior.”

One more thing: França married fellow women’s volleyball player Liliane Maestrini in 2013 and has the names of her family tattooed on her right arm. “That is my working arm,” she has said, “so they [are] with me on the court.”

Women’s beach volleyball starts at 2pm, 6 August

Katie Ledecky, swimmer

USA 19, swimming; 200m, 400m, 800m freestyle

Why you should watch her: Because, frankly, you’ve never seen anything like her. Despite being a teenager, Ledecky has already made history more than once – not only does she have one Olympic gold and two world records under her belt, but she achieved what no other swimmer has ever done before by winning every single race (100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m) in the freestyle category at the World Swimming Championships in 2015 – a feat now known as the ‘Ledecky Slam’. At London 2012, aged just 15, she was the underdog who came out of nowhere to knock former Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington into third place. What followed was a media storm – and, for Ledecky, a bit of a blur. This time, she says, she’s much more ready, and intends to capitalise on her experience in and out of the pool. Including, badge swapping…

In her own words: “One thing I’m going to try and do more this time is pin-swapping with other athletes. It would be cool to rack up a little collection. I think it’s just a really neat thing when you can bring all these countries together. Hopefully it inspires the world to bring about more peace.”

One more thing: After Rio, Ledecky will enroll at Stanford on a swimming scholarship after deferring her entrance to train.

Women’s 400m individual medley starts at 6.12pm on 6 August

Lydia Ko, golfer

New Zealand 19, golf

Why you should watch her: If you thought golf was all argyle sweaters and whiskey in the clubhouse, think again. Ko is still a teenager, but she’s already made a name as one of the all-time greats in the golfing world. At 15, she became the youngest winner of a Ladies Professional Golf Association title and at 17, became the youngest player to be ranked No1. By age 19, she was the youngest ever two times major champion – male or female. 2016 is the first year since 1904 that golf has featured in the Olympics. Ko can’t wait to be a part of it. In her own words: “When they announced that golf will be at the Olympics, I said ‘Hey, I want to get myself on that team’. If you end up getting a medal that’s great, but to say I’m an Olympian, I think that’s a pretty proud thing to say.”

One more thing: South Korean-born Ko (she moved to New Zealand as a baby and gained citizenship there aged 12) loves karaoke. On her last visit she sang a Korean rap song with ‘a lot of swear words in it,’ along with Let it Go and Rolling In The Deep.

Women’s golf starts at 11.30am on 17 August

Nicola Adams, boxer

Great Britain 33, flyweight

Why you should watch her: you might remember her as the world’s first female Olympic boxing champion – or the straight-talking northerner who had a huge McDonald’s minutes after clinching gold in 2012. Ranked No1 in the world, Adams is Olympic, European and world champion – and a force to be reckoned with.

In her own words: “I know exactly what I’ll be doing when I win at Rio: ringing my family to tell them – and then going out to see what I can eat. This time I’m thinking steak. Then I’m going on holiday. Probably to Miami or Mexico. And I’m going to buy myself a new watch, as the one I had as a souvenir from the last Olympic Games in London was stolen.

I’m ready for it now, but training has been intense. Running is the hardest. But at those times I think about my opponents going out there – running, training, doing everything they can to beat me. They want to be the world champion, to be the Olympic champion – so I know they will be doing the most they can, and I have to do more than that. But I never doubt my ability because I always do the training. I know if I’ve done that, there should be no problems once I get into the ring.

I always have confidence. I always believe I am unbeatable.”

One more thing: Adams was awarded an honorary Degree of Laws from the Leeds University in 2015.

Women’s flyweight boxing starts at 3pm on 12 August

Laura Trott, cyclist

Great Britain 24, cycling; women’s team pursuit and omnium

Why you should watch her: Trott was hailed a hero at London 2012 when she became the first athlete to win not just one, but two Olympic Gold medals on home turf – and she hasn’t stopped climbing since. With 10 titles to her name by the end of last year, she’s currently the most successful cyclist, male or female, in the history of the European Track Championships. She’s also the reigning world champion in the omnium – an event consisting of six different length races, held over the course of two days.

In her own words: “For me, London 2012 is a bit of a blur – I didn’t even expect to be a part of it, let alone experience everything that happened there. In Rio, I want to take it all in.

This has been what four years of training has been building up to. I would love to achieve what I achieved in London – I never expected to do so well so early, if at all, in my career. But I’m not thinking about the ‘what ifs’, I’m only thinking about what I can control on the day in Rio.

I want to do the next generation of girls proud. It’s so important to get girls into sport. Sport is the only reason I have any confidence – about who I am and what I look like. And I think so many more girls could grow their confidence via sport. Now, I believe in my training and I believe in myself. I know I’m ready.”

I want to do the next generation of girls proud. It’s so important to get girls into sport. Sport is the only reason I have any confidence – about who I am and what I look like. And I think so many more girls could grow their confidence via sport. Now, I believe in my training and I believe in myself. I know I’m ready.”

One more thing: Trott says that spiralling around the bends of a velodrome at nearly 60kmh feels like “spinning around in a washing machine”.

Women’s team pursuit starts at 8.19pm on 11 August; Laura is working with Always to inspire girls to Keep Playing #LikeAGirl

Ibtihaj Muhammad, fencer

USA 30, fencing

Why you should watch her: Because Muhammad is, in her own words, “just your basic hijabi Zorro”. She has risen to international fame as the USA’s number three fencer, and will make history as the first Muslim woman to represent the USA while wearing a hijab at Rio this summer. Muhammad took up fencing aged 13 because it was a sport that allowed her to compete while keeping her body fully covered – and now she’s a role model for young sportswomen all over the world. Diversity within the sport is something she is determined to change.

In her own words: “My parents were looking for a sport for me to play where I wouldn’t have to alter the uniform as a Muslim woman. Historically, it’s always been a white sport reserved for people with money. I don’t think it’s a good representation of the US or of society as a whole.

I wanted to challenge people’s idea of what a fencer looks like. When I was told there had never been a Muslim woman who wears the hijab on the United States Olympic team, that was just another challenge, another goal I set for myself. I thought, ‘Oh wait, I want to do that.’ I wanted my younger self or kids now to see that nothing should hold them back from reaching their goals – not their gender, race, or their religion.”

One more thing: Obama has namechecked Muhammad in a speech. “I told her to bring home the gold,” he said. “Not to put any pressure on you.” Meanwhile – along with her four siblings – Muhammad is also the founder of fashion brand, Louella (, named after her grandmother, which creates modest clothing for women.

Women’s fencing starts at 1pm on 6 August

Jessica Ennis-Hill, heptathlete

Great Britain 30, heptathlon

Why you should watch her: Ennis-Hill’s gold at London 2012 reduced the entire nation to tears. Now the Sheffield-born athlete is tipped for another win – and, as she is considering retiring after 2017, it could be her last.

In her own words: “I am not the same athlete as I was going into London. Having my first child, Reggie, has meant my body has changed, and I’m older too. So this year has been up and down. I’ve picked up more injuries and life is busier. But I’m ready to go.

It was a worry for me when the reports about the Zika virus came out. It means none of my family are coming to see me.

To come back from injuries and giving birth to win at Rio would be the ultimate for me. I’m excited to make it happen.”

One thing you need to know: Ennis-Hill won her second world title last year just 13 months after giving birth to Reggie.

Women’s heptathlon starts at 1.35pm on 12 August

Dina Asher-Smith, sprinter

Great Britain, 20, athletics; 200m, 4 x 100m relay

Why you should watch her: Because she’s Britain’s fastest ever woman over 100 and 200 metres, and still holds the title as the fastest teenager ever in global history. Counting her sporting achievements is near impossible – yet she says “the best morning” of her life was receiving the A-level results she needed to go to university. She’s currently studying history around her training.

In her own words: “I won’t feel relaxed until I sit on that plane. You never know, you could break your ankle on the way to the airport, these things do happen.

But I’d never try to ‘combat’ my nerves. They are vital… I’m not saying you can’t be anxious or nervous as a sprinter – after all, a few years ago, everyone was saying Usain Bolt was too tall to be a sprinter; anyone can be anything.

But it definitely helps if you are resilient and very confident. I’m not talking about arrogance, but just genuinely believing in yourself and knowing that you have worked hard. In a race, you’ve got to give yourself an edge.”

One more thing: Dina was asked, aged eight, what she wanted to be when she grew older. Her reply? “An Olympian.”

Women’s 200m starts at 1.35pm on 15 August

Photography: Mark Harrison
Hair and make-up: Kim Kiefer at Frank Agency using Bumble and Bumble and Mac
Becky wears the official Team GB Olympic kit
Set build: Rida Studios
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