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Interview: Olympians Grace Carter and Tesni Ward

11 August 12 interview: Joe Sharratt

"When I was six, I told my teacher that I was going to be in the Olympics, and I would buy her a ticket"

Tesni Ward (left) and Grace Carter (right)

Grace Carter of Broxtowe has been a member of the British Women’s Volleyball Team since its inception in 2007, and plays for the French league side Terville. Just getting to London 2012 was a massive achievement in its own right; with their entire Olympic funding cut by UK Sport, the squad was scattered across the world, and the necessary  £250,000 to finance their campaign was raised off their own bat - mainly through a team bike ride from Sheffield to London. 

Tesni Ward of Worksop is one of the UK’s most promising young athletes, having won the England Senior Championships and the England Under 23s Championships in the javelin. A member of the City of Sheffield Athletics Club, Tesni unfortunately succumbed to injury earlier this year; for her, the road to Rio 2016 has already started.

How did you both get into your respective sports?
I did a lot of athletics and football and generally loved sport, but I didn't play volleyball - or had even really heard of it - until I was about sixteen. In a P.E. class at my school in Bramcote, we had a coaching session with George Bulman, who was the head of Volleyball England. I was quite tall and athletic and he said I could be good at volleyball - I liked the sound of that. So he took me under his wing a little bit and taught me how to play.
Tesni: I started athletics at school in year seven. I always enjoyed the throwing events more than the running and jumping - I'm not a fan of running at all. In year nine my P.E. teacher sent me to the local athletics club, and it all started from there. I ended up specialising in the three throws - javelin, discus and hammer - and then slowly specialised at the javelin.

What opportunities were there to train and compete in Notts while you were growing up?
Grace: I owe a lot of my general sporting ability to Broxtowe Borough; the guy who ran Broxtowe sport got me involved in so much stuff. I found it easy to pick up a new sport and fast-track to a high level because I had such a wide background of sports - in the early days it was definitely all to do with the opportunities.
Tesni: There aren’t actually many places where I can train in Notts. In Worksop we used to have gravel athletics tracks, but they were all dug up. There wasn’t any coaching for me here, either, so I had to go to Sheffield to train. About two years ago I applied for funding from the City Council, and was put on their Rising Stars grant; this year I was put on their Shining Stars one, which was considerably more money.
Grace: I'm also part of Shining Stars, and it's been a massive help; I believe that volleyball’s the only Olympic sport that's not funded; we get absolutely no money from the government or from UK Sport, so we've had to do it all by ourselves. It means that I've been able to train full-time.

How much of your respective success boils down to practice and form, and how much is it a matter of getting it right on the day?
Tesni: It's both. You can be in the best shape of your life and your training can be going really well, but on the day if you're not feeling right or your timing is off - even by a few milliseconds out - it can all go wrong.
Grace: We want to be on an uphill slope, so that everyday we're getting closer and closer to our optimum form. We don't need to be playing perfectly right now; the idea is to improve every day and get our form right on track, so by the time the Games start we'll be hitting our optimal zone of performance.

We hear a lot about the sacrifices athletes make to succeed in their chosen fields. Is your regime really as hardcore as its made out to be, or is it a bit over-egged by sports drinks adverts and like?
Tesni: At the start it was just fun and I didn't have to make too many sacrifices, but over the past eighteen months I've had to knuckle down a lot and I'm now training twice a day, six days a week. Obviously that doesn’t leave me much time for my friends, or to go out and do things. I've also just started a job, so I've got to go to training in the morning, then go to work, then go to training again, so once I get home it's eight or nine o'clock and there's just time for eating and sleeping.
Grace: It's difficult for me to say because any sacrifice that I have made has been worth it . Currently, because of the funding issue we've had, our whole team is living in the accommodation block of a fire training centre in Sheffield, which is lovely and amazing, but things like that are probably the less glamorous side. We know that our dream of playing in the Olympics is worth it; it's not really a sacrifice.

We live in a country where football is often the only game in town. Winning a medal would have a huge effect on public awareness: do you feel that you’re representing your sport just as much as your country?
Grace: Yeah, I think that's one of the things that we as a team are most excited about because it's not a big sport. Our goal - apart from beating teams and doing better and playing better than we've ever done - is to raise the profile of volleyball and show people what we can do.
Tesni: There are only really four or five really good female javelin throwers in the country at the moment, and I'm in one of the younger age groups. Our top thrower is in her late twenties, and obviously she's not going to be around forever, so it boils down to our younger people, they're the ones who are going to have to step up to the mark when our senior throwers leave. There's a javelin community and we all support each other - we're all looking to develop the sport as best we can.

Do you resent the fact that sports like yours only get mainstream attention once every four years?
Tesni: A little bit, yeah. It's really hard because with the TV coverage, they always show all of the running, and you might be lucky if one throw is shown in the entire competition. We're not bothered about whether we're on TV or not, but how are people supposed to say “that looks fun, I want to go and try the javelin”, or be motivated by some of the performances they see, when they don't even know how the UK are doing in javelin? The women's javelin in the World Championships last year was the best competition out of all the events, but if you're watching TV you're less likely to see it. You have to go online to specific feeds to watch the event, so if you're not already into athletics you're never going to see it - it's not easy to attract new people to the sport when there's nothing to motivate them.
Grace: It's just the culture of sport in our country; it's up to us to change that. I wouldn't say there's resentment - it's just a bit annoying sometimes.

Sadly, Tesni, you're going to miss the Olympics through injury. How hard was that to take?
Tesni: It wasn't heart-crushing but because my winter training had already gone so badly because of injury I knew the chance had probably passed me by for this year. It was quite frustrating when I injured myself at a competition, because my training had started to go so well and everything had just clicked. Then in the warm-up I tore my UCL - my ulnar collateral ligament - and that was it.

Have you already started to plan for Rio 2016, or do you focus on more short term targets?
Tesni: At the moment I'm just trying to think short-term because that’s going to help me get to the Olympics in another four years. There’s the European under-23s next year which I'm hoping to qualify for, then there's the Commonwealth Games the year after, so I want to work my way up slowly. It's always in the back of my mind because every training session counts, and four years sounds like a long time but it's really not.

Grace, when did you first say to yourself “I’m going to compete at 2012” and set it as a definite goal?
Grace: When I was about six or something. I was obsessed with sport, and I told my teacher at the time that I was going to be in the Olympics, and I would buy her a ticket so she could come and watch me. When it was announced that the Olympics was going to be in London, I knew that it could be a reality - so I think it was back in 2005 when it really became something I could achieve. And yes, I've got a ticket for that teacher - she's coming to watch our first game.

What are the emotions at this stage, just a couple of weeks before the Games get under way?
Grace: It's definitely still nerve-wrecking, although I think every day things are clicking in training and getting better. With every day that comes I'm feeling more and more ready. We've just been to our kitting-out day in Loughborough so we got all the stuff and were officially invited to be part of Team GB. It's becoming more real with every surreal experience we have, and the anticipation is building.

How much of an advantage is the chance to compete in front of a home crowd?
Tesni: Obviously you're going to be cheered on, even if they don't know you - if they see you in the GB kit they're going to get behind you and want you to do well. The atmosphere will be amazing. I've been in the Olympic Stadium and when that's full it's definitely going to be overwhelming.
Grace: We've played in and against countries that have huge home support, and it's difficult playing against them when you know you have thousands of people screaming against you. I'm excited that for once there's going to be 15,000 people cheering for us. It is going to enable us to hit a whole new level just having that home support.

What's the stadium like on the inside, Tesni?
Tesni: The British University Championships were held there - it was the official test event. Obviously it wasn't packed out to full capacity, but it was still a great experience to go there and look around and basically be treated as if it was actually the Olympics. We went through all the procedures that the athletes will have to go through. Personally, I loved the track - it's so fast, and I think there's going to be a few surprise performances. Weather permitting, of course...

What's the Olympic Village like?
There's a lot of walking! It's huge - the walk from the warm-up track to the actual stadium is a good ten minutes. People there are going to be surprised by the amount of walking they're going to have to do, because I sure was!

Have your families managed to get tickets?
Grace: Yeah. My dad has been on the computer getting all the tickets, so he's made sure my whole family get to see me play at least once.
Tesni: I tried to get tickets but I wasn't successful, so unfortunately I won't be going, which is a shame.

In Nottingham we have the Brian Clough statue, the Torvill and Dean tram and Bolero Square. If you were to win an Olympic gold at some point in your career, what you fancy having in town?
Tesni: Oh gosh! Probably just a day in town where loads of people could come along and be introduced to the sport and try it out. It would be a great opportunity to introduce some younger people to the javelin. We're always looking for younger people to get into it because it is an event you can really enjoy.
Grace: When we go to other countries there are volleyball nets up in parks so people can just go and play - I'd love to see some volleyball courts that everyone could go and use.

What does competing in the Olympics mean to you, and what would winning gold mean for the rest of your life?
Grace: I think it'll be a life-changing experience. I don't really know exactly what to expect, but that's what I like about it - it’s unknown territory and I'm ready to take on these experiences. It'd be great if we could pull off the unexpected and take some shock wins and really turn some heads, but I'll just be happy to know that all the work we've done will have created a legacy for volleyball and get more people playing.


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