Written by Jen Offord


Olympic legends – part three

With Rio just weeks away, Jen Offord continues her whistlestop tour of the women of the Olympiad.

Anky van Grunsven photo by McSmit, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Anky van Grunsven photo by McSmit, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

In this instalment I open proceedings by exclusively revealing that I’ve fully fucked up knowing my alphabet, and that the first sport should indeed have featured in the last instalment. Sorry, horse lovers. Let’s get bang on with it, as Danny Dyer would say.

Equestrian – Anky van Grunsven

Anky van Grunsven, apart from having my favourite name of all time, has eight Olympic medals in the dressage discipline – three gold and five silver – and has attended an epic seven Olympic games. Admittedly the sport can go on a little longer when there’s an animal doing the legwork, but I don’t want to hear any of this sneeriness about dressage.

Yes, you’re right: it is a dancing horse. Who doesn’t want to see a dancing horse? Also, it’s not just a dancing horse – someone has to make the horse dance just by using their own heels and pulling on a stick in its mouth.

Not only this (which sounds slightly barbaric when I review my turn of phrase), but horses have minds of their own and will literally lose their shit – and often their string pulling overlords – just on sight of a plastic bag.

Gymnastics – Larisa Latynina

Ukrainian-born Larisa Latynina represented the Soviet Union in 1956, 1960 and 1964 in the Artistic Gymnastics discipline (that’s the one with the bars and that, not the one with the ribbons), pocketing an absolutely massive 18 medals, nine of which were gold. She’s the second most decorated Olympian of all time, and was only outstripped as the most decorated by Michael Phelps during the last Olympics.

She was 19 by the time of her first Olympics, which is actually quite old for a gymnast, and after her retirement in 1966 she went on to coach the Soviet women’s team to gold medals in the next consecutive three games. It’s an incredible haul by anyone’s standards, and if you think gymnastics is for girls (in a sneery way), I’d instruct you to have a word with those punks at Crossfit.

Handball – Norway

Handball is the second most popular team sport in Europe, after football, and a massive women’s sport over the channel among our now slightly angry neighbours. And it’s times like this I shall be truly sad about Brexit, lamenting that this sport’s weird basketball/football/rugby-ish ways may never truly make the impact on our society that they might –and ought. That, and the fact that frites are going to be really expensive.

Norway v France in 2009. Photo by Leticia Hernández, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Norway v France, 2009. Photo by Leticia Hernández, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

It’s difficult to pick out individual competitors in a team sport you ostensibly know not that much about, so I’ll pick out a cross-generational national team and award our fellow outside-the-EU-ers Norway with legendary status. In this sport. Though their Scandi rivals Denmark have three gold medals, the Norwegian ladies team have a total of five medals – including golds in the last two games. Also, perhaps Norway will teach us the ways of handball once we’re floating in the abyss together.

Judo – Karina Bryant

Judoka Karina Bryant made it to an impressive four Olympic games. Her first games were more about being a bright young thing, going to learn and anything more would be a huge, huge bonus, so leaving in the round of 16 wasn’t too hard. Going back in 2004 to be knocked out in the quarter-finals then the round of 16 again in 2008 was emotionally gruelling.

However, she returned to the games again for London 2012 – after being out of training for six months just the year before, thanks to a neck injury – and she finally got her moment on the podium to take home bronze in the heavyweight category. Karina, we salute you.

Modern pentathlon – Kate Allenby

The Modern Pentathlon is probably my favourite Olympic discipline. Partly because it comprises of showjumping (on a horse which participants meet about four minutes beforehand), fencing, swimming, and running – interspersed with SHOOTING, ffs. And partly because I once properly tried it out with the squad at their training centre in Bath.

“I often think of rugby players as pretty hard, but they don’t come much harder than Jillion Potter, who overcame a broken neck in 2010 and has now given the two-fingered salute to a rare form of cancer to make it to next month’s Olympics.”

Kate Allenby is my pick for Modern Pentathlete legend because, not only does she have an Olympic silver medal, four World Championships and a European Championship under her belt, she also re-taught me how to swim as an adult. She loves sport, believes in its power to change people’s lives for the better and fully personifies the spirit of what I think the Olympics are about.

Rowing – Lauren Rowles

Let’s face it, there are a shite tonne of rowers to choose from, but I’m going to controversially pick a first-time Olympian: 18-year-old Lauren Rowles. Lauren will compete in the Paralympics this year in Rio in the trunk-arms mixed double sculls event, despite having only taken up the sport last year.

Lauren, who woke one morning in 2012 to discover she could no longer move her legs, decided to take up sport again after being inspired by the Paralympians at London 2012 who “just got on with it.” Sounds like a legend to me. So much so that we couldn’t not have a natter with her. Watch this space.

Rugby sevens – Jillion Potter

Rugby sevens is a new Olympic sport, so we go to a legend in her own right: USA Eagles’ Jillion Potter.

I often think of rugby players as pretty hard, but they don’t come much harder than Potter, who overcame a broken neck in 2010 and has now given the two-fingered salute to a rare form of cancer to make it to next month’s Olympics. Potter played the 2013 Rugby Sevens World Cup having already been diagnosed with the illness, which turned out to be stage III.

She was able to fight the disease after a crowdfunding campaign, supported by numerous peers in the rugby world, raised $30,000 to pay for her treatment, and she only returned to the game in December 2015.

Alessandra Sensini photo by Enrico Oliverio.

Alessandra Sensini photo by Enrico Oliverio.

Sailing – Alessandra Sensini

Alessandra Sensini or “a natural born aquarian” according to the official Olympic Games website, competed in the windsurfing event. She started windsurfing at the age of 13 and went on to win four Olympic medals, one gold, one silver, and two bronzes in four successive games, making her the most successful female in the Sailing discipline.

She nearly carried the flag for Italy at the 2012 Olympics but was pipped to the post by fencing legend Valentina Vezzali *claps rapturously for Italy’s respect for lady legends*. She is also, coincidentally, an Aquarius.

Read part one here.
Read part two here.


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Written by Jen Offord

Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen