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Heather Fell on taking highs and lows of life as a world class athlete in her stride

By Plymouth Herald  |  Posted: January 18, 2014

By Martin Freeman

  • Heather Fell has now retired

  • Heather Fell

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If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster. And treat those two impostors just the same...

TENNIS is most associated with those lines from Rudyard’s poem about character – they are inscribed for players to see as they enter the centre court at Wimbledon.

But a less-heralded sport could stake a claim to ownership, thanks to Devon’s Heather Fell.

Triumph and disaster were frequently hand-in-hand in her career in modern pentathlon.

The many highs included an Olympic silver medal and being the world number one.

The lows ranged from many injuries to the cruellest of rejections: she was not selected to compete at the most eagerly awaited games in a generation for any Briton, the London Olympics.

That is all behind her now. She announced her retirement from the sport earlier this month at the age of 30.

The decision came after a final year dogged by injury and the indignity of sports bosses urging her to consider giving up.

You might expect her to use language associated with another poet, Dylan Thomas, from his Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.

She could ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’, of her youth and her career.

Especially as one senior sports figure tried to sweeten the bitter pill by saying she might want to think about having a family.

“That disappointed me,” she says. “It was verging on the sexist. Would they say that to a male athlete?

“Part of me was furious.

“I tried to treat it as a joke.”

In the end her emotions settled closer to being amused rather than enraged.

“One of my best friends, a competitor, always used to be the same win or lose. Well, she could be down if she lost and more up if she won but she never sulked or was in your face.

“She always said, ‘it’s just a game’. She’s right.”

But what a game that dominated her life for over a decade.

The five events test stamina and skill, fitness and focus across a range of sports: horse-riding, swimming, fencing, shooting and running.

Heather proved herself one of the best of her generation worldwide.

Her haul of medals includes three golds at World and European Championships and the World Cup, across team and individual events.

She won seven silvers and four bronzes in team and individual categories in World and European championships.

Her career started with two golds and a silver at Junior World Championship level in 2003 and her crowning achievement in the public eye at senior level was a silver in the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Some of her level-headedness and down-to-earth attitude is due to the lows that also blighted her progress – those setbacks brought a sense of perspective.

The fact that she had achieved so much, too, surely also helped make the decision to retire while still close to her peak that bit easier.

Just as important, though, is that while the pentathlon dominated her body the sport never exclusively occupied her mind.

The usual story behind a world no 1 in any sport is of relentless progress and total devotion and commitment, typically from primary school age.

Yet Heather didn’t choose the path of a professional athlete until she was in her early 20s.

Or rather, somebody else effectively did the choosing for her.

She had done a degree in physiotherapy at Brunel University, west London and could not decide whether to choose the health service or sport as her career.

After her international success as a junior in modern pentathlon she was offered funding.

“I knew that I would have to practise for five years to be a physiotherapist,” she says.

“I wanted to go into the sports side, but I wasn’t sure that I would be able to go to the Olympics (in 2008 in Beijing) as a physiotherapist because of that long period.

“I was offered funding for the pentathlon but couldn’t make up my mind.

“So I thought, ‘let fate decide’ and went for a job as a physiotherapist.

“I didn’t get that job so in 2005 I committed full-time to the pentathlon.”

Years later she would feel a flush of embarrassment that she had not been solely focused on sport since childhood.

At the start of 2013 she was chosen to serve on the British Olympic Association (BOA) Athletes Commission. The body gives athletes’ views to the BOA.

“At the first meeting I was sitting next to Lord Coe (BOA chairman), and we each had to talk about ourselves and our first memories of the Olympics.

“He talked about watching the Olympics when he was a child.

“I had to admit that the first Olympics I’d watched was Sydney in 2000 and then I only watched a bit of riding and swimming.

“I just did the sport because I loved it.”

That love affair began growing up on her parents’ farm at Merrivale on Dartmoor, midway between Tavistock and Princetown.

She enjoyed horse-riding as a child (and would later be taught to shoot and ride by the parents of Sydney Olympics pentathlon bronze winner Kate Allenby).

Heather went to Whitchurch Primary and began her secondary education with two years at Tavistock College. She switched to the private sector when she won a swimming scholarship at Kelly College.

“I wanted to do sport at university,” she says. “My dad wondered what I would do with that!

“I did A Levels in biology, geography and PE. Physiotherapy sounded good but I didn’t think I would get the grades.”

She did, though, and took a gap year to experience more of the world before taking up the place at Brunel.

Her achievements in pentathlon at junior level were recognised with elite funding from UK Sport and she reached the second tier, reflecting her status as an Olympics medal prospect.

“It was £18,000 at the time, tax free and I thought it was wonderful,” she says, dismissing any suggestion that with funding came extra pressure.

“I actually had money to spend – I could go out and buy myself those shoes, treat myself – and I could concentrate on training full time.”

Within a couple of years, though, it went wrong.

Heather suffered a series of shin split injuries which curtailed her training and inevitably hit her ranking.

There is no sentimentality in sports administration. Her funding was taken away and Heather considered giving up the sport in 2006.

“It was the kick up the backside I needed,” she said at the time.

She laughs now at that quote. “It (losing all the funding) helped me focus. I was finding it difficult in the bubble, away from the outside world,” she says of being based at the University of Bath and being surrounded by other athletes constantly.

Bath is an expensive place to live so she returned home to Devon and continued her training while supporting herself with three jobs.

Yes, three part-time jobs: as a swimming coach, a physiotherapist and a barmaid.

Remember, this was somebody who was also – somehow – managing to be a full-time athlete.

A typical weekly training schedule is utterly punishing: sessions of swimming (six), running (five), gym (three), riding (two), shooting (five) and fencing (six, three of them lessons.

Her astonishing devotion and determination paid off. She won silver at the 2007 European Championships, gold at the 2008 World Cup and was selected for the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

Her chief rivals for medals were full-time professional athletes. Heather was still a part-time barmaid. A week before she left for the Chinese capital she was working behind the bar at the Plume of Feathers, Princetown.

Her parents, Doreen and Nick, asked whether they could go watch her.

“I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Heather. “But I thought it was a waste of money for them because I wouldn’t even know they were there – you don’t notice individual spectators.

“I didn’t think I would win a medal.”

After the shooting, fencing, swimming and show-jumping she was in second place.

Her jet-lagged parents overslept and missed the early part of the competition but were there to witness her triumph in the end.

Heather was 19 seconds behind the leader, Lena Schoneborn of Germany, at the start of the 3,000 metre run (just under two miles).

Specialist runner Victoria Tereshuk, of Ukraine, was a threat to Heather’s position.

In the end, Heather – with Union Flags painted on her fingernails – held off Tereshuk and reduced Schoneborn’s advantage by nine seconds to claim the silver.

“That was the most amazing competition I’ve been in,” she says.

“I remember the atmosphere and the crowd cheering when we were warming up. It was so loud. After that I find it hard to remember.

“I can’t really remember being on the podium (to receive the medal). You are in a bubble.”

That’s quite a statement from somebody who has virtual total recall of every other key moment in her career. Her answers to some questions are forensic in detail as she recounts her emotions, thoughts, and how she felt physically.

Heather was on a high after Beijing. UK Sport funded her again, at the top level of £24,000.

Medals flowed. She won a gold, four silvers and two bronzes from 2009-2012 at World and European Championships and a World Cup.

Her achievements came despite a transformational change in the rules: the shooting and running legs were combined.

Angry at the arbitrary nature of the decision, she nearly quit in 2009, even though she was world no 1. She had a change of heart, taking the philosophical decision that she could not get any better than no 1 – but she could take on the challenge of being the best in the world at what she regarded as the new sport.

That relaxed attitude is connected to a certain fatalism. Modern pentathlon competitors have one element partly out of their control: the horse they ride is allocated randomly.

If the animal has a bad day, no matter how good the person holding the reins is – and Heather is a gifted horsewoman who selects riding as her favourite discipline – any hope of a medal can disappear in seconds.

Her achievements might have made her a shoo-in for one of the two places in the GB squad for London 2012.

But while Heather’s form stuttered, with injury a factor, her GB rivals rose through the rankings.

“I had a gut feeling I would not get selected for London but it was still really tough when it happened.

“I had two options when the Olympics came around. I could either get out of the country and ignore the whole thing, or I could go and be involved.”

Heather chose the latter, getting accreditation as a journalist, working for BBC and ITV.

“I loved it. It was genuinely the most amazing two weeks of my life. I partied really hard.

“I was at the opening ceremony – you got an automatic invite as a previous medallist – and I was in the aquatic centre to commentate when Tom (Daley, the Plymouth diver) won his bronze.”

The seeds of a new career were sown.

Heather continued to compete after London, while turning more attention to journalism.

Her eloquence and standing as a sportswoman earned her the place on the BOA – her duties include transition, athletes leaving the sport and moving into ‘civilian’ life.

In 2013 she threw herself ‘totally’ into competition but, two days after her 30th birthday in March last year she was called for a meeting with her coaches and the subject of retirement was brought up.

She could understand some of the logic: the funding focus is on the Olympics and by Rio 2016 she would be 33 – old for somebody in so demanding a sport.

While Heather is hardly Amazonian by the standard of world athletics – she is 5ft 6in and 9st 6lbs – arguably her greatest assets are her commitment and dedication.

She decided not to quit and even took on a fresh challenge, completing a John O’Groat’s to Land’s End cycle of 1,000 miles in ten days.

But fate intervened. A bad shin splint stopped her running and a shoulder injury prevented her from swimming.

She took a complete rest and a holiday in Thailand and late last year decided to retire from sport.

Heather did a documentary for regional BBC, partly looking at how some leading sportsmen have handled the same transition, then formally announced her decision.

“It felt really good. As an athlete you live a privileged life but it is good to be back in the real world after ten years.”

She still trains but not to that same competitive standard and insists that other changes have barely affected her.

“It is a bit of a relief but I have always been really sociable and I am not bothered about drinking, and I have always eaten really healthily.

“I think that comes from growing up on a farm and eating wholesome food. I didn’t really ever need the (dietary) supplements that we are always advised to take.

“My blood tests were always near the top (end of the health and fitness range).”

It’s a relief, too, for her sister, Megan Harfoot, who is married with a baby. “She was always being mistaken for me in Tavistock and people would ask about pentathlon.

“It was great when she got married, seeing the whole focus on her. We are completely different. She does not have that competitive side. She always wanted a family.”

Heather lives in Bath but counts herself as ‘very much a Devon girl’. She has a boyfriend and is relishing the time to have more of a personal life.

Not that she will opt for a quiet one. An outstanding characteristic of her personality is that she has so much to talk about across a range of subjects.

Forget any idea of the dull, single-focus athlete.

“I have always loved being busy, having lots going on,” she says, reflecting on that crazy period of three jobs and full-time training, pre-Beijing.

“Tom (Daley) says he loves doing the media work alongside the sport because he says it keeps him grounded and helps his diving.

“It’s the same for me.” No Ifs on that score, then.

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