Episode 1: Kathy Smallwood-Cook

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In the first episode of this new series of Our Voices, we hear Kathy’s story. Kathy is a former Olympic sprinter. She is a three-time bronze medallist and competed for Great Britain at the 1980 and 1984 Olympic games. She recounts her journey into sprinting and the experiences that helped to shape her achievements.

Running was something which began at an early age for Kathy. She recalls being a child and running home from school in order to have lunch. She would then run back to school accompanied by her father and sister who would ride alongside her on a bike.

Her father was not the only person who encouraged her running, however. The headmaster at Kathy’s primary school encouraged all students to get involved in track and field from the age of eight and nine. Kathy was fortunate to be at a school which had a proud tradition of encouraging sport and, despite describing herself as an average student overall, she quickly gained a lot of attention for the quality of her running.

Despite clearly being gifted at running, Kathy describes herself as lacking self-drive. It was her PE teachers who constantly encouraged her to challenge herself by setting her increasingly difficult targets and motivating her to believe that she could achieve them. Despite her self-doubt, she did achieve her targets and was able to pursue her dream all the way to Los Angeles.

LA was the setting for her second Olympic games. Kathy recounts going to LA in the best shape she’d been in. She describes the heat and her nerves as threatening to undermine her preparation, she says that competing is “a mental challenge as well as a physical one”. The people around her kept her focused, however, one of those people being a fellow Olympic medal winner and her husband, Garry.

As the moment to run approached, Kathy describes feeling “dreadful…My nerves made me feel as if I could barely stand, never mind about run.” But, to compose herself, Kathy began thinking about all the people back in the UK who would be watching her run. She would have the hopes of a nation of her shoulders, this gave her “extra strength”.

Although she would win three bronze medals at the Olympics, Kathy describes her greatest moment as being from a race in which she would come fourth: “There’s no bigger thrill in running than being alongside someone and knowing you’ve got an extra gear… It’s just the best… It’s a lovely feeling, knowing you’re running your very best.” It was in this race that Kathy set the British record.

Clearly just as enthusiastic about running today as she was as a child and an Olympian, Kathy reveals how running still operates as her “secret weapon”. She describes going for a run as a perfect tonic to deal with the disappointment that life can sometimes bring. Surely that’s why she works as a PE teacher today to inspire the next generation of would-be-runners to find their secret weapons in order to perform at their highest possible level.

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