Olympics fever is about to hit our screens. What better time to catch up with sprint athlete Abi Oyepitan, a double Olympian and Commonwealth Gold and Silver medalist. She spills the beans on her six-year struggle with injury, her hard-won London 2012 comeback and unveils her new Speed Fiend masterclasses, coming soon to Third Space.
It’s the Athens 2004 Olympics. You make it to the finals for the 200m event – the first time a British woman reaches an Olympic sprint final since Kathy Cook. How do you feel?
It was the best thing that had ever happened to me. My parents are hard-working and very traditional Nigerians. They wanted me to be a lawyer. But when I went to Athens they finally realised that what I was doing was worth it. I reached the semi-finals in the 100m – missing the final by one place. I then smashed my personal best in the 200m, coming seventh overall. I was the sixth fastest female runner in the world, and yet, at the time, I don’t think I really appreciated it. When you are at that level of competition, all you are thinking about is the next event.
Had you always dreamed of being an Olympic athlete?
I remember seeing Sally Gunnel in Barcelona and Roger Black in Atlanta achieving great things for British athletics, and I thought it would be amazing to go to the Olympics one day but I didn’t know how I was going to get there. I did a lot of sport at my middle school, in Harrow, playing rounders and netball. I obviously loved the 100m sprint. That was always my event. One of the teachers was passionate about athletics and encouraged me to compete in inter-school competitions. At first I wasn’t very good, but over the years I had a lot of coaching and I improved. I joined the Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers athletics club and in 1998 I competed in my first major event, the World Junior Athletics Championships, finishing fourth in the British 100m relay. I carried on competing in various events, throughout my time at Brunel University, winning sponsorship from Adidas. Eventually I qualified for both the 100m and 200m at the 2004 Olympics.
After Athens, you suffered a major setback. What happened?
I had a lump on my shin. It had been there for some time, but I was ignoring it in the run-up to Athens. I finally got it checked out after the Olympics and was told it was a stress factor. I went through months of rehab and tried to come back in 2006 but was really struggling to run well. I ended up having an operation at the end of 2006 and it took two years to heal.
You then discovered a problem with your Achilles tendon.
Yes – having missed the whole of the 2006 season, it transpired that I needed to have two further operations on my Achilles in 2007 and 2008. I was essentially out of the game for six years.
What did that time teach you?
In athletics, as in many other sports, you need to be prepared for setbacks. Often you will take two steps forward only to go three steps back. It can be very frustrating, but there are many coping mechanisms. I learnt to stay positive and to just accept what was happening. There is no point dwelling on your adversity – you have to find a way out and work towards it. I realised that I couldn’t just let the doctors rule my life: I had to rely on myself. Psychologically that gave me a lot of strength. Now I feel that I can do anything, because I got through that really tough time in my life.
Indeed, in 2012, you made it to the starting line of the 100m and 200m events at London 2012. Did you feel vindicated?
Competing in London, my home town, was absolutely amazing. I knew that nothing like that would ever come to this city ever again and I was so proud to be part of it. I was the only sprinter to make it to the semi-finals for both of my events. My times also meant I regained my status as the fastest woman in the country for both distances.
How important is sport psychology in sprinting?
Doing well in a sprint event is often down to your mental strength as much as your physical strength. You have to be so focussed on yourself – sprinting is a very individual sport. You have to shut out everything that is going on around you and zoom in your race. It is so easy to be overcome by nerves. The best people are often not the ones who can run the fastest but the ones who can hold their nerve.
You decided to hang up your spikes following London 2012. What are you working on now?
I tried working in an office for a while, but it was not for me. So I decided to stay in the world of sport. I have been a personal trainer at Third Space since 2013, a role which I thoroughly enjoy. My clients are inspiring and I love seeing them progress. I am a mentor for the Youth Sports Trust @youthsporttrust and I do a bit of public speaking. I am also co-founder of natural beauty brand @lihabeauty
Tell me about the Speed Fiend masterclasses, launching at Third Space in August.
They are high intensity treadmill classes, aimed at anyone who wants to improve their running skills, increase speed, lose body fat or simply get fit. It will be a fun, super-hard workout.
What are the three most common mistakes runners make?
1. Not using their arms – inactive arms means inactive legs. In sprinting you want to ensure you are moving your arms efficiently and effectively in order to gain speed.
2. Dorsiflexion – means when you land on the balls of your feet. If you are landing on your heels in sprinting you are taking too long on the ground. If you are landing on your toes you are effectively braking and having to restart again. Power comes from mid-foot running in order to drive forward.
3. Stride length – some people tend to take really short strides and almost pedal back with their legs. In sprinting you need high knees and good leg extensions to cover as much ground in fewer strides possible but be careful not to over stride.
Inspired? Follow Abi on Twitter at @abioyepitan