Emma’s winning ways
- Credit: IAN BURT
World champion long-distance duathlete and Olympic cycling medallist Emma Pooley speaks to Rowan Mantell about growing up in Norfolk, competition - and cake
IT BEGAN in Norwich, with a little girl who wanted to be allowed to go running with dad.
Emma Pooley went on to become an Olympic medallist, world champion cyclist, world class triathlete and world champion long distance duathlete.
But asked when she first realised she was exceptionally talented she says: “I’m not exceptional! On one day I might be slightly better than other people.”
And ask her about her proudest achievement she mentions not medals or trophies, but battling to the finish of her doctorate in engineering.
“I’m so grateful to have been able to win a few races because racing is essentially fun,” she says, at her father’s home in Eaton, near Norwich. “It’s a pretty selfish thing to want to be good at, but I do enjoy it. I’m really grateful for every win. I’m proud of them, but it’s not really helping people, like being a teacher or a nurse. When I retire from professional sport I want to have a normal job, using my degree, and do something to make a positive difference in the world.”
As a child Emma Pooley thought she might like to be an artist (like her aunt, Norwich sculptor Vanessa Pooley) and claims she did not shine at school sport.
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“I’m really not good at ball games. My co-ordination is terrible!” However, whatever she believes she lacks in co-ordination, she makes up for in competitiveness.
“Win!” she calls to her dad as he leaves for an evening out. “He’s off to play bridge with friends. We are a very competitive family.”
How competitive? “We’ve even had family roast potato eating contests!”
And Emma reckons that when she eventually got close to beating her dad on childhood runs, he would throw in extra sprints. “He was always quicker than me at sprints!” she says.
She went to school in Norwich and studied engineering at Cambridge. Here running was her first sport, but she switched to cycling after an injury – and excelled.
“When I started road racing, I dreamed of one day winning a mountain jersey like the polka dot one in the Tour de France. I’ve since won the mountain jersey at many stage races; green ones, black ones, silver ones, pink ones, jerseys with diamond patterns on ... but never a jersey with polka dots!” One of the few things she has worked for and not (yet) won is establishing a women’s Tour de France.
She now competes in long distance triathlons and duathlons - not the mere Olympic distances but a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and then a full marathon.
But she saves her admiration for the amateurs. “The quicker you can finish, the easier the race is in some ways because it is simply over sooner! But there are people of all ages and levels racing, and people who are out there for 16 or 17 hours and they’re pushing hard the whole way so that duration of effort is huge!”
Of the three disciplines, running is her favourite. “It’s pure freedom. You just put on your trainers and shorts and a sports bra, and you are off. It’s what we have evolved to do,” she says.
Her very first running event was the Norfolk cross country race in Thetford Forest, when she was 14. She won. Her father, Martin, still remembers seeing her set off, tiny, in shorts and t-shirt, competing with children in professional-looking club colours, and eventually emerging from the trees and taking the lead in the final few metres.
The transition from sporty schoolgirl to sporting superstar was gradual.
“I just kept taking opportunities when they came up,” Emma says. “I liked working to get better and better. It was exciting to improve every year.”
She moved to Switzerland to take up a research fellowship and study for a PhD in geotechnical engineering, and found its lakes and mountains ideal for training.
But she still enjoys running, cycling and swimming in Norfolk whenever possible, and says: “I always tell people it is not as flat as they think. And the cycling here is lovely, especially with the local clubs. I really enjoy the Velo Club Norwich rides.” Her trips back to Britain also include visits to family and friends, and her boyfriend who works for a Formula One team near Oxford. And as a member of the athletes’ committee of the UK Anti Doping Agency she is also part of the fight against drug cheats.
“I have never seen it happen and I would rather think the best of my opponents,” she says, “I just hope that the people I’m racing against are tested as much as I am!”
She relies on punishingly tough training, and natural talent, but there is time for some relaxation too. Emma loves cooking and says: “I really want to write a cook book with recipes for healthy versions of proper cakes, like chocolate brownies, which are slightly less full of butter.”
And so, as she continues to compete around the world, fans can follow Emma’s adventures in running, cycling, swimming – and baking - on her new website www.emmapooley.net