OLYMPICS: Marathon hopeful Steph Twell on training in Hampshire
- Credit: Chris Lee - British Athletics/British Athletics via Getty Images
Stephanie Twell credits Aldershot’s landscape for her ability to perform at the highest level says Andy Greeves
With her father, Andy, serving in the army, elite runner Stephanie Twell got used to moving during her childhood. Less than six months after being born in Colchester, Essex on 17 August 1989, her family relocated to Northern Ireland before a return to England and Kent, where she went to primary school in Canterbury. After a spell in Paderborn in Germany, the Twells settled in Aldershot when Stephanie was nine. It was around this same time when her passion for sport – and running in particular - began to blossom.
Stephanie joined Aldershot, Farnham and District Athletics Club ‘in either 1996 or 1997’ and also attended her primary school’s cross-country club. A few years later, she started to compete in cross-country events whilst at Ash Manor Comprehensive School – located just over the Hampshire-Surrey border.
‘Running was ingrained in my school life and it provided me with the early inspiration to get into the sport,’ says Stephanie, who will finally be representing Great Britain in the marathon at the long-awaited Tokyo Olympics, having previously competed in the 1,500m at the Games in Beijing in 2008 and the 5,000m in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. ‘I progressed running with my district in school tournaments. One of my first races was in Farnham Park – a race in which my good friend (and now two-time world duathlon champion) Emma Pallant was also involved.
‘We had (Dame and double-Olympic gold winner) Kelly Holmes visit our school. She trained in Aldershot – she was a physical training instructor in the Army (Royal Army Physical Training Corps). Competing as I did during my school days and meeting people like Kelly, I remember thinking to myself, ‘there’s a laid pathway here for me into athletics’. Because of my school, my athletics club – which has a huge history of successful athletes coming through their doors – my thoughts and ambitions of a career in athletics didn’t seem out of the ordinary. I think that’s the key to achieving goals… it’s making them seem achievable.’
Stephanie finished eighth in the 1,500m event in the World Junior Championships in Athletics in 2006 and won three consecutive European Junior Cross-Country Championships between 2006 and 2008. Her performances saw her named European Athletics’ Rising Star of 2008 while The Daily Telegraph included her in their ‘Ten for 2012’ feature in January 2009, as they identified potential future stars of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
By this time, Stephanie had already competed in her first Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.
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‘Beijing really put on an incredible show,’ recalls Stephanie. ‘Asia and China were always going to be an eye-opening experience, in terms of having such a different culture to what we know. That Games, that experience will always stay with me.’
Injury denied Stephanie the chance to compete at London 2012 but she returned to the Olympics in Rio in 2016. In between, she won a bronze medal in the 5,000m at the European Championships in Amsterdam in 2016 – six years on from another major sporting highlight, when she collected a bronze in the 1,500m at the Commonwealth Games in Dehli, running for her mother’s homeland, Scotland.
Key to Stephanie’s success – and surely, so important to any long-distance runner – has been having access to an environment that inspires her training each and every day. The 31-year-old says she specifically chose to live where she does - on the outskirts of Aldershot - because of the surrounding landscape.
‘The running terrain I’ve had during my career has really inspired me as an elite runner,’ confirms Stephanie. ‘It’s very hard getting out the door every day, potentially twice a day to go running but my environment spurs me on.’
Stephanie points to a number of outdoor areas that provide the backbone of her training regime in her local area. One is Caesar’s Camp – an Iron Age hill fort that straddles the borough of Waverley in Surrey and both the borough of Rushmoor and the distract of Hart in Hampshire. She loves Fleet Pond – a 141-acre nature reserve, which is home to the largest freshwater lake in Hampshire and the Basingstoke Canal, which connects Basingstoke with the River Thames at Weybridge, via the Wey Navigation. Stephanie also trains at Fleet’s Tweseldown Racecourse - an iconic equestrian venue and a major base for cross-country running.
‘Caesar’s Camp is about a mile from my flat,’ adds Stephanie. ‘It’s a high, open area and you can see for miles across to Woking and Guildford and you can drop down to Farnham Castle. I can run as far as 22 miles in a day and the Basingstoke Canal is a fantastic stretch to get easy miles in on really nice surfaces next to beautiful waterways. I’ve seen some incredible wildlife there including Kingfishers, and I run along the canal to get to Fleet Pond.
‘Tweseldown Racecourse is another great place for me… another place you can see for miles. It’s great to have access to the racecourse – not all race venues across the UK offer the same kind of access. There is such history at Tweseldown with equestrian and cross country. It’s also amazing to think that it was a venue for the 1948 Olympic Games (equestrian events). There are a lot of connections to the Olympics across this part of the country.’
Another place in Stephanie’s locale with Olympic connections is Aldershot Military Stadium, where she has trained with Aldershot, Farnham and District AC since the age of nine. The stadium was used as a preparation venue for various overseas athletes prior to London 2012, while Aldershot, Farnham and Districts’ impressive list of past and present Olympians includes Zola Budd, Bernie Ford, Barbara Inkpen and Chris Thompson to name but a few.
‘The Stadium has a beautiful red brick building which looks out onto the track,’ comments Stephanie. ‘The track itself is a Mondo surface. All the tracks we compete at the Olympics have to be of a certain standard and they also use Mondo. I am very lucky to have this world class facility on my doorstep. I have such a connection to the stadium – I’ve probably spent the past ten to 15 years of my life running two nights a week and even when I’m not training there, I might go there first to drop off my trainers prior to runs along the Basingstoke Canal for example.’
The 31-year-old, who once broke the world record for the fastest mile whilst holding hands – with husband and fellow runner Joe Morwood – is in the final throes of preparation for the Tokyo Olympics when Hampshire Life caught up with her.
‘I think you have to have a realistic mindset about the conditions in Tokyo,’ Stephanie responds to our question regarding her medal chances in East Asia. ‘It’s unknown how those will affect athletes in the marathon which makes it a very open race. I am focused on delivering the best performance I can. For me, it’s all about going to race against the best in the world and proving to myself what I am capable of. How that translates in terms of medals, who knows. I’d love to get a PB (personal best) and I’d like to run as close to 2:20 as I can, if not, beat it.’
Stephanie is one of a number of individuals with strong connections to Hampshire who will be featuring in the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
Winchester-born diver James Heatly – who, like Stephanie represents Scotland at Commonwealth level, will compete in the 3m springboard. He recently won silver in the event at the FINA Diving World Cup.
University of Southampton graduate Anna Burnet and John Gimson are currently in second position in the Nacra 17 sailing event for Team GB in Tokyo. Fellow sailor Alison Young, who also has a degree from the University of Southampton, takes to the water in the Laser Radial.
Aldershot, Farnham and District AC member Chris Thompson - who has had a busy year completing a move from Camberley in Surrey to Hook and becoming a father for the first time – will compete in the marathon.
In terms of the Paralympics, Southampton-born Aaron Phipps is a part of ParalympicsGB’s wheelchair rugby squad. Phipps, who previously competed at the 2012 Olympics, became the first disabled person from Great Britain to scale Mount Kilimanjaro back in 2016.
New Milton-raised swimmer Alice Tai MBE is back at the Paralympic Games, five years on from winning a gold and bronze medal at the games in Rio. As of June 2021, she had been selected to compete in three different freestyle events as well as the 100m backstroke S8 and 100m butterfly S8.