Meet Hertfordshire's athletes at Tokyo Olympics
- Credit: Sam Mellish
Kimberley Woods and Jessica Stretton are flying the flag for Great Britain and Hertfordshire at this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games, Andy Greeves meets them and highlights their fellow Herts-linked athletes aiming to be crowned the best in the world.
Kimberley Woods’ links to Hertfordshire were established a decade ago when she was included on Team GB’s Talent Programme and started attending coaching sessions at Lee Valley White Water Centre. Three years later, having completed her A-Level studies at Rugby College, the Warwickshire-born canoeist enrolled for a degree in sports studies at the University of Hertfordshire.
'It was an ideal time to make the move south and obviously having access to the facility at the Lee Valley White Water Centre was an important factor in my choice to go to Hertfordshire University,' explains Kimberley, who graduated in 2017.
Cheshunt has been her main home during the seven years she's been living in Hertfordshire and she was based at the College Lane Campus during her degree.
Born in Rugby, Kimberley was inspired to get into her sport after watching a video of her aunt, Diane Woods, winning a silver medal at the 1994 Junior World Canoeing Championships.
'My auntie was a big inspiration for me, as were my grandparents,' says the 25-year-old. 'I can remember my grandparents saying "as soon as you can swim, we’ll get you in a boat" and that’s what happened. There weren’t any white water centres close to me, so I started out on a canal close to my home. I also used to attend a canoe club in the summer at Draycote Water.'
Kimberley’s progression in the sport saw her win junior and U23 European medals, while she was a nominee for the BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award in 2012. Her senior career took off in 2013 with a gold medal in a Canoe Slalom World Cup event in Cardiff and a bronze just a week later in Augsburg. She has won a total of nine individual World Cup medals to date including three gold in C1 (canoe) and one silver in K1 (kayak).
By virtue of her sixth-place finish in the K1 event at the ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships in La Seu d'Urgell, Spain in September 2019, Kimberley sealed her qualification for this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
'After a long time without any competition, I have been fortunate to do a fair bit of racing in the months leading up to the Olympics,' says Kimberley. 'I am feeling in much better shape than the World Championships, when I got selected. I’m in decent form at the moment.
'In an Olympic final, anything can happen and I’ll be going there trying to win it. I really want to get on that podium and that’s what inspires me. To be on the podium at the games would be a dream come true. I’m not thinking about gold, silver or bronze… I’m just focused on winning the race.'
Kimberley’s schedule in the months leading up to Toyko has been pretty hectic. A packed training and competition programme in the run-up to the games included a trip to the Czech Republic to take part in the ICF Canoe-Kayak Slalom World Cup. She spoke to Hertfordshire Life from Prague on the eve of achieving a fourth-placed finish in the K1 event.
'My focus is 100 per cent on the Olympics at the moment,' responds Kimberley to whether she is looking forward to getting back home in Hertfordshire once the games are over. 'I got asked recently what I like doing in my spare time and it was difficult question to answer in light of the year we’ve just had. My main hopes for after the games is to explore Hertfordshire a lot more. I’m also looking forward to simple pleasure - seeing friends and family and going out for a meal, that kind of thing.'
Hemel Hempstead-born Jessica Stretton MBE marked her Paralympic debut for Great Britain in Rio in 2016 by becoming the youngest ever British archer to win a medal at the games. Her gold in the Women's Individual Compound W1 came at the tender age of 16.
'I have a really bad memory,' laughs Jessica when asked to think back to those games five years ago. 'But two things stand out in my mind from Rio. The first thing was standing on the podium with Jo Frith and Vicky Jenkins [Britain took their first 1-2-3 since Atlanta in the women’s W1 archery final]. We were all together and we could share that moment.
The second was Nathan [Macqueen] trying to take one of the bean bags home from the athletes village as a souvenir. He couldn’t transport it with the beans inside, so he pulled the beans out and they went everywhere! I can remember him being on his balcony, sweeping them up.'
On the back of her success in Rio, Jessica was given an MBE in the 2017 New Year Honours for services to archery. She admits the award came as quite a surprise.
'That was the most surreal item of post I have ever received,' she recalls, on the moment she was made aware of the accolade she was about to receive.
'I wasn’t expecting it. It was always my understanding you would need to win a number of Paralympic medals to even be in consideration. When it came through that I’d been awarded one, I looked at the letter with disbelief.
'The day at the palace was another surreal moment. I remember being so nervous. I was thinking what if I mess up! I didn’t want to get it wrong.'
Jessica was training at Archery GB’s base at Lilleshall National Sports Centre when Hertfordshire Life caught up with her. Despite spending much of her time at the facility in Shropshire in the run-up to the Paralympics, the para-archer very much considers herself a Herts girl.
'Hertfordshire is my home, I’ve lived here all my life I typically train Monday to Thursday at Lilleshall. It’s always lovely getting home to Hertfordshire after that. I know I can relax and breath when I do! I like spending time with a good book over the weekend. Prior to Covid-19, I really enjoyed going to the cinema with my sister and a friend of ours. We’re really into the Marvel films, so I saw lots of those!'
In recent years, Jessica - who has cerebral palsy - has changed archery division from W1 to the Compound Women’s Open category, which meant a change of opponent and equipment in the build-up to Tokyo and a new challenge.
'I feel a bit like I’m starting afresh having moved category. Tokyo will be a new experience but at the same time I go there with the knowledge of knowing what it takes to win gold at a Paralympic Games. Of course I think to myself, can I win again?'
More Herts athletes to watch at the games
Kimberley and Jessica are among several athletes and para-athletes with Hertfordshire connections who will be competing in the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
Laura Kenny - cycling
With four Olympic gold medals – won in the team pursuit and omnium events at the 2012 and 2016 games respectively, Laura Kenny (née Trott) MBE is Great Britain’s most successful female competitor at the Olympics. Laura was raised in Cheshunt where she attended Turnford School and learned her craft at Welywn Wheelers club.
The 29-year-old, who now lives in Cheshire with fellow Olympic cyclist Jason Kenny, is set to compete in both the team pursuit and omnium in Tokyo.
Max Whitlock - gymnastics
Hemel Hempstead-born gymnast Max Whitlock MBE - who lives in Essex these days with wife Leah and daughter Willow - has been confirmed for the men’s Olympic gymnastics team. The five-time Olympic medallist – who won two medals at London 2012 and two golds and a bronze in Rio in 2016 - will also be hoping to compete in individual events such as the pommel horse.
Marcus Ellis - badminton
St Albans-based badminton player Marcus Ellis will likely partner Chris Langridge in the men’s doubles and Lauren Smith in the mixed doubles at the Tokyo Olympics.
The 31-year-old, who is originally from Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, won a bronze medal alongside Langridge in the men’s doubles at Rio and at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia won gold in the men's doubles and silver in the mixed doubles as well as bronze in the mixed team event.
The 2020 Summer Olympics (delayed by the pandemic, it retains last year's title), takes place between July 23 and August 8, while the Paralympics will be staged between August 24 and September 5, both in Tokyo, Japan.