Words: Andy Tongue
Portraits: Jay Brooks
Hair and Make-up: Louise Ormiston
Watching Heather Fell in front of the camera, both in her fencing gear and dressed for success in her evening best, she is every inch the supreme athlete at the top of her game. The irony is that the Olympic silver medallist in the modern pentathlon from Beijing can walk down the streets of Bath, where she lives and trains, pretty much unnoticed. Yet assuming she gets the chance to try and go one better in London next year, she’ll once again be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Kobe Bryant in and around the Olympic village. Such is the strange situation that faces elite-level competitors in some of the less well-known sports in the Games.
“Amy Williams (British gold medallist in the skeleton at the Winter Olympics) gets recognised around town but that’s about it,” Fell says. “Aside from when I’m back in my home village (Tavistock, Devon), I very rarely get stopped in the street. We do train with the track and field athletes, though, and they probably have a higher profile.”
While sitting in hair and make-up for our photoshoot, she is delighted to learn on Twitter that Dai Greene, the 400m hurdler from Wales, has become Britain’s first gold medallist at the IAAF World Championships in Daegu. “Dai will get lots of attention when he gets back from Korea.”
When we got back from Beijing we did go out on the town in Bath a few times and used my silver medal to get into all the bars and nightclubs—it was the ultimate VIP access pass
She has briefly enjoyed such attention. “When we got back from Beijing we did go out on the town in Bath a few times and used my silver medal to get into all the bars and nightclubs—it was the ultimate VIP access pass,” she recalls. But that level of celebrity soon died down and Fell settled back into a life of relative anonymity.
Does she feel that she suffers from being perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a jack of all trades, master of none? “It’s a fair point to make,” she says. “We were at a training camp recently and the likes of Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe were also there. They probably saw us running around in their shadows and wondered who we were!”
She admits she would have liked to have been an elite swimmer, “but you do your very best and get to a certain level, then have to accept that you’re not quite good enough… On a bad day, you can compare yourself negatively to those athletes and swimmers but then on a good day you think that they wouldn’t be able to acquit themselves anywhere near our levels across a number of sports.”
She also points out that disciplines such as equestrianism are very tough sports without considerable financial backing. “But I love the variety,” she says. “I don’t think I could go back to just training in one discipline all day, every day—it would be slightly mind-numbing.”
It must be frustrating, though, that her undoubted talent and level of achievement is not recognised in the way athletes in other sports are—principally financially? “There’s definitely an element of that. Before Beijing they said you needed to be an Olympian to get endorsement and sponsorship opportunities. Once I’d qualified, they said you needed to have a medal. After I had won silver, they said it needed to be gold!
“So there is a sense of the goalposts continually being moved. However, the fact the Games next year are in London has obviously helped massively and the sport is getting some good coverage in the media.”
At present Fell receives level B funding from UK Sport—available to athletes who are ranked in the top eight in the world in their sport—having managed to finish in that crucial eighth spot at this year’s World Championships. Bands are reassessed every 12 months—for the year following her Beijing medal, Fell was on level A, which is the highest (available to medallists at the Olympics and World Championships). Yet should she slip out of the top eight, she would drop down to level C, which covers basic training expenses and very little else.
“When I bought my first flat last year, my parents had to act as guarantors on the mortgage because our funding from UK Sport and the English Institute of Sport isn’t seen as a regular wage. You have to budget, definitely. I have a lodger, which gives me some kind of safety net financially should I lose my funding after London.”
Her sport may not be the highest profile but nobody should doubt the dedication and commitment it requires. “We normally fence three sessions of two hours a week as well as three one-on-one fencing lessons with our coach,” Fell explains. “I swim five times a week, run five times, gym three times a week and we shoot most days—I ride once a week. Then we have massage, physio, nutrition meetings etc. It’s definitely six days a week but I normally do seven as I don’t like having a day off.”
The swimmers seem to train very hard. As for the track and field athletes, hmmmm…
How does that compare to other Olympians, who are also based at Bath University? “I’d have to say the swimmers seem to train very hard. As for the track and field athletes, hmmmm…” she joshes.
In fact, simply to be in Beijing, Fell had to fight against the odds after some serious setbacks. She had her funding cut from UK Sport and left the training camp at Bath in 2006 following various clashes with the powers-that-be. “I had just finished studying physiotherapy at university and moved to Bath, which can be quite a lively place. I was young and perhaps I didn’t apply myself quite as well as I might have, with the benefit of hindsight,” she laughs.
She returned to Tavistock in Devon, where fellow pentathlete and Sydney 2000 bronze medallist Kate Allenby comes from and had taught Fell to ride and shoot. While taking on three part-time jobs, including one as a barmaid in her local pub, she went back to training with her old swimming, running and fencing clubs. “For me that was a more enjoyable way of training— with different groups of people rather than in a centralised location,” she says. “The variety brings the best out of me.”
She put in some impressive performances during 2007 and a year of “bridging funding” was arranged to enable her to focus on Beijing, where she took the silver medal behind Germany’s Lena Schöneborn, despite being allocated the trickiest horse of the lot in the relative lottery that is the equestrian leg. She chased Schöneborn down in the final running event but wasn’t quite able to close the gap on the gold medallist, who is currently ranked world #1 and is very much the athlete to beat in London next August.
People asked: ‘Aren’t you supposed to be out there competing?’ It was all slightly surreal
Remarkably, Fell wasn’t anywhere near China when the opening ceremony took place. “We were in France at a training camp, then came back home for a whole week before flying out to Beijing, so I was in Tavistock and bumped into various people who asked: ‘Aren’t you supposed to be out there competing?’ It was all slightly surreal.”
In fact the modern pentathlon was held on the final weekend of the Olympics so she didn’t fly out until a few days after the Games had begun. The schedule is much the same in London as the British team will be in a holding camp out of the country so again she will miss the opening ceremony, one of the iconic experiences of the Games.
“A group decision was taken and that was the outcome,” she says with a hint of wistfulness. “I would want to go but first I have to qualify for the team.”
That is no mean feat given the strength of the British team—especially the females—in the sport. There are six women in the modern pentathlon squad but only two spaces at the Olympics for each country. When we meet, Fell is ranked seventh in the world and competing for an Olympic place with her training partners Mhairi Spence (ranked fourth) and Freyja Prentice (15th).
“It won’t be until after the World Championships in Rome in May next year that I’ll know if I’ve made it. My training is going as well as it could (apart from when I fell off my horse a couple of days ago!) so hopefully I’ll be there in London.”
Fell was one of the athletes who recently competed in the London 2012 test event and the Olympic course around Greenwich Park received the thumbs up: “It was a great set-up and will make for a superb venue for the Olympics. The park is hilly so the run will have a cross-country feel, which will make for an exciting race.
“Anything can happen though; it comes down to who gets it right on the day. I got it right in Beijing and finished on the podium. It’s very difficult to be too confident in this sport because you just don’t know which day will be your day.”
Fell refuses to look any further ahead than after next summer in terms of competition—Rio in 2016 is unlikely to tempt her to put the rest of her life on hold for another four years. “I would love to be in Rio—it was where I rediscovered my love for the sport during the 2009 World Championships and I took a month off afterwards to travel around the country—but I would like to be the other side of the camera.”
She is also acutely aware that being an elite-level athlete means making sacrifices in many other areas of your life. “In a sense you are living in a bubble while training and competing and you do get left behind a bit when it comes to things like relationships,” the 28-year-old admits. “A lot of my friends seem to be getting married this summer and my younger sister’s wedding is in October.”
No surprise then that she is making plans for a career beyond the modern pentathlon. “Many athletes seem to become teachers—mainly in PE—where you are still doing physical activity outdoors so the attraction is obvious, while others go back to uni and study sports science. I want to do something different and the media is very much what I’m focusing on.
“I’ve been doing stuff with my local BBC station in Devon and writing a column for a regional newspaper. The great thing for me is that I can do this for free at the moment in my spare time while I have the funding. I’m a pretty driven sort of person. I don’t really do sitting around just relaxing.”
It’s probably why she ended up in a multi-faceted sport like modern pentathlon. “I was at Pony Club and they set up something called Pony Club Tetrathlon, which consisted of riding, running, shooting and swimming,” she says. “The idea was to keep boys who had got bored of ponies involved but I was already swimming competitively and I love variety so I tried it out. Then at university I started fencing as well, which meant I was a fully fledged pentathlete.”
Assuming she qualifies to represent Team GB at the London Games, Fell can be assured that her profile will only increase over the coming months and a golden moment on 12 August next year would surely see employment offers and commercial opportunities for the future flooding in.
“The running and shooting have been combined as part of attempts to make the sport more attractive to spectators and broadcasters. The leader sets off first and then starting times are staggered depending on how many points you are behind. You run into the shooting range, shoot five rounds, then run out of the range, do a 1km loop and come back again. You do this three times in all, then head for the finish line. The switch from pellets to laser has probably helped me a little as I wasn’t the best at loading the pellets and you could lose valuable time—with the lasers you just aim and fire.”
“The 200m freestyle swim is one of my strongest disciplines–I was a national swimmer through all the age groups–so I aim to score highly in this part of the competition. Times are converted to points and you are then seeded, which determines the order of competing in the next leg.”
“I’ve ridden since a very young age so this is one of my strongest legs. There are two rounds of riding, with the leaders going off last. There is an element of chance as you are allocated a horse through a random draw so you hope for a nice, genuine one! If you get a tricky customer it makes it more difficult, though my experience with horses can count and really help me.”
“This is the discipline I took up last and it is probably my least favourite leg of the competition. Everybody faces everybody for one hit. I’m not supposed to say there’s any ‘luck’ involved (according to my psychologist!) but clearly you can get a flukey hit on somebody or vice versa and that’s it—you move on to your next opponent so it can be a bit ‘unpredictable’.”
Portraits: Jay Brooks