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Bicycle golf, beating the boys and surviving a collapsed lung – the making of Laura Kenny, a British sporting great

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Bicycle golf, beating the boys, and surviving a collapsed lung – the making of Laura Kenny, a British sporting great. Sophie Bruton still recalls the day Laura Kenny – or Trott, then – pitched up at Welwyn Wheelers cycling club for the first time.

“She must have been around eight, I guess,” says Bruton, who from 1993 until 2007 ran coaching programs in the velodrome at Gosling Sports Park, Welwyn Garden City, with her late husband, Simon Layfield.

Kenny was initially only there because her mum, Glenda, had taken up cycling to lose weight. She suggested that the family join her, an offer that would change the course of British sporting history.

“I remember it was the final session before Christmas, and Laura and her older sister Emma rode a few laps of the track so we could assess them. Glenda came up to us afterward saying: ‘They loved it! They’re addicted!’

Bicycle golf

“Simon and I had a laugh about it in the car on the way home, saying ‘That was a bit much! They can’t be addicted already.’ But sure enough, the first session back the following spring, there they were. That was it. They never stopped coming back.” Kenny hasn’t stopped since. For such a diminutive, bubbly young woman, she is absolutely remorseless. A winning machine.

Kenny and Katie Archibald celebrate Tokyo 2020 gold on Friday – REUTERS

Kenny has won more gold medals than any female British Olympian in history – https://www.swpix.com.

With some sports stars, you can see immediately why they are successful. Whether it’s the sheer intensity of a Victoria Pendleton or the technical brilliance of a Lionel Messi, they fit into a set of sporting archetypes to which we are accustomed. But with Kenny, there is none of that obsessive turmoil, at least outwardly. After taking silver in the women’s team pursuit this week, the BBC’s Jill Douglas asked how many more medals she might win in Tokyo. “Yeah, I mean, I’ll just keep turning up,” Kenny said, laughing. “See what happens.”

What happened was pretty special. Winning gold in the madison alongside Katie Archibald on Friday has catapulted Kenny to another level again. The first British woman to win three gold medals at consecutive Olympic Games; the most successful female cyclist in Olympic history beating Dutchwoman Leontien Zijlaard-van Moorse’s 18-year-old record; along with Charlotte Dujardin, Kenny shares the accolade of being Britain’s most decorated female Olympian with six Olympic medals, five of those gold.

And she will have the chance to add one more, as she goes for another individual medal in the omnium on Sunday. Reflecting on their madison performance, Sir Chris Hoy described Kenny and Archibald’s annihilation of the rest of the field as “one of the most dominant displays I’ve ever seen at world level”. He promptly tipped Kenny to win another five golds if she competed at Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028.

“She’s a phenomenon, and she doesn’t have any weaknesses,” said Hoy, “She doesn’t have a chink in her armor; it’s so hard to beat her.” There is no doubt that she stands right up there among the greats of British sport. But what is it that drives her? What created this winning machine?

Childhood asthma ‘shaped her.’

Kenny was born six weeks premature, struggling with a collapsed lung, when she came into the world on April 24, 1992, at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow, Essex. Adrian Trott, her dad, recalls those problematic early weeks while his daughter battled her breathing in intensive care.

“I’m no medical expert, but I believe there’s always the potential with a cesarean birth for there to be something like that [a collapsed lung],” Trott says. “Because they’re not ‘squeezed out’, as it were, the doctors just give them this little puff of oxygen to clear the mucus… I don’t know whether that caused the lung to collapse; it was just one of those things. But through the first two years of her life, she just seemed to continuously have a cold.

“The pediatrician who was looking after her – we were at the hospital every second or third week – wanted to see her purely so he could hear her chest clear. That never happened. So somewhere between two and three [years old]. That’s when she got her first nebulizer.”

It was then that the Trotts received a bit of life-changing advice. “We were encouraged to keep her active,” Trott says. “Just to try to build up that lung function. Such things like Tumble Tots [gymnastics for pre-school age children], trampolining, riding a bike as a family, swimming… there’s no doubt in my mind that those early years shaped her.”

‘She didn’t like losing to the boys’

Kenny was naturally sporty, adept at most things she took up. With a sister two years older than her, she was also competitive. “I don’t think they were competitive amongst themselves particularly, but there is no doubt they both liked to win,” Trott recalls. “Snakes and Ladders, whatever it was. There is definitely that competitive gene in Laura’s body.”

That much was evident to Bruton when Kenny first began to ride at Welwyn Wheelers. “Oh yes, she didn’t like losing,” she laughs. “Particularly to the boys. But one thing I will say is that if she did lose, instead of throwing her toys out of the pram or having a tantrum, it would make her more focused and determined to do better next time.”

Bruton says those early days were all about instilling confidence, focusing on skills rather than results. “I probably shouldn’t alert British Cycling, but there’s this long slope down to the track at Welwyn, and they used to come tearing down this slope and practice cornering onto the track,” she laughs.

“And we used to do things like bicycle golf – trying to get a golf ball all the way around the track using only their bikes – or bicycle football to improve bike-handling skills.

“We just tried to make it fun and inclusive. And it was all mixed, adults and children. We ended up with an amazing group, including [sister] Emma Trott, who obviously ended up as an international rider, and Andrew Fenn, who rode for QuickStep and was a U23 road world bronze medallist.”

With Bradley Wiggins – BBC

But already, it is evident that Kenny was a little bit different from the others. “She would do little things, thinking back,” Bruton says. “Like on a club run, we used to have a fast group and a slow group, and then we’d meet at the cafe so that people could switch groups and we could tailor the efforts accordingly.

“And even when she was tiny when she would go in the slow group obviously, she liked to sit on the front just so she could work a bit harder.

“Another noticeable thing about Laura was that when it was a big event, like a national championship, she used to take herself off a little bit and prepare on her own. I guess she did stand out from the group because she had a real never-give-up attitude.”

‘Ganging up on Vicky Pendleton’

Kenny continued to compete in various sports until the age of 14 or 15, with trampolining a particular strength. “She was heading up through the grades in trampolining as the cycling was moving along,” Trott recalls. “She was also a perfect middle-distance runner. I don’t think she was county champion, but she was district champion at 800m and 1500m. This would have been secondary school age, so maybe 13-14. But by the time she hit 14-15, she dropped everything to focus on cycling.”

It was easy to see why. Kenny’s athletic ability, harnessed to her unusually determined and focused nature, made her a serial winner. She was doing track sessions with adult men, which Trott credits with improving her confidence and bike-handling skills (“Guys in track league do not give a quarter to a 2ft-nothing blonde kid – it did her no end of good”) and even sometimes joining them for two-up 10-mile time trials just to push herself that bit harder.

In her own age group, she reigned supreme. “It got to the point where she was so good we were setting her goals like ‘Just try to lap the field, see if you can do it, or we would aim to break national records,” Bruton says. “We would focus on performance and outcomes we could control. And we would let the results take care of themselves. She was just miles ahead.”

Laura with Victoria Pendleton in her young years

But it was not just about speed. “She’s got confidence and flair,” Bruton says. “There was one time when she rode in the U16s scratch race when she was 14, and this other girl called Clare Cotterell attacked over the top of the bunch, with Laura on her wheel, and they just hammered off into the distance. And we were thinking, ‘Bloody hell! We might get the gold and silver here!’ They didn’t, but it was just really audacious for such a young rider to think they could.”

Then there is the often-told story of when Kenny and her sister Emma faced Victoria Pendleton at a grass track meeting in Hertford, organized by the North Road Cycling Club. “Emma and Laura came up with a plan to work her over,” Bruton says. “I mean, Vicky wasn’t an Olympian at that point, but she might have been a national sprint champion at that point. But it was just brilliant. They were unafraid.”

Pendleton won. But she had to work a lot harder than she was meant to. “It was funny because Vicky had done the very professional thing [up until then] of winning everything by a bike length,” Adrian Trott recalls. “And Laura and Emma didn’t give Vicky the chance to just roll in by half a bike length. They made her wind it up to the point where she still won, but she had to put a lot more into it, and more than most of the other girls in the field had on the day.”

Juggling motherhood and elite sport

It is obvious listening to him speak just how proud Trott is of his daughter. But more than the results, it is her down-to-earth character that makes him beam. She has never become big-headed or diva-ish. After the tragic death of Bruton’s husband, Layfield, who died suddenly of a heart attack in 2014 aged just 49, Kenny wrote a touching column for the Telegraph in which she credited him with making her the champion she was, recalling how he surprised her in the stands after she won team pursuit gold at the 2012 Olympics.

“I had been holding it all together, but suddenly the memories came flooding back to me,” Kenny wrote. “All those standing starts on a Wednesday when I knew I would be sick from exhaustion. All those 200-meter sprints; the work on pace judgment with our little boards with up and down arrows to indicate whether I was ahead or behind my target time. I would not be where I am now without Simon and Sophie, that is for sure.”

Trott says what gives him and Glenda the most pleasure is when people say what a nice person his daughter is rather than what a great sportswoman; the fact that she is happily married to Jason Kenny, has a three-year-old son Albie, and still manages to compete at the elite level while remaining “balanced”, is what gives him the most satisfaction. Trott is watching these games at home, sharing grandparenting duties with Kenny’s parents as Albie could not travel to Japan due to the Covid restrictions.

“Parents are always proud of their kids, of course,” he says. “And we’re exceptionally proud of what Laura has achieved as an athlete, but more so as a person – the way she’s balanced life as an athlete and a mother.

“She is doing all that through choice. She didn’t have to go on competing. She didn’t have to have Albie. Those are life choices. But we’re exceptionally proud of everything she’s achieved. And if it all falls apart over the next few days, we’ll still be very proud of her.

“She’s a good person. And no amount of Olympic medals or world titles will change that. What makes us feel warm and fuzzy is when people say, ‘Oh, isn’t she nice? Isn’t she normal?’ Because we feel we did something right.”

‘She wants to be Team GB’s greatest.’

Having drawn level with Dujardin, the question now is whether Kenny can go clear on her own again in Sunday’s omnium and win a seventh medal. Kenny is the double Olympic champion in the discipline, having won in both London and Rio. Now 29, she is no longer the young sensation who took London by storm in 2012, winning those two gold medals and then making headlines when she was spotted kissing her future husband in the stands the beach volleyball on Horse Guards Parade, rubbing shoulders with David Beckham and Prince Harry. She is a mother, a six-time Olympic medallist. Does it really matter if she never wins again?

Kenny, then Trott, broke another world record with Dani King and Joanna Rowsell in 2012 – EPA.

With her gold medal at Rio 2016, she won in the women’s omnium – REUTERS.

Trott laughs. He knows his daughter. He knew what her reaction would have been when Dujardin went clear of her last week with six medals. “Oh, that will have driven Laura without a doubt,” he says. “Without a doubt. I think Laura said after Rio that she would like to be GB’s most decorated Olympian full stop, not just female Olympian. She will have an eye on Brad Wiggins’s eight medals. That’s just her nature.

He pauses. “Of course, it then comes back to that conversation about Brad or Jason or Chris [Hoy]. Is it purely the number of medals you win or the quality of them?” By any metric, Kenny is a true giant of British sport.

 

 

 

 

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