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Becky James, Keirin, Rio 2016, track cycling, pic - Sirotti

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Interview: Becky James back from the brink and targeting Tokyo treble

Welsh sprint star on recovering from injury to claim double silver in Rio

British success in the velodrome has almost become the norm these days, with 11 medals at the Rio 2016 Olympics – of which six were gold – proving Team GB will not be slowing down any time soon. Every British track cyclist who competed in Rio returned with a medal; some matched pre-Games expectation but for Welsh sprinter Becky James, her two silver medals capped a remarkable comeback from an injury which almost ended her career.

With just 12 months of training and racing in her legs, the 24-year-old Abergavenny-born ace managed to take silver in both the women’s Keirin and individual sprint, far exceeding the expectations of not only herself, but the world. While the likes of Sir Bradley Wiggins, Laura Trott and Jason Kenny claimed the Rio limelight, James was undoubtedly one of the stars of the British team.

Becky James, Rio 2016, track cycling, podium, Great Britain, pic - Alex Whitehead_SWpix
Becky James bounced back from injury to win two silver medals at Rio 2016 (pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

The (turbulent) road to Rio

Balancing herself upon a medicine ball in the gym of the Haymarket Hotel, James looks as though she is still coming to terms with her Olympic success. She entered the Games not necessarily expected to win a medal and in some ways was just happy to be there.

That was because, in just one year, James went from being double world champion on the track in 2013 to almost having to give cycling up entirely in 2014. An injury to her left knee left her unable to train let alone compete. Things went from bad to worse when, at the same time, she suffered a cervical cancer scare.

Having returned to the track just 12 months before the Olympics, James’ goal was simply to make selection and race at the Games but, when she got there, things went from good to great. While her talent is undoubted – her two world titles evidence of that – James was keen to play down her chances in Rio, a tactic which ultimately paid dividends.

“I knew I was going well and I could see my form getting better and better,” James tells RCUK at the launch of the Fitness Charge 2 fitness watch. “I just wasn’t sure how I would go compared to the rest of the world.

“I didn’t want to get my hopes up, and if I had expectations of winning a medal, that’s when things would have gone wrong.”

Even then, she admits, anxiety set in on the track as she bid for a keirin medal. “Once I got my first race done in the Keirin, I was feeling really good and I started to believe,” James adds. “Yet, in the final I was panicking that I was stuck at the back, and it was a hard track with long straights. But I just gave it everything in the last 200m and got the silver.

Keirin success eased the pressure on James ahead of the individual sprint, an event where expectations of British success were even lower. But after a lightning fast qualifying lap – and a new Olympic record to boot – James eased her way through the head-to-head sprints to set up a gold medal showdown with German rival Kristina Vogel.

“I stopped putting the pressure on myself and I could just go out and enjoy the sprint,” she says of the impact Keirin silver had on her mentality in the individual sprint. “I got the Olympic record in my qualifier and that gave me so much confidence. Honestly, the silver was so unexpected in the sprint.”

Becky James, Rio 2016, track cycling, Great Britain, pic - Alex Whitehead_SWpix.jpg - 2
James says her silver medal in the keirin took the pressure off in the individual sprint, where she also claimed silver (pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

Tokyo treble?

Very few thought the British track cycling team could surpass their London 2012 achievements, and yet with all 14 athletes who competed returning with a medal, it proved once again the squad’s ability to peak perfectly for an Olympic Games. Now James has already turned her attentions to Tokyo in 2020.

Could the Welsh superstar be looking at three golds in Tokyo, in the individual sprint, Keirin and team sprint (the latter having been the only event Britain failed to qualify a Rio place for)?

“No pressure!” James jokes. “I only had a year for Rio. To think this all happened in one year is amazing. It’s just about getting it right again in four years’ time. Every four years is our target, not what happens in between.

“Maybe it will be fresh legs and different people [winning medals in Tokyo]. We have lots of youngsters coming through our really good academy. British Cycling has an amazing squad and we are so lucky with the lottery funding too.”

Becky James, Rio 2016, track cycling, Great Britain, pic - Alex Whitehead_SWpix
Becky James, Rio 2016, track cycling, Great Britain, pic - Alex Whitehead_SWpix
Becky James showed good form in the early sprint rounds, but the world champion had to settle for bronze (Pic: Alex Broadway/SWpix.com)
Becky James, keirin, UCI Track Cycling World Championships, 2016, pic - Simon Wilkinson_SWpix -
Becky James had to come through the repechages in the keirin, but took bronze in the end - ending two years of injury hell (pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

Inspiration

James’ male counterpart, Jason Kenny, took home three golds in Rio – an achievement which emulated the success of the Welsh rider’s idol, Sir Chris Hoy. The Scottish legend has been a regular source of advice for the current squad, James says, and he has continued to have a major influence post-retirement.

“He’s had a massive impact on me,” James says. “I can remember when we trained together once, we did this awful rolling 500 metre session as a whole team. I was really struggling but he gave me a good talking to which gave me that bit extra.”

And since retirement? “He can’t step away,” James jokes. “He was there in the pit at the 2014 World Championships in Cali giving us all advice and it was the same in Rio. After every race in the Keirin, he would come and find me to give me advice.”

Becky James, Katy Marchant, medals, podium, Rio 2016, pic - SIrotti
Becky James and Katy Marchant show off their silver and bronze medals in the women’s sprint. The latter’s third place ensured every Brit to have raced in Rio returned with a medal (pic: Sirotti)

Another of James’ inspirations has been Shane Sutton. The former technical director of British Cycling guided the track team through its success in both Beijing and London but was suspended in April for alleged discriminatory comments.

However, James has been open in her support for Sutton, and although she is unsure on how his return could affect team dynamics, she has cited him as one of her biggest backers during her injury.

On the possible return of Sutton, James says: “It’s hard to say and I haven’t thought about his return. But when I got injured, he was the one saying ‘Are you sure you want to do this? You have your World and Commonwealth medals.’ He made me want to come back and he supported me fully when I was injured.”

She adds: “He believed in me more than I believed in myself. For me, I always gave that bit extra when he was there.”

Kristina Vogel, Germany, Becky James, sprint, pic - Sirotti
Kristina Vogel beat Becky James by the narrowest of margins, but questioned Great Britain’s success on the track (pic: Sirotti)

Unbelievable?

While the return of Sutton could spell even more success for the likes of James, some have thrown doubt over the exploits of the British track team at Rio.

German sprinter Vogel, one of only four non-Brits to take gold on the track in Rio having beat James in the sprint final, threw suspicion over the British squad’s performance, calling the them “cannon-fodder” as they struggled in the build-up to the Games. As one of Vogel’s closest competitors, James believes her comments were made in the heat of the moment but can understand the frustration other nations have.

“We all say things in the moment and probably regret them, and at the end of the day she beat me,” James says.

“It must be frustrating for other nations because we do so well but people do not understand what gets put into British Cycling, even the small things we concentrate on. Honestly, those comments meant nothing to me.”

That’s water under the bridge, as far as James is concerned, and with the 2016 Olympic Games behind her, it’s back to normal life. A double Olympic silver-medallist, and already in a long-term relationship with Wales and British Lions rugby union star George North, James’ profile is definitely on the rise – but the Welsh cyclist insists little has changed post-Rio.

Becky James won her second silver medal of the Rio 2016 Olymoic Games in the women's sprint (pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)
James says her time off post-Rio has allowed to watch boyfriend George North in rugby union action at Northampton (pic: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)

“People will be friendly and say well done when walking down the street,” she admits, “[but] I still get to bake and take my dog for walks. With my time off after Rio, I’m even getting to go see George play in Northampton. Honestly, nothing has changed.”

While James insists life has not changed, it is hard to believe that, with four years’ preparation for Tokyo 2020 and a potential three gold medals, this young lady from Abergavenny, who defied all the odds to perform in Rio, will remain under the radar of the British public for much longer.

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