After the devastation of controversially being left out of the Olympic team in 2012, discus thrower Jade Lally is in the form of her life ahead of the Rio Games, writes Ian Lamont
Angry and fighting back the tears, Jade Lally made a vow after her appeal to compete in the London Olympics was rejected: Never again would she give the British team selectors an excuse to leave her out of a major championships.
The next four years have not exactly been plain sailing for the 29-year-old discus thrower. Her throws reached an annual plateau of about 60 metres, while a succession of operations for kidney stones and another to remove a benign tumour in her neck have not helped her progress.
Even so, there have been highs, including winning bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, when she became famous for taking selfies with the famous, from comedian John Bishop to cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins.
This year, however, has been momentous, starting with breaking the English record twice in three days in February and then finally realising her Olympic dream at the UK Championships in Birmingham, by finishing in the top two to confirm her place in the team for Rio.
Talking at Broadbridge Heath Leisure Centre, Horsham, where she trains and also works as a personal trainer, Lally described the pain of 2012, the trials of what happened next and her joy at finally qualifying for Olympics. The determination to succeed is a lesson for all aspiring athletes.
“I was pretty bad when I wasn’t selected,” said Lally, who at the time said she would “never forgive” Charles van Commenee, head coach of UK Athletics, for not selecting her.
“I was quite depressed. I thought I was going. I had the B standard and nobody had the A standard, so they could have selected me. The conversation the selectors had must have been to put one person in or no one, and I will never understand that decision or fully get over it.”
“The conversation the selectors had must have been to put one person in or no one, and I will never understand that decision or fully get over it”
The next summer, the Shaftesbury Barnet Harrier reverted to competing under her maiden name Lally, after her marriage to Lee Nicholls ended. “The Olympic decision didn’t help, but it wasn’t solely down to that,” she said. “I wasn’t a very happy person to be around.”
The pressure to qualify for London 2012 had been “hideous”, Lally said. “It was my first year on funding. I had no idea what to expect. People from the governing body were always asking how you are and how are your preparations. If you have a bad week or competition they want to know why. I was being advised to fly round the world trying to get a qualifying distance when I would have been better off staying put training.”
After four years of funding, she is now once more relying on what she earns part-time as a personal trainer and massage therapist. “I am much happier now. As always with age, you get a bit wiser and know what to expect. Had I been kept on funding, I would have kind of known what is involved.”
It is not as if Lally’s abilities have waned since 2012. Not selected for the 2013 World Championships either, she has thrown a similar annual best distance despite a backdrop of several operations for kidney stones before and after the Commonwealth Games in 2014.
“I was in the qualifying round for the Commonwealth Games and I thought something was wrong,” she said. “I was bent over feeling something. My coach said ‘you’re just nervous’. I qualified, went back to the village, had some tests, then went out the next day and threw the distance that won my bronze medal and forgot about it.”
Having eventually had further operations for kidney stones, Lally went to train with her hero Dani Samuels, the 2009 world champion and Commonwealth Games gold medallist, in Australia. But her return to the UK coincided with more medical bad news – the need for a parathyroidectomy, surgery on glands which help the body to control calcium levels in the blood. Fortunately, doctors were able to remove what turned out to be a benign tumour in her neck without resorting to rib-breaking surgery.
That operation last May put paid to qualifying for the World Championships, although she won another UK title seven weeks later. With so much learned from Dani and her coach, Denis Knowles, at the New South Wales Institute of Sport, Lally went again last winter to train and throw in Australia and New Zealand, this time with explosive results.
She set an English record of 64.22m at the Auckland Track Challenge, then bettered it three days later with 65.10m in Sydney.
“I was told to expect a downward spiral by a member of the governing body. I thought ‘I don’t believe in this stupid downward spiral’ and I went back to Sydney and threw 65.10m”
“Elation, surprise. I didn’t have a word big enough to describe it,” she said of that first achievement. “I didn’t know it could happen. I jumped on someone’s shoulders and kept swearing.” The unfortunate victim was Siositina Hakeai, from Auckland, who was next into the circle and duly fouled.
“I was in disbelief and shock,” Lally said. “I was told to expect a downward spiral by a member of the governing body. I thought ‘I don’t believe in this stupid downward spiral’ and I went back to Sydney and threw 65.10m.”
Since then, she has thrown another four distances over the qualifying mark of 61.00m and those early-year throws have propelled her on to the Diamond League circuit. “That’s been really important. I’ve not done the Worlds or Olympics so I’ve only competed against one or two of those people at a time. It’s important to get used to these sorts of things.”
After this year’s UK trials, her delight was in complete contrast to four years ago – even if she felt unusually nervous.
“It wasn’t the competition I wanted,” Lally admitted, having won with 59.15m. “I wanted a big throw early and to put it to bed and entertain. I had a lot of friends and my clients watching me. Mentally and emotionally I felt fine, but for some reason I couldn’t stop shaking until round five. I didn’t know how I felt and kept asking myself questions. Luckily it wasn’t about distances, but winning. I’m just relieved that it hasn’t come down to someone’s opinion this time.
“I was absolutely mega made up going through kitting out for Rio,” said Lally, who then negotiated more time off work to compete at the European Championships.
Raising the profile of her event is important to her and now she wants to do “something special in the last year of my 20s – I want to get to the Olympic final”.
There is also the little matter of next year’s World Championships in London. “The BUCS Championship wasn’t the experience I wanted to remember the stadium by,” said Lally of the stadium test event in May 2012. “Hopefully by next year I will be an Olympic ‘something’. To win a medal would be nice but I will at least want to have been a finalist.”