Fiona May tells Emily Moss about life after athletics, which includes starring as the main character in an Italian TV drama, appearing on Dancing with the Stars and broadcasting for Sky Sports Italia from the London Olympics
After being the only British winner at the inaugural World Junior Championships in Canada in 1988, May made the Olympic team for the Seoul Olympics that summer, finishing sixth in the long jump final at the age of 18, and looked set for a bright future for GB.
That bright future would see her leaping a PB of 7.11m when claiming silver at the 1998 European Championships – only it was to be in the colours of Italy after she married an Italian pole vaulter in 1994 and moved to Florence.
She won gold for her new country at the 1995 and 2001 World Championships, together with Olympic silvers in 1996 and 2000. In contrast to the controversy surrounding the import of “plastic Brits” today, the Italian public and media regarded May as not so much plastic, but fantastic.
“Yes they did,” she says, speaking from her home in Mugello, just outside Florence, where she lives with her two daughters, Larissa, 14, and Anastasia, 7. “They still do. If I go in any part of the world, even the Italians there all know me and consider me Italian. They know I was British and competed for Great Britain, but to them I’m Italian. I wish it was the same for Shara [Proctor] and the other athletes that have switched to represent GB. It’s the reality of life.”
The 46-year-old May takes up her life story. “After graduating from Leeds University, Trinity and All Saints College and after a pretty disastrous Olympic Games in Barcelona, I returned home and decided to go on holiday to Italy and sort out my head. I’m still on holiday!” she says, tongue firmly in cheek.
After 11 years competing for Italy, May decided to quit in 2006. Due to an advertisement she was doing with her daughter Larissa, she was asked to do an audition for a TV fiction series Butta La Luna, starring as the leading character.
“I had so much fun and made so many friends, as a junior athlete. Even today, I still keep in touch with most of them”
Despite having no acting experience, she was given the part and was working on the set for nearly three years for RAI, the Italian equivalent of the BBC. The series told the story of a young pregnant Nigerian woman who came to Italy in the 1980s and experienced racism and problems relating to social integration. It quickly became clear that long jumping was not the only one of May’s talents because as soon as she finished filming the second series, she was approached to do a short film in English called Guinea Pig.
“It was the most thrilling, but also the hardest part to do, as for one of the scenes I had to be strapped to an authentic Spanish electric chair for five hours,” she says. “I have to admit I loved it. I was quite lucky to work with Giuliano Gemma (Spaghetti Western star), who sadly died a couple of years ago.”
May won the Italian Globo D’oro best actress award for that film.
Soon, May was to discover another one of her many talents, putting her quick and agile long jumper’s feet to good use in the sixth edition of Dancing with the Stars in 2006-7. “That was a pretty amazing experience and I have a lot of respect for dancers,” she says. “My dance partner kicked my ass for three months, but it was well worth it, winning the cup after having been voted for by 81% of the public. It wasn’t bad, as I’ve got long legs, which one judge pointed out were ‘too long’. My favourite dance is the tap dance, which I learned as a kid, so that helped me a lot.”
While filming the second series of Butta La Luna, May became pregnant with Anastasia. “That was quite funny, as there were scenes that were quite dramatic and I wanted to vomit during the first three months, as my daughter was kicking like hell in my stomach,” says May, with a laugh.
May stepped away from the acting scene to spend time with her girls, but after a couple of years she wanted to get back into sport. In 2012, she worked for Italian Sky Sports on the London Olympic Games. She was in the mixed zone, speaking to athletes and working in the studio. “I managed to interview all but three Olympic champions, which isn’t easy but it was fun. It was nice to be back in London,” recalled the Slough-born May.
However, after the London Games, May wanted a different challenge so decided to enter the political side of sport. She spoke to one of the candidates for the presidency of the Italian Olympic committee and was elected as one of two representatives for athletes in the executive commission.
“It was hard work at the beginning, working behind the scenes in the sports world,” she said. “As sport is rapidly changing, the athletes need changes and we have to keep up with that.”
However, she clearly made an impression as after two years, she was approached by the newly-elected president of the Italian football association to set up a commission for integration. She did not accept the job at first, as she thought that it would be a daunting task, especially as there had been incidents in stadia in Italy. However, it wasn’t long before May was relishing the challenge.
“We created a roadshow going around Italy to various football schools, talking to youngsters aged between 12 and 18,” she said. “I really wanted to promote integration and discuss racism, what it means and why it should not exist in the 21st century. We invited football players and other personalities such as Clarence Seedorf and Antonio Conte to speak. I think that it’s important to talk to youngsters at their level and give them the responsibility, as they are the next generation.”
On the back of this experience, May is now on the commission of Fair Play and social responsibility for UEFA. She added: “Since September, I have also been appointed as head of delegation of the under-19 women’s football team. It’s great to give advice and inspiration to young football players, even though I never played football. Working alongside me with the under-17 team is the Olympic gold medallist Manuela Di Centa (cross-country skier). After the success of the Women’s World Cup last year, I really do think that women’s football will grow in popularity, but there’s still a long way to go.”
If May wasn’t juggling enough roles and responsibilities already, she is also promoting Rome’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics. This entails going around Italy to schools and major sporting events, as well as travelling abroad. She had been asked to join the bidding team by the two presidents, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the former chairman of Ferrari, and Giovanni Malago, the head of the Italian Olympic committee.
Despite keeping herself occupied with such a range of tasks, she misses her junior years with the GB team. “I had so much fun and made so many friends, as a junior athlete,” she said. “Even today, I still keep in touch with most of them. I was one of the lucky ones, who was successful as a junior and managed to continue through the senior years.”
May has particularly fond memories from the English Schools and representing her county, Derbyshire. She recalled: “The English Schools formed me to what I am today. I distinctively remember the call room, well, it wasn’t really a call room as we were cooped up like sheep in a pen! There, you can win or lose a comp before you step foot on the track. Talk about rivals trying to psych you out. That prepared me for the later years in my career.
“Going through the junior years, it toughened me up. Believe me, I went through disappointments and even thought of giving up.”
Indeed, May recalled one occasion in particular where she experienced the highs and lows of elite-level sport. At the inaugural World Juniors in Athens, she qualified easily for the final. Her first jump in the final was initially measured at 6.90m, which would have been a world junior record.
“Going through the junior years, it toughened me up. Believe me, I went through disappointments and even thought of giving up”
“I did remember my coach once telling me that when I do a perfect jump it would feel effortless, but not that effortless,” said May. “I knew I didn’t jump that well, but with the crowds cheering, I was totally confused. After ten minutes, one of the judges came up to me explaining that they made a big mistake and my jump was measured at 6.10m. I wasn’t impressed and I felt totally humiliated. I went back home totally depressed and wanting to give up at the age of 16.”
May bounced back to take gold two years later and clearly remembers the words of her coach when she returned home, which subsequently made her more determined for the rest of her career. “He said that I competed well, beating the Eastern Block athletes and nearly got the British record. But he said that it would probably be the last time that I would win a gold medal. This remained in my head for years, as I wanted to prove him wrong and I did,” she laughed.
Fast forward 30 years and May still tries to keep active. She often works away from home so has no set schedule, but when she is at home, she typically gets up at 5.30am and does some yoga and meditation before breakfast. She wakes up her daughters at 6.15am to get them ready for school. She drops them at the bus stop at 7.20am and returns home to clean and do admin work.
“I try to cram in as much as I can before 1.30pm when Anastasia gets home,” she said. “We have lunch and Larissa gets back at 2.15pm. Then all hell lets loose as I dedicate time to them.”
Larissa started doing athletics last year, so May takes her training, but does not coach her. Anastasia plays tennis nearby, so May spends many afternoons dropping them off and picking them up. If they aren’t doing sporting activities, they have piano lessons, but the teacher comes to their house. Then its homework and dinner and once the girls are settled, May likes to relax by reading.
Although she misses the fun she had as a junior athlete, May is more than content with her life now and does not miss being an elite athlete. “I dedicated my life to athletics, but I knew that my athletics wouldn’t last forever. I was lucky that I found something else pretty quickly,” she said.
At the moment, May is working on organising a sporting event in Florence for youngsters, although her multiple roles do not allow much time for other projects. But fortunately, she loves what she is doing and is quite relaxed about adapting to whatever comes along.
“I love travelling. I can’t really stay at one place for a long time,” she said. “I love talking and learning new things. As I had to adapt pretty quickly here in Italy, I love change. I love what I do, as I believe that I’m lucky to have been an athlete and want the younger generation to have the same opportunities when possible.”
May has a simple and non-materialistic outlook. It is one that May has proved to be effective in all areas of her life and one that is ensuring she remains in high demand among numerous sporting organisations.