England Netball

Five up-and-coming young netballers – Assaindey Olivia Tchine, Halimat Adio, Hannah Williams, Olufunmilayo Fadoju and Shelby Harris – have received awards from Backing The Best, managed by SportsAid for Sport England, to support them financially in 2018.

The ground-breaking Backing The Best programme continues to make a huge difference to the next generation of sporting talent as Olympic silver medallist Keri-anne Payne, Team GB weightlifter Zoe Smith and inspirational ironman John McAvoy helped the 2018 cohort develop new skills and provided them with expert mentoring at a special SportsAid workshop hosted earlier this month (3 May).

Backing The Best, managed by SportsAid for Sport England, aims to support athletes who would face difficulties progressing through their sport’s talent development system without critical financial help.

The programme launched in 2016 with 70 athletes supported before 95 up-and-coming stars received awards in the scheme’s second term. Entering its third year in 2018 there are now 115 recipients.

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Backed by £5.5 million of National Lottery funding over a four-year period, Backing The Best presents annual awards of £5,000 per athlete to help with essential costs such as travel, accommodation, kit, nutrition and medical bills, as well as extra support from coaches. Many of the awardees from 2016 and 2017 have now progressed on to Athlete Performance Award funding with UK Sport.

This year’s Backing The Best athletes descended on the Holywell Park Conference Centre, based at Loughborough University, for the workshop as they were given advice on performance lifestyle management, nutrition, sports psychology and telling their story through the media. Parents had their own specially adapted sessions and a discussion on growing relationships with prospective sponsors.

Zoe, 24, who won Commonwealth gold at Glasgow 2014 as well as bronze in Delhi and silver on the Gold Coast, acted as an athlete mentor alongside Keri-anne and John as they talked to the young sports stars and their parents about their own life experiences. Zoe has faced many challenges in recent years due to funding cuts and a number of injuries which have forced her out of competition.

“You start needing to make the best decisions for yourself and your career and outside of sport too,” said Zoe. “It’s totally overwhelming at 17 as you don’t know which way your career is going to go. You’re a baby still in most sports, still starting out, and you’ve got lots of other life choices to make like university, education, career, relationships, friendships, family – there’s so much to think about.

“To have the right kind of guidance and a person that can point you in the right direction, and to know who you can ask these kind of questions to, is so important,” continued Zoe. “That’s why I think SportsAid is doing an amazing job educating these athletes and giving them the guidance they need. Having someone like SportsAid backing you not only emotionally, but financially, is so important.”

All Backing The Best athletes must demonstrate outstanding ability, as well as their family’s financial situation, to be eligible for the funding. This year, athletes from across 35 different sporting disciplines are benefitting from the scheme. 57 athletes from the 2017 intake have been renominated and are continuing on Backing The Best. Therefore, 58 new recipients have joined the programme in 2018.

The programme has already produced world, European and national age-group level champions with gymnast Taeja James, taekwondo athlete Bradly Sinden and tennis players Jay Clarke and Freya Christie among the Backing The Best alumni. Taeja, 15, has just returned from the Gold Coast where she won Commonwealth silver in the team event after a spectacular floor routine for Team England.

Para-dressage rider Mari Durward-Akhurst is one of the athletes continuing to receive support from Backing The Best. The 24-year-old, who aims to win gold at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, has cerebral palsy, hyper mobility and lax ligaments. She is a qualified sports therapist but relies heavily on Backing The Best as the effects of her disability have prevented her from being able to work.

“It’s been an enormous amount of help and support,” said Mari – who originally began riding through her local Riding for the Disabled programme as a form of physiotherapy recommended to her. “Backing The Best meant I could keep training, having two sessions a week with my trainer – it’s also allowed me to have strength and conditioning and physio support to help stop the deterioration.

“I couldn’t have done it without the funding and without the training, the horses wouldn’t have gone as well, we wouldn’t have got the results and I would have dropped out,” admitted Mari. “I was always concerned and worrying about it, whereas now it’s in place, it takes the pressure off my parents which makes me a lot happier and I can fully concentrate on the sport and doing what I love.”

John McAvoy is a committee member of the Backing The Best awards panel. He supports SportsAid and Sport England by providing oversight and guidance on the operational delivery of Backing The Best with his fellow panellists. John, who found redemption in life through the power of sport and is now a Nike-sponsored triathlete, feels pride in the opportunities the programme presents for athletes.

“Every child should be given an opportunity in life to be successful,” said John. “There is no greater waste than being able to do something but not being able to access the pathways to do it because of money. That’s not fair. These athletes have all got aspirations, they want to do it and Backing The Best is allowing them to go off and achieve their dreams, go forward and be very successful people.”

Harriet Rogers, 17, is a sailor who has represented Great Britain at multiple international competitions. Sailing is an expensive sport which has put a financial strain on her family to meet the associated costs. Harriet’s mother Reb has really felt the benefit of the workshop delivery, in particular the performance lifestyle advice from Loughborough University, received through Backing The Best.

“These workshops are absolutely invaluable for parents,” said Reb. “We all come together under one roof with exactly the same issues and experiences. In order for us to be able to advise [their children] with some sort of authority or educated perspective, actually asking questions of panels of athletes or the team at Loughborough has confirmed a lot of what we already thought. That’s been amazing.”

Phil Smith, Sport England’s Director of Sport, highlighted the difference Backing The Best is making: “Talent and effort alone should determine who reaches the top in their sport. Yet many aspiring high performance athletes have had to consider whether they can continue to pursue their sporting ambitions due to the mounting costs of competition, training, travel and specialist equipment facing them and their families at critical points in their development.

“These challenges often coincide with other educational pinch-points and lifestyle transitions and therefore it’s imperative that there is relevant and targeted support available to enable athletes of all backgrounds and circumstances to continue their journey and fulfil their potential.

“Backing The Best is helping to level the playing field by providing aspiring athletes with the additional support to relieve this financial pressure and give these up-and-coming athletes the opportunity to fulfil the promise they have shown. Thanks to National Lottery players we’re able to offer financial support and recognition to 115 athletes in 2018.”

Tim Lawler, Chief Executive of SportsAid, added: “Backing The Best provides a very targeted, informed intervention to a group of talented young athletes that are facing certain financial difficulties, trickiness in their life circumstances, that has put them at risk of dropping out. We are really excited about Sport England’s investment into talent, committing to change and addressing those barriers.

“Backing The Best is creating an opportunity to excel, it’s looking into the darker spaces that perhaps sport and talent identification hasn’t looked before. We’re building a platform to continue forever, to make talent and performance sport accessible, much more diverse and rich, and perhaps more beneficial to its impact in wider society too, more reflective of the country as whole.”

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