Weekend Interview: All mums are amazing, insists athletics’ ‘super-mum’ Jo Pavey

Jo Pavey

FOR all top-tier athletes, there is a moment in their careers when everything fuses together perfectly, when they feel unbeatable, invincible almost, and achieve their lifetime ambition.

In among the myriad highlights of Usain Bolt’s career, that zenith came in Berlin in 2009 when he broke world records that still stand today in both the 100m and 200m.

Britain's Jo Pavey celebrates winning the women's 10,000m final in the 2014 European Championships at the Letzigrund Stadium, Zurich, at the age of 41 (Picture: Adam Davy/PA Wire).

Jessica Ennis-Hill’s highlight was the London 2012 heptathlon.

For Jo Pavey, the moment arrived when she perhaps, given what we expect of elite athletes, had no right to be besting the field and rising to the top step of the podium.

It came three years ago in Zurich in the 10,000m final of the European Championships, when Pavey was aged 41 and a mother of two, having given birth to her second child only a year earlier.

A career spent in the shadows, attending major championships but rarely threatening the medals, peaked that day in Switzerland and suddenly this unassuming mother from Devon was thrust into the national sporting consciousness.

All mums are amazing the way they juggle things, and when kids start doing sport there’s even more to juggle with the time restraints of being here, there and everywhere.

Jo Pavey

‘Super-mum’ screamed the headlines as Pavey became the unlikely face of a women’s sport movement growing stronger by the passing event.

How inspirational her story had become was reinforced by the fact that she went on to finish third in the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year poll at the end of 2014.

Three years later, having now turned 44, she is still running, competing and dreaming.

“I haven’t ruled out trying to qualify for Tokyo,” she says, smiling, at the prospect of a sixth Olympic Games. “I’ll be very, very old by then, but I haven’t ruled it out.”

Whether she makes it or not, Pavey stands as a beacon for what can be achieved by not just women in sport, but by mothers.

Yorkshire’s Ennis-Hill might have won a world title in 2015 a little over a year after giving birth to her first child, but, generally, women returning to the same levels of achievement they had prior to the many changes their bodies go through in child-birth – and the increased demands on their time – is rare.

“For me, being a mum has allowed me to take a step back and think about the experiences I had as a very young athlete,” says Pavey. “My performances improved because I had that balance in my life. Before that I was just training, getting rested, and focusing on my running.

“When I became a mum, mentally I became so much happier in myself. I had a better balance in my life and that led to better performances.

“Initially I didn’t know how it would work. I thought I’d end up retiring. But as a parent it gave me the chance to show my children it’s fun to be fit and active.

“That for me, as a parent in sport, has been a real bonus that I’ve been able to carry on being active. It’s a massive motivator for me. That happiness it has brought has led to me wanting to continue in the sport because it’s given me that quality time as a family. That balance did me a lot of good.”

In a world of increasing sensitivity over equality in sport, just the headline ‘super-mum’ can carry patronising connotations. Pavey, though, was flattered by the moniker, if a little embarrassed.

“It’s not something I’d call myself, but it’s very kind of people,” she says.

“All mums are amazing the way they juggle things, and when kids start doing sport there’s even more to juggle with the time restraints of being here, there and everywhere.”

What’s important about the term ‘super-mum’ to Pavey is that she turns it into a positive, that it reflects her position in society as a role model.

During the two decades of her career she has seen women’s sport grow on the back of the triumphs of the likes of Ennis-Hill, Yorkshire boxer Nicola Adams and the women’s cricket and rugby union teams.

“When I first started my athletics career, because I’m so old now, there wasn’t many female role models in sports like rugby and football, not like there are now,” she says.

“I’ve been honoured to meet a lot of our successful national teams over the last couple of years and when I do I say to them, ‘when I was younger I always wanted to be a footballer, but there were no girls’ football teams where I lived’. Now there are more opportunities.

“But there is still work to do.”

And that work is something about which Pavey is passionate.

As athletics’ ‘super-mum’ she was the natural fit to be an ambassador for the NSPCC as that organisation campaigns for better child protection in sport.

“I believe well-being and safeguarding of children are important in all aspects of life,” she says.

“As a parent myself, I’ve got a boy who’s eight and a girl who’s four – I try to be a role model for my children.

“It’s about making sure children achieve the positive things out of sport; you meet new friends, you boost your self-esteem, you learn how to work as a team.”

Pavey’s own career may extend into a sixth Olympics – provided she can stay competitive against women half her age and overcome a heel injury that has plagued her this year – because athletics has become part of her family life.

Training runs are often conducted with her husband and coach Gavin, daughter Emily, on a bike, and son Jacob, who is now old enough to run with her.

“I was fortunate, I had supportive parents, but sometimes you see parents maybe getting a bit too carried away,” says Pavey, whose target next year is the European Championships.

“You don’t want pushy parents, because you don’t want children to be under pressure. It’s all about enjoying sport, and parents can play a really important role.”

Not all children, though, get to witness their parent on a medal podium as the Pavey siblings did this summer at the World Championships in London.

Their mother had finished fourth in the 10,000m at the 2007 worlds in Osaka, but earlier this year, as part of the sport’s purge on convicted dopers, Turkey’s Elvan Abeylegesse saw her silver medal struck from the record books and Pavey was re-presented with the bronze.

“It was bittersweet having missed that moment 10 years ago,” she says. “To think my children weren’t even born when I did the race, it was quite a novelty for them to see me collect the medal. It’s weird thinking back to the emotions of 10 years ago, laying on the track thinking you’ve come fourth.”

Which begs the question, how will she leave a troubled sport when she finally does decide to hang up the spikes?

She says: “There’s a lot of negativity around the sport, but at the same time it is being talked about, medals are getting reallocated and the technology is improving.

“The things children see on TV, like London 2012 and this summer’s world championships, will help them aspire to those performances. That can only be a positive influence on the youngsters coming into the sport. There are still role models in our sport.”

None more so, surely, than Jo Pavey.

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