The Olympic Experience – Tokyo 2021

Hey!

So, I realise you haven’t received a post about my Olympic experience yet and that’s because I wasn’t ready to fully reflect upon nor embrace the finality of my Olympic final.

I finished 11th. Phew. That feels difficult to type out loud. But we live, learn and rise again to fight another day!

But that’s not what I want to share with you in this post; I want to give you the insider’s view of the Olympic experience, including shadowing my steps from my arrival at Heathrow airport, Terminal 5 to the Team GB holding camp in Yokohama, Japan to entering the Olympic village filled with athletes from countless sports and nations across the world and my first look at the incredible stadium – devoid of people, but filled with the weight of expectation and thick with the anticipation of competitors, coaches and citizens of Japan, volunteering to guide, encourage and cheer us on.

Are you ready? It’s a long read… so if you’d prefer to listen to this post, check out my BONUS podcast episode here on Spotify.

Travel from Heathrow to Japan

Let’s start at the beginning.

As one of the events (athletics) and disciplines (women’s long jump) taking place towards the end of the Olympic Games, I was one of the last of Team GB to leave the UK – on 17th July 2021.

Arriving at the airport, it wasn’t hard to spot the rest of my Team – a mix of the hockey girls, shooters, weight lifters and other track and field athletes like myself, I believe. We were all kitted out in our travel uniform that made me feel keen to hide when wearing it on my own (I really dislike the attention and questions!), but relief and solidarity when wearing it as a team.

British Airways were gracious enough to provide us with a meal, snacks and refreshments in their executive lounge, partly to keep us separated from the general public who may not have undertaken such a rigorous COVID-19 testing regime and protocol and partly simply to make the travel experience on the way to the Games more comfortable. I’m so thankful for the experience.

Holding Camp – Team GB

As soon as I arrived in Japan, a lot of people asked me what the Olympic village was like and how it felt interacting with all these other sportspeople from across the world.

I could only respond, ‘I don’t know yet’ because I didn’t actually enter the Olympic village until July 30th, a few days before my qualifying competition. And I spent a total of only five full days in the Village due to the COVID-19-related restrictions in place.

And the opening and closing ceremony? I imagine you watched more of that than I did! As I certainly wasn’t at either.

In fact, I spent more time at the Team GB holding camp (almost two weeks) than the Olympic village, which to most wouldn’t make sense.

Buuuut here are some benefits to this arrangement:

  • Focused training away from the distraction, glitz, glamour and potential overwhelm of the Olympic village
  • Bonding time with the rest of the Team GB faction whilst in a dedicated training and living environment pre-Games
  • Final preparation with the luxury of fully-equipped facilities, including weights room, recovery suites and therapist team.

Q: How did COVID affect the holding camp experience?

At the holding camp, otherwise called a ‘preparation camp’, COVID protocol was in effect. As a team, we were allowed full reign of one section of the hotel, including a 20-metre long (I’m guessing) outdoor balcony and a dining hall exclusive to Team GB. We were unable to explore the city and could only leave the hotel to travel to training on a Team GB coach and back. This may sound restrictive, but I heard of several national teams subject to more stringent protocol and only being able to use their hotel’s dining hall at specific times and having to stay in their rooms at all other times except for when they travelled to training.

For those 10 members of Team GB – athletes and staff – who were ‘pinged’ off the plane, they were unable to eat with the rest of the team at meal times and were restricted to their hotel rooms for the duration of their stay, except when heading to training, in which case they travelled alone in a separate vehicle. They weren’t even supposed to be able to talk or interact with each other or us. Thankfully, these restrictions eased slightly, but the physical and emotional toll this probably had on them, particularly when training for the biggest event of their career, is unimaginable. Zak Seddon tweeted about his struggle with the restrictions, particularly as an athlete who ‘thrives off social interaction’ – full article. As a team, we were all extremely sympathetic to their situation and impressed with their performances considering this added challenge leading up to this once-every-four-years (sometimes five, due to covid) competition.

The Olympic Village

At the Olympic Village, I went from struggling to hit my minimum 7,000 steps per day (due to COVID-19 protocols at the holding camp) to easily exceeding 20,000 at a minimum each day.

My poor knee hated this!

But we had no choice. The walk from the Team GB halls to the dining hall was only about 10 minutes or so, but you probably had to do this at least three times daily.

When travelling out of the Village to the training track or the Olympic Stadium for athletics, you had a similar-length of walk.

I effectively went from walking 5 steps out of my hotel room, stepping into the lift and walking another few steps into the dining hall at the holding camp to so much more… Even the walk around the dining hall probably added at least one thousand steps to my pedometer as I went in search of my favourite Olympic Village dish of gyoza, fried rice and salmon. Mmm.

Flatshare

I’ve not shared a flat or house with people other than my family for quite a while. I’ve certainly not shared a bathroom for the longest time. But in the Olympic Village, all of my standard travel must-haves changed.

I must have an en-suite. Nope.

I must have a clean and tidy living space. Nope again.

I absolutely LOVED my flatmates. I mean, on my first night I arrive just in time to join in the celebrations and decorating of Mallory Franklin’s bedroom door after she wins an Olympic silver medal in the slalom canoe event! INCREDIBLE! We couldn’t exactly bake or buy a cake, but we wrote post-it notes of ‘congratulations’ and ‘wahoo’ and stuck the British flag to her door with something like, ‘Congratulations, Mallory! Olympic Silver Medalist!’ on it.

And on the night before my Olympic qualifying, I stayed up an extra 10 or so minutes to scream at the TV (and cry) at my other flatmate, Emily-Jade winning an Olympic silver medal in the weightlifting +87kg category! (She became the first British woman to win an Olympic medal in the sport.) I was genuinely surprised at how emotional I got when she got the green light on her final lift, but her whole competition was inspiring to watch – how she lifted PB after PB and the slight controversy of wanting to enter the competition at a higher weight, but being denied on a technicality. It was all so much drama, but the end result was worth staying up for.

Other track and field athletes shared a flat with other athletes from our sport, but I felt blessed to share with other members of Team GB that I probably would have never really interacted with or followed their progress if not for the flat-share.

For these reasons, I genuinely think I stayed in the best flat!

But what I wasn’t a fan of was the shared bathroom situation. Between five or six of us ladies, we shared two bathrooms. We made it work because we had no other choice. But it was unexpected and probably something I’ll pretend never happened if I don’t write it down here for posterity!

On one evening, the flat started to flood and the emergency alarm started beeping incessantly. We called a member of the Japanese housekeeping staff and the man managed to identify the issue and stop the flooding. I’m sure you’ve guessed what it was due to – but anyway – the perks of shared accommodation!

Fun Fact

Sharing a flat with two artistic swimmers, I learned that they have to wear this hair gel that literally glues their hair in place whilst swimming. It is water resistant and I’ve not seen anything like that before in my life. To be honest, it’s not something I’ve ever thought about – what happens to their hair and make-up when they’re performing their routines. In fact, it’s not an event I’d ever watched before the Tokyo Games. Have you?

Q: What did I love about the Olympic Village?

The Olympic Rings – Getting to take photos in front of/on top of/behind/around these infamous, beautiful Olympic rings was probably more exciting than it should have been! I’m not sure how many times I posed for photos here – at least four or five times! I just wanted to catch the ‘perfect’ shot – to immortalise this moment in time; this Olympic debut that I worked half my life to achieve. Wow. And, do you know what? I wasn’t alone in this thought process. Pretty much the only time there wasn’t a queue to take photos at the Rings was between 2-6.30am. I’m not kidding you! But thankfully, Team GB house was opposite the Olympic Rings (thank you BOA for this strategic placement!), so I could always nip across when I looked out of my window and saw that the queue had either died down or there was a member of Team GB at the head of the queue to join for my next photo op! 😉

Cardboard Beds – Yes, the beds were made of cardboard, but that was simply the bed frames and they were incredibly sturdy. Thankfully, the mattress atop the cardboard bed frame was designed to be adjusted based on your firmness preference, so I slept like a sleep-trained baby for the duration of my stay in the Village. And even before arriving at the Village, I watched several athletes’ Instagram stories with horror and amusement as they attempted to test the beds’ sturdiness by bouncing with their full body weight and energy on their beds. The beds survived. Surely that’s the epitome of Japanese engineering genius!

Gifts from TNL, BOA & Athlete 365 – Yes, we were gifted with an exclusive Samsung S21 Olympic edition phone and Samsung galaxy earbuds. But, do you know what I value the most and will continue to use until they fall apart? My Tokyo 2020 blue and white bedspread and the Dreams’ Tokyo 2020 fluffy white housecoat. I love gifts that hit the mark for both utility and sentimentality.

We also received an exclusive Olympic coin and an Olympic legacy book that I’ll treasure forever! Gifts like this are truly invaluable and add that extra je ne sais quoi to an already emotional experience.

Other gifts included:

  • Airbnb gift voucher
  • Dreams’ blankets and pillows
  • Apple music gift card
  • Pins

I have to give a big THANK YOU to the gift providers – The National Lottery, British Olympic Association / Team GB and Athlete 365.

Performance Lodge – Team GB / BOA – As a final bonus respite, Team GB provided us with an opportunity to escape the chaos, hustle and bustle of the Olympic Village which truly can be overwhelming. I’ve just opened my phone camera gallery and the one photo of my time there transports me immediately back to that perfect day.

Calm. Peace. Relaxation. Chill.

I spent the day before my Olympic qualifying on my own at the Performance Lodge and I think that was one of the best decisions of my time in Tokyo.

What did I do there?

Found a spot on the third or fourth floor by the window, lay on a couch and read, napped and read some more.

I also stretched for about 20 minutes or so in one of the workout rooms.

And I ate some good, clean food in near-complete silence.

Whilst there, I bumped into several sporting heroes from various sports, such as golfer, Tommy Fleetwood and Olympic Champion diver, Tom Daley also enjoying a moment of peace and escape.

Remember my point about Team GB hiding us away in the holding camp for as long as possible before bringing us into the Olympic Village? Well, for me, I’m thankful for that wisdom. And I’m thankful there was another opportunity and place for escape and decompression away from the Village chaos.

Downtime at the Olympic Village – Bible Study & Chit Chat

Other staples that helped me to maintain a solid equilibrium at the Village were the bible study sessions we still managed to run online with Christians in Sport led by Jules and the chilled moments sitting outside on our Team GB loungers and beanbags just catching up with old teammates or getting to know new ones, laughing about silly stories, consoling and encouraging teammates who’d had a tough competition through injury, a nasty fall on the track or a poor performance by our high standards. Similarly, as mentioned above, I loved the high of the collective celebration of another medal or breakthrough performance!


Homecoming

Last but not least, a couple of weeks or maybe not even that long after we all returned to the UK from Japan, we came together again as one team and nation for the Team GB Homecoming.

And what an event that was!

That was my Olympic experience.

If you enjoyed that read, you can hear about other Team GB athlete Olympic experiences and the lessons they learned on the Define Your Success podcast where I interviewed 2 x Team GB Olympic high jumper, Morgan Lake and Tokyo Olympic debutant, Tom Gale + another bonus Team GB guest.

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