By Jennifer Sancroft, Glasgow.
At the age of 15 I tried fencing for the first time as part of a week of activities at school which was designed to keep kids in school for that final week before the summer holidays. It was love and first sight…well maybe more like love at first strike.
It was fun, it was fast paced and I really enjoyed it. The only problem was that the nearest fencing club was on the other side of Glasgow. I stayed in East Dunbartonshire, the nearest club was at Clydebank and at 15 years old I was already involved in badminton, basketball, Girls Brigade and gymnastics. Adding another activity to my schedule, nevermind the substantial travel involved, seemed unlikely.
So getting from that point to winning Commonwealth Gold 11 years later took a slightly different path from most athletes.
My brother and I have always been athletic and involved in sport at grassroots, right up to performance level. My brother was a sprinter and at university he took up fencing as his “fun” sport. In my gap year between school and university I worked within the Business Incubator at Strathclyde and started to attend the university fencing club at my brother’s instigation.
He knew I’d enjoyed it previously but hadn’t ever had the opportunity to really take it up. It’s really thanks to him that I am where I am.
It was there that I met my coach David Rollo who has coached me for the past eight years. Within six months he asked me, “So why are you here?” Abrupt is his day-to-day mode. After a bit of joking back and forth I announced I was there to be the best I could be and to qualify for the Scotland team.
This was a goal that was quickly realised under David’s coaching and this lead to 5 Nations representation as well as competing in the 2010 Commonwealth Championships in Melbourne and representing Team GB throughout Europe.
It would take me a whole week to recount the ups and downs of these events but each one of them was a vital step towards my goal of winning a Commonwealth medal.
Sadly in 2010 this wasn’t to be and it was a real low for me. Being realistic, I had only been competing for four years, I was relatively inexperienced and I should have been looking to gain experience at the event rather than silverware.
For three months after the event I had no direction in my sport and it was a confusing and disheartening time. I was then selected to represent Team GB at my second World Cup and my enthusiasm and drive was reignited.
Since then my focus has been to gain as much experience as possible, analyse it, learn from it and be the best I can be. All of this with the goal of winning a Commonwealth medal.
On 10th November 2014, I stood on the podium at the Commonwealth Fencing Championships with a Bronze individual medal round my neck. I was the only Scot on the podium that day and I had this strange sense of pride and disappointment.
I’m one of these awful perfectionists who feels like bronze is really just the prize for second loser. Looking back on it now, I can appreciate what an achievement it was and I did enjoy all of my matches, even the semi-final when I lost.
It was a great match against a great competitor and I learned a lot from the match and the post event video analysis. But there wasn’t much time for reflection as the team competition took place on the 13th November.
I now had to work with the girls I had previously been competing against. This is a challenge in itself sometimes, however the Scotland team at this event were an extremely focussed and determined group and we were determined to gel and work together to achieve our goal of a Commonwealth medal for each team member.
We started strongly against India with a comfortable win. We then faced Wales, who had the individual winner captaining their team. No easy task. Despite a shakey start we dug our heels in and refused to go down without a fight. Working as a team is so different to working as an individual athlete.
Your priorities change and it becomes about what you can do to support your team mates. How many hits can you get to work towards that collective goal? What advice can you give your team mates at the start of each match? This collective thinking saw us edge a narrow victory against the strong Welsh team.
I’ve been told over and over again in my career that it’s not about how good you are or how good your opponent is, it’s about who wants it more.
On the 13th November, no one wanted it more than the Scottish Women’s Sabre team. We went in to the final against Singapore feeling capable but without any kind of expectation. We had afterall lost to them in the first round in the previous Commonwealths in 2010.
I knew before the match started that something was missing. The energy and spark that had carried me through this far was starting to flicker. My tank was running close to empty. Still, I started against Singapore and won both of my first two matches. By the end of the second I was done.
There was nothing else I could give the team other than my support and advice. I agreed with the team captain and coach that I would be subbed out. I screamed and shouted my support for my team mates with my heart in my throat as I could no longer directly influence the outcome of the match.
We WON! Only two points in it at the end again but we did it. The five of us had done it. I couldn’t quite believe it. After celebrating loudly with my team, my first instinct was to run to my husband, waiting for me in the crowd with my parents. It had all been worth it. Weekends and weeks away from home at a time, competing and training around the world had finally amounted to something tangible.
This was the biggest high of my life. I don’t think anything will ever make me feel that way again.
After the event, when the emotions are more tempered, I have other reflections on my sport and my achievements. I’m sure you can tell how passionate I am about my sport, but did I mention I only train part time? I work 40 hours plus per week as a recruitment consultant.
My sport receives very little funding and I have never been funded or supported by my governing body so I have to work to pay not only my bills but my entry fees to competitions, my travel and my accommodation.
One year I had to choose between being able to pay my entry fee to a world cup in Russia and having my Team GB tracksuit (both were £100 each).
So while the high of winning Commonwealth Gold will remain as the highlight of my sporting career so far, I will never forget the low of returning to earth with a bump the day I returned to my day job and realised that I’m still only an athlete part time.
What takes the edge off this slight disappointment, is knowing that I still get to be someone’s hero. My husband and I coach some of the kids at our club and a few were able to come and watch the Commonwealth Championships in Largs.
Their faces when we both won individual bronze and both followed that up with medals in the team competition is an image that I will always keep. My goal is still to represent Team GB at European and World Championship level but I love supporting the kids at my club to achieve their goals now too.
Winning a Commonwealth Gold Medal feels amazing, inspiring others to pursue their dreams feels even better.