Today it is our privilege to bring you an interview with Heather Fell, Olympic Silver medallist in Modern Pentathlon. We discuss Heather’s experiences of overcoming setbacks, training for the Olympics, how she’s continued her passion for sport since retiring from Modern Pentathlon, and much more…
How did your passion for fitness begin and develop towards competing as a pentathlete?
I was brought up on a farm so spent most of my childhood outdoors being active, this was my “norm” and something I realise now made me very happy. Both of my parents rode horses and my mother’s job was training other people’s so there were always horses and ponies around, as a result I learnt to ride at a very young age.
My parents believed in being active and doing various sports, I started swimming as a young child too and soon discovered a talent for this sport. Just like most children I joined in with all school sports but excelled in the individual events such as swimming and running. I loved the fact there was direct reward in the form of personal bests and results that were purely related to my effort levels.
I got into an event called tetrathlon – swimming, running, shooting and riding – from the age of eight, picking up the pistol shooting element without too much trouble. This was then the foundation for pentathlon to build from. It wasn’t until I had won UK nationals aged 16 that I actually discovered Modern Pentathlon and as a result started to learn to fence.
What are your personal stand-out moments from your career?
Becoming Junior World Champion, qualifying for the Olympics and then topping that off with the Silver medal in Beijing and finishing 2008 as world number one.
What did a typical week of training consist of when you were training for the Olympics?
It’s probably easier to list how many sessions in each sport as every day was a little different but it involved a lot of training, a lot of eating and many changes of “outfits”.
Shooting – 4 x 1 hour per week plus some extra mental training tasks
Fencing – 3 x group sessions of 2 hours – plus 3 x 30′ 1 on 1 lessons
Swimming – 4-7 x 1.5 hour session, 2 of which would be incredibly hard
Riding – 1-2 hour long lessons and if time then a hack for the enjoyment factor
Running – 5 x runs varying from track sessions, long runs, recovery runs etc
S&C – 2-3 sessions in the gym
On top of this we would need to fit in physio, massage, meetings with the nutritionist, it was always a busy week. During the pre-season there would be competitions most weekends too.
Can you tell us about an experience where you’ve overcome setbacks to achieve your goals?
There are so many it’s hard to choose, but that is what makes us stronger as athletes and I believe in the long run helps with success.
In 2006 I was taken off the UK sport lottery programme for Modern Pentathlon and removed from the national squad. This basically meant I would not even be considered for selection. I was also dealing with a hip injury and all financial and medical support was automatically withdrawn as well as the faith and support from the coaches. I had to make a tough decision of what to do next.
Having taken some time out back at home I decided I couldn’t accept this fate and gave myself one year to see how far I could get. If at the end of that I wasn’t making the national team I would know it wasn’t for me but would be able to move on.
I picked up three part time jobs whilst living for free at home. I went back to my school swimming coach who agreed to work with me on a complimentary basis. I then set up my own shooting “range” in a shed at home and returned to my local fencing club. The running and riding part of things I was more than happy to take care of myself as I had the knowledge and resources on my doorstep.
It wasn’t easy, factoring in any recovery was a challenge, but I had a team who believed in me. One year later I had qualified a potential slot for the Olympics, doing it very much the unconventional way and having to prove myself at every step.
It was incredibly rewarding and satisfying for both myself and the coaches who had invested their time and energy.
What advice would you give to someone who is demotivated or doesn’t know where to start with getting into sport and fitness?
When you’re a full-time athlete with all the support it is hard to understand this question but having since retired, I have realised the huge importance of having a goal. That goal doesn’t need to be anything huge, the more realistic the more likely you are to achieve it and as a result get motivated by it.
Even now I often find that having a smaller goal that I know I can achieve will get me back on track and enable me to aim higher as a result. For example, if I want to do a really tough run workout it might get to the end of the day and I’m tired from work and as I’m dreading it, I might avoid going for the run altogether. If, however I convince myself that something is better than nothing I will at least go for a jog. Often once I am out running, I’ll start to feel so much better and end up doing that session anyway.
I would say it’s a matter of mind games. You need to trick yourself into doing something as that first step is always the hardest. It doesn’t matter how little it is to start with as some activity is always better than none. Be kind to yourself and measure your progress, exercise is the best natural high out there.
Are there any people, books, or experiences that you would be willing to share with us, that have really helped shape your mentality?
I have been lucky to have been brought up around very self-motivated people who have achieved great things through their hard work. My swim coaches Robin Brew and his father Archie Brew played a big part in my career, installing the hard work ethic and educating me in the reward for perseverance.
I am still continuously motivated by incredible people I meet and books that I’m reading, it’s certainly something that never stops and why should it.
What advice would you give to someone who is trying to take their passion for health and fitness, or anything else, and turn it into a successful business/ career?
This is the hardest question as I am still a work in progress in this area. You have to live and breathe your passion and be doing it for the right reasons. Again, have a large goal, don’t be afraid of failing as you’ll develop in other ways on your journey towards it. But also break it down into small chunks, this will ensure you remain motivated and focused.
How have you continued your passion for sport and fitness following your retirement?
I have managed to combine two passions, sport and talking in a nutshell. I pursued work in the media after retiring and as a result have commentated at the last two Olympics and announced in a stadium to tens of thousands of people at the Rio games too. Alongside various media work opportunities I used my sporting experiences to work with school pupils developing self-esteem and goals, incredibly rewarding in a different way.
Three years ago, I stumbled across my dream job, presenting on a triathlon YouTube channel GTN, Global Triathlon Network. I joined as it was launching so have had the opportunity to help shape it and I’ve seen it grow. I get to travel the world, talk about sport and do a fair amount myself.
What are you goals and plans for the future?
Gosh I’ve always got so many ideas, but the last couple of years I’ve moved my focus from triathlon to pure running. I was keen to see if doing just one sport instead of three or five could see me beat the times I posted as a professional athlete. It was rewarding, especially running my first marathon, scraping under the 3-hour barrier by 7” and finishing my first Ultra marathon, Comrades (87K!).
This year I’m taking things at a more relaxed pace and doing events with friends in for example a few triathlon relays. I’ve got a 10k swim later in the year and I have just entered my longest running race yet, the Race to the Stones, 100k along the Ridgeway.
It’s not all physical though, I’m currently doing a triathlon coaching course and I’m looking forward to developing that side of my experience whilst helping others reach their goals.
Beyond this who knows, but I’m always open to suggestions!