One gold, two silver and one bronze medal for Team GB at Sochi; the best ever results for British athletes at the winter olympics.
It’s a triumph for UK sport and a cause of celebration for a waterlogged nation. But prior to the games, who knew the names of our top athletes?
Here, to celebrate the successes of Lizzy Yarnold, Jenny Jones and our curling teams, we’ve compiled a list of the greatest British athletes you might never have heard of.
Think marathon runners have it tough? Think again. Bob Graham was the original ultra long distance runner. And he left his mark too. The Bob Graham round is still the benchmark against which elite fell runners measure themselves. A hotelier from Keswick, in 1932 Bob ran 66 miles in 24 hours, taking in 42 of the highest peaks in the Lake District. To put the 27,000 feet of ascent into perspective, the world’s tallest mountain, Everest in Nepal measures only a little higher at 29,029 ft.
Admittedly, the air is a lot thinner at the roof of the world, but Bob Graham had no access to high tech clothing, sports nutrition or footwear. He covered the distance wearing plimsoles and pyjamas, and was fuelled by bread and butter, lightly boiled eggs and plenty of fruit and sweets. As to why the man ran up 42 big hills in a single day – it was to celebrate his 42nd birthday. We wonder he still had the strength to blow out his candles.
The diminutive sporting dynamo that was Lottie Dodd, as also known by newspaper journalists as, the ‘little wonder’. She was and remains the youngest person ever to have won the singles title at Wimbledon, a feat she achieved in 1887 at the tender age of 15. She went on to win a further four times.
Lottie came from a family of rich industrialists from Merseyside. She never had to work, and never married. Instead, she filled her life with sport. She climbed mountains, tobogganed down the Cresta Run, and passed the prestigious St. Moritz ladies’ skating test, the pinnacle of figure skating at the time. When in England during the autumn and winter, she played hockey. In the summer, Dod competed at golf, winning the British Ladies’ Amateur championships in 1904. And she was a serious archer too, taking the silver medal at the 1908 olympics in London.
Sciatica spelled the end of Lottie Dod’s sporting career, but she continued to attend Wimbledon each year. When she died in a nursing home in 1954, it was while listening to radio coverage of the tournament from her bed. Now that’s a sporting life.
Another multi talented athlete of yesteryear, C.B. Fry is perhaps most famous for playing cricket for Sussex, Hampshire and England. He scored 94 first class centuries, and 30,886 runs in a career that lasted from 1894 to 1921. His batting average of 50.22 is remarkable by the standards of the day when the number of runs scored tended to be lower because wickets were uncovered.
But Fry was much more than just a cricketer. In 1893, the young Charles Fry equalled the world record for the long jump, a feat he achieved while smoking a cigar, not slurping down whey protein powder drinks. He also played for football for Southampton FC, playing as full back in the 1902 FA cup final against Sheffield United. In his professional life, C.B. Fry was a teacher and journalist, and commanded a training ship. He was also a diplomat and was once offered the throne of Albania.
Fry’s party piece was to jump backwards from the floor onto the mantelpiece above his fireplace, a feat he could still pull off in his 70s. We’re surprised there was room to land amid the trophies.
When Queenie took the gold medal at the 1908 olympics in London, she was 53 years old. And over a hundred years later, she is still the oldest woman ever to triumph at the games. Her sport was archery, something she’d only taken up three years earlier when she and her sister joined Cheltenham archery club.
But if you think she had it easy think again, because to take the title she had to beat off both the weather which was so bad that at one point the competition was abandoned, and stiff opposition in the form of the all rounder, Lottie Dodd, who we mentioned earlier.
Who remembers Matthew Webb? But in his day, this man was a true hero. Born in 1848, he joined the merchant navy as an apprentice when he was just 12 years old. Webb first came to public attention when mid-Atlantic, he dived from his ship to try to save the life of a passenger who had fallen over board.
Later he heard of an attempt to swim the channel and was inspired. He left the merchant navy to train in the chilly River Thames and the channel itself. Webb was thwarted in his first attempt by strong winds and rough seas, but less than two weeks later, on 24th August 1875, his body smeared with porpoise fat, he dived off Admiralty pier at Dover. Matthew Webb was stung by jellyfish and held up for five hours by treacherous currents off Cap Griz Nez, but just under 22 hours after he took the plunge, he emerged from the brine at Calais.
Matthew Webb was a national sensation. But his life was cut tragically short when in 1883 he took on the rapids below Niagara Falls. His attempt to swim the whirlpool rapids failed, and despite being one of Britain’s greatest ever athletes, he paid with his life.