Great Britain track and field stars Laviai and Lina Nielsen have revealed how inspirational words from Olympic gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill had a positive impact on their athletic development during their school years. The twins, 23, idolised Jessica as teenagers and began to embrace growing stronger and more muscular bodies to support their sporting endeavours after the heptathlete had shared her own experiences in a media interview.
Laviai and Lina are now looking to use the influence of their own stories to encourage schoolchildren to get active through the #MyMiles Schools Challenge during SportsAid Week - which takes place from 23-29 September - this year. The Challenge asks pupils to complete a minimum of one mile and donate £1 to SportsAid to help support the next generation of Olympic and Paralympic heroes.
Laviai, who has won three silver medals in the 4x400m relay across the IAAF World Championships and the European Athletics Indoor Championships, was a previous beneficiary of a SportsAid award. Lina is a 400m hurdler and currently receives the charity’s support having faced injury setbacks. They are both aiming to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and still look up to Jessica as they pursue their goals.
“To have sporting role models are incredibly important to young people because they can motivate us, inspire us and give us a sense of ‘I can do this too’,” said Laviai. “Sometimes, if you’re one of the only people in your peer group who is in sport, making all those sacrifices we need to make, and train for so many hours, it can make you feel alone, and that can make things so much more difficult.
“When we were 14, 15-year-old girls, we were told to go into the gym and get stronger for our sport, but that can be quite difficult at that age, because you kind of want to look like your friends, and to have lots of muscles wasn’t the sort of body images we were used to seeing at the time. It didn’t take us much convincing though because we remembered hearing an interview with Jessica Ennis-Hill once.
“She talked about going through something similar in her mid-teens but after a while of having a strength programme and lifting weights, she realised that her performances were getting much better, and she was running faster, jumping higher and throwing further. She mentioned that it was no longer how her body looked that mattered but rather - it was what it could do - that made her proud.
“To have that story available to us really inspired us, which is why it’s so important that we have role models who can share their stories and inspire so many young people. Our hero was - and still is - Jessica Ennis-Hill. To have someone to look up to, who has been through so many similar experiences and has managed to achieve something amazing out of it, can help to motivate young people to keep going.”
The #MyMiles Challenge was launched in SportsAid Week 2017 after data from SportsAid’s annual athlete survey revealed that the country’s brightest sporting prospects cover around 40 miles under their own steam in training every week. This year SportsAid has linked up with Race Nation to provide an online platform which is quick and easy for supporters to sign up to the #MyMiles Schools Challenge.
The Challenge is also designed to shine a spotlight on talented young athletes supported by SportsAid and the level of commitment, dedication and sacrifice they’re showing in order to pursue their sporting ambitions. The stories and achievements of young sporting role models across the country can help to motivate and inspire pupils while also reinforcing the importance of leading a fit and healthy lifestyle.
“I believe that exercising from a young age is extremely important but it's always challenging to find a sport that you enjoy and then find local clubs and teams that you can join,” said Lina. “Initiatives like the #MyMiles Schools Challenge give children the opportunity to try a new sport alongside their friends, their peers and their teachers which further encourages them to enjoy being active.”
There will be a dedicated #MyMiles Schools Day on Tuesday 24 September, but if that doesn't work, schools can select any date during the week. They can run an assembly - in advance of the planned activity - about the history of British sport, and the role SportsAid has played within this, to give pupils a clear understanding as to the athletes they’re supporting and how the money raised will make a real difference.
How schools choose to support the #MyMiles Schools Challenge is entirely up to them! Pupils can undertake any form of exercise whether it be in a PE lesson, at lunchtime or during an after-school activity. We are looking for schools to take the lead and decide how their pupils would most like to join in. If you’ve selected an activity and it's not easy to record the distance covered....20 minutes = 1 mile.
Running, cycling, swimming, badminton and tennis, as well as team sports, such as netball, hockey, rugby, football and basketball, are always popular choices. Crossfit, zumba, boxercise and yoga can be the perfect group activity while there are lots of Olympic and Paralympic disciplines to choose from. Challenges between teachers and pupils can also create a bit of competitive spirit across the school!
“SportsAid made such a great impact on my sporting journey,” said Laviai. “To firstly get the recognition from SportsAid in 2015 made a huge difference to my confidence, because it meant my hard work wasn’t going unnoticed. The financial support took some of the pressure off my mum, who was paying for my travel, my training costs and competitions. It also meant that I could go on my first ever training camp.
“I went eventually went on to win the European Junior Championships that summer. I had amazing opportunities to meet other young people in a range of different sports through SportsAid, learn how to share my story, as well as learn some life-changing tips about nutrition and recovery, as well as how to organise my sporting demands around my studies, which of course, a lot of young sportspeople deal with.”
SportsAid athletes don't just feel the impact of the charity’s backing from a financial point of view - the award acts as motivation and provides recognition as they look to progress towards their sporting ambitions. They also benefit from a range of personal development opportunities enabling them to broaden their skillsets. Many receive expert advice through workshops as well as mentoring through buddy schemes.
The #MyMiles Schools Challenge will also see a number of surprise visits made to schools by SportsAid athletes, as well as competitions for the most miles covered, best photos and the most creative ideas. Laviai and Lina have both previously shared advice with schoolchildren and aspiring athletes by reflecting on their own experiences and the journey they have encountered to reach where they are now.
“The key piece of advice I would give to aspiring athletes is to know that it takes extreme patience and you have to be willing to give your sport time,” said Lina. “If you enjoy every bit of your sport, that time will fly so always find a way to make it fun! It also helps to have bitesize goals such as mini training aims you'd like to achieve every month. That helps make your long term goal seem less daunting!”
SportsAid Week 2019 takes place from 23-29 September. You can register for the #MyMiles Schools Challenge via Race Nation today. Race Nation also allows you to set up a sponsorship page, via Sports Giving, if you would like to raise funds through the Challenge.