8 Days Remaining

Wednesday 24th
posted by Kadeem Simmonds in Sport

CHARLIE WEBSTER speaks exclusively to Kadeem Simmonds. Part one of the interview sees Webster talk about her highlight of 2014 and what’s next for women in sport

FOR Charlie Webster, the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year awards was the moment when she realised what a fantastic year it has been for women in sport: “I was sat behind Rory McIlroy thinking: ‘Please, the women’s team have got to win it. What they have done is exceptional’.”

Familiar from Sky Sports and as a presenter of the London 2012 Olympics, it wasn’t until Webster publicly quit her role as a patron of her beloved Sheffield United that the nation found out the depth of her convictions. She went on Newsnight to explain her decision after United’s high-ups let convicted rapist Ched Evans return to the club to train.

But we don’t talk about that issue — there is more to Webster than her thoughts on Evans.

An avid runner, Webster has a deep love for sport and it comes across in our conversation as she tells me about how her goals and aspirations for 2015, which include a number of triathlons and the gruelling ironman event. She admits she has only recently learned how to cycle and swim, something we both chuckle about.

But as the year comes to a close, we start off by looking back at the previous 12 months and Webster recalls her favourite moment, when the England women’s rugby team saw off Rory McIlroy’s Ryder Cup golfers to win the BBC’s Team of the Year award for their World Cup win. It was a fantastic achievement and one that Webster is glad she could witness first hand.

“I think it’s been a fantastic year for women’s sport and for sport in general as well,” she says.

“They’ve won the World Cup and half of them aren’t professionals, they work and have other jobs. One of them is a police officer, one works in an ambulance, one is a teacher. And the fact that they got recognised was a real, real sign of people seeing that women’s sport is of good quality.”

Though it has been an exceptional year, Webster quickly points out that there is ground to make up before sportswomen, many of whom have to pursue a second profession, truly get recognised for their achievements, particularly in the media.

“I think we still have a fair way to go, but it is improving. A lot of papers still, if you turn to the back pages, have all-male (stories). We could do it today — take every paper and I would guarantee 90 per cent would be male.

“I did open a newspaper and there was half a page on the fantastic gymnast Claudia Fragapane and that made me go: ‘That’s brilliant,’ because you don’t tend to see a lot of that.

“Chrissie Wellington, the ironman champion and former world champion, is incredible but she never really got recognition or any sort of coverage on the back pages. It would be really inspiring for a lot of people to read. Others would be interested in her amazing achievement — and that was competing against men.

“But I think that it definitely is changing,” she says.

I foolishly ask why women are more successful in rugby than men, considering the vast disparity in their salaries and the fact that it was only after winning the tournament that full-time contracts were introduced into women’s rugby.

She laughs and corrects me. “Men’s teams are successful in sport,” she says. “I love it whether it’s a male or female team. 

“Despite the shortcomings of the World Cup footballers, I think that some of England’s achievements are exceptional. A lot of the time our teams are really special and we have some incredible individuals, male and female, like Jo Pavey and Mo Farah.

“Both are incredible athletes and it doesn’t matter what sex either of them are. I think that also it is different, you can’t compare the competitions. One thing that is important when talking about male and female sport is that it’s not about the comparable — we aren’t trying to put women and men on a rugby pitch together because men tend to be a lot bigger in build in that sense and are naturally stronger.

“But the women rugby players are just as skilful and I think it’s about appreciating both rather than saying: (only) look at women’s sport — oh no, (only) look at men’s sport.

“Both should be appreciated — and I think that it’s about time that women’s sport is appreciated and also celebrated, because I think it’s important for the next generation of role models.”

The conversation turns towards Webster’s sporting inspirations.

“When I was younger I loved running and I loved playing sport, and it’s really important to have those female role models.

“Mine were Kelly Holmes — I thought she was amazing — and Sally Gunnell, the likes of those females. It was important for me to have them and see that it was something that I could achieve.

“I think it’s important not to say to young girls that are at school and want to play rugby: ‘You can’t play rugby, you’re a girl.’ It should be: ‘You can play rugby and you know why? Because actually the women’s England team has just won the World Cup.’

“That shows to them that they can think: hang on, I can aspire to be like them as well. Previously I think that there would have been shutdown.”

Webster opens up about her childhood and how she first got into sport, a huge part of her life from the age of four. She feels that more should be done to get young girls into sport to improve their health and develop key skills which can be used as they grow up.

“I don’t come from an exceptionally sporty family but my mum was really into fitness and still is.

“At the time it was just me and my mum — my dad had left — so I used to go to her aerobic classes and was doing that at the age of four, and that’s how I got into sport.

“I started doing some martial arts when I was a bit older and really enjoyed the feeling of jumping around and doing crazy moves, and the adrenalin. I felt so happy when I was doing exercise and that’s how my love for sport started.

“When I went to secondary school I didn’t really do all of the sports as we didn’t really have many in my school, but I started to do a bit of running and it was running that I fell in love with and for me it’s what I love about sport.

“It gave me confidence, discipline and focus and made me believe in myself as a teenager and that’s what, even now, I love so much about sport. Anything is possible.

“It can give you so many qualities. Just being at the BBC awards, you see everybody’s highs and struggles at the same time and I saw the reaction when the rugby team won team of the year, when Jo Pavey came third (in the Personality of the Year award) and it was just an incredible feeling and buzz and emotion, and that’s what I fell in love with.

“As a teenager I started to run and just fell more and more in love with it and doing it — not necessarily watching it, as the only thing I did watch was football.

“My dad used to take me when I was younger and I would go to Bramall Lane, Sheffield United’s ground, and I was a season-ticket holder from the age of four. My dad took me every other Saturday and that was his thing to do, and I fell in love with football.

“It’s that whole thing of it being common ground between me and my dad — we spoke about football and we fell in love with it. As a father and a daughter it grew, it united us and I thought that was so special — when you go to grounds and you see fathers and young kids and them passing on their love of football that has always been in the family.”