Updated: Jul 19, 2021
The Summer Olympics is finally upon us; but, as we will soon see, not as we know it.
It’s safe to say that this will be the strangest Olympic Games witnessed in modern times. The Games are going ahead in a city which has recently declared a state of emergency regarding the Covid-19 pandemic. Because of this, drastic decisions have had to be made. Most notably, there will be no spectators allowed for any of the sports taking place in Tokyo. When the Opening Ceremony takes place on July 23, there will be nobody from the general public there to see it inside the athletics stadium. It will be a far cry from the scenes broadcast to hundreds of millions from London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Intriguingly though, because preparations have been so badly disrupted over the past 18 months, this is widely expected to be the most open Olympic Games too. There could well be shocks aplenty across a whole range of sports.
For the Tokyo Games, 12 athletes (potentially up to 14) will proudly represent the county of Derbyshire as well as fly the flag for Team GB. Considering there were just four Derbyshire athletes that competed in Rio 2016 for the Olympics, this is a clear sign of outstanding progression in sport within Derbyshire.
There are three athletes detailed below who are not from Derbyshire but do still have strong links to the county which shouldn’t be ignored. It’s fantastic to see such a wide range of sports that will have Derbyshire interest too; for example, golf, hockey and table tennis all have Derbyshire representation. It’s in the swimming pool though that has seen an explosion in Derbyshire interest.
There are a number of questions that surround these Games. Chiefly, should these Games even be going ahead? It can’t be disregarded when reporting on these Games, that the majority of Japan’s population do not want these Games to go ahead as they don’t feel it’s safe to do so. Tokyo was recently put into a state of emergency regarding the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic plus the nation’s vaccination numbers are still some way behind other countries such as the UK.
There is also a big worry that athletes could miss the Games at the very last minute if they were to contract Coronavirus which would in turn affect any other athletes that are inside their bubble at the Tokyo Olympics village. British tennis player Dan Evans has already had to pull out of the Games after registering a positive case very recently. Ultimately, we can’t be too surprised if this is an extremely disrupted Olympic Games. Because of the risks, the ‘Olympic Experience’ for the athletes in Tokyo has no choice but to be a diluted one. Part of the experience for competing Olympians is mixing with others in the Olympic village and to explore the host city. For obvious reasons, this just can’t happen for these Games and strict bubbles have got to be adhered to for their own safety. In effect, the Olympic Games is finally back; but it’s one that’s wrapped up in cotton wool. It will be a particularly strange experience for any athlete who has competed at previous Olympics before – ultimately, it just won’t be the same experience and may not feel like an Olympics at all at certain times.
Another big question is how athletes will adapt to an Olympic stage which has no crowds. Will the lack of attendance relieve the pressure for some athletes and make them perform better? Or do some athletes perform better with the passion and intensity of a roaring crowd behind them? Time will soon tell as to which athletes will be helped or hindered by these strange circumstances.
Finally, will we see some Derbyshire medals at the Tokyo Games? Hollie Pearne-Webb brought a gold medal back to Belper after the most dramatic of circumstances when she scored the winning penalty to secure the gold for Team GB against The Netherlands in the women’s hockey tournament final at Rio 2016. As we will soon see below, there is absolutely every chance that Derbyshire can secure more than one medal this time around. In fact, with the talent at its disposal, this could be a real breakthrough Games for the county with gold medals a genuine possibility.
Without further ado then, here is the full profile of athletes with strong Derbyshire interest to keep an eye on throughout the Tokyo games:
Millie Bright (Chesterfield) – Football
Firstly, we have Millie Bright in the women’s football competition. Millie, who plays for Chelsea Women as a centre-half, is from Chesterfield. Bright is 27 and has played 37 times for the England women’s team. Bright comes into these Games with significant international tournament experience, after she featured heavily for England in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup where the Lionesses finished fourth. Bright has won numerous trophies in her career including four WSL titles, two FA Women’s Cups and two Women’s League Cups. Team GB are expected to be one of the favourites to win the tournament, so there is definitely a realistic chance of a Derbyshire medal win here.
Millie will also be the first Derbyshire athlete to compete in these Games, as the women’s football tournament will actually begin two days before the opening ceremony takes place. Team GB’s first group game is against Chile on the morning of July 21.
Ben Connor (Derby) – Marathon
The 28 year-old marathon runner from Derby has qualified for his first ever Olympic Games. Ben qualified for the Games via this year’s British Athletics Marathon Trial where he finished in second place behind Chris Thompson.
In 2019, Ben won the National Championships in the 10,000m event. Connor only took to marathon running relatively recently. His first official marathon race came only last year when he participated in the London Marathon. Connor finished 15th in the race and was the second highest placed Briton for the event.
Sabbie Heesh (Repton) – Hockey
The 29 year-old goalkeeper is from Repton and will be a travelling reserve player for the hockey squad. If any of the two goalkeepers in the main squad get injured or become ill, then Heesh could well be called up for action. Sabbie plays for Surbiton in the Women’s England Hockey League.
She’s made 18 appearances for Britain’s hockey side and was part of the England squad that won a gold medal at the 2015 European Champions held in London.
Hollie Pearne-Webb (Belper) – Hockey
Hollie made headlines in 2016 with her nerves of steel after scoring the winning penalty to secure the gold medal for Team GB in the women’s hockey tournament. The penalty shuttles was watched by around ten million people in the UK on a Friday evening.
Pearne-Webb is from Belper and plays an integral role in the team as she is Team GB’s captain. In an interview earlier this year, Hollie told me that this would be a very open tournament because of how severely disrupted the preparations have been for every nation competing.
Hollie is widely regarded as being one of the world’s best defenders in the sport for the past ten years. The 30 year-old plays for Surbiton in the Women’s England Hockey League alongside the aforementioned Sabbie Heesh. She was also part of the England side that won a gold medal at the 2015 European Championships.
In our interview, Hollie said that this is a much-changed squad from the group in 2016 that won Olympic gold because so many of that team have since retired from the sport. Despite the number of changes, there is a lot of hope that Team GB can finish in the medal positions once again.
Jess Piasecki (lives in Ashbourne) – Marathon
The 31 year-old runner is originally from Stockport but now resides and trains in Derbyshire. Similarly to Ben Connor, it’s only been relatively recently that Piasecki moved up to full marathon running. Her breakthrough moment came in 2019 when she unexpectedly won the Florence Marathon in Italy. Remarkably, that was her first ever official race over the full marathon distance. Earlier that year, Jess also won the Usti nad Labem Half Marathon in Czechia.
Her personal best in the marathon event is 2hrs 25mins 29 secs. Whilst preparations have been understandably tough, Piasecki is very happy with how training has gone in 2021 and is confident of putting in a time that would beat her personal best. Conditions are likely to be tough though (it’s usually very hot in Tokyo around late July/early August) and Jess will need time to acclimatise to the heat and humidity.
Again, with far from ideal preparation and tough weather conditions, this is yet another very open event. If Piasecki is able to stick with her strict game plan, she could spring a huge surprise in Tokyo.
Liam Pitchford (Chesterfield) – Table Tennis
For the third Olympics in a row, Chesterfield’s Liam Pitchford flies the flag for Team GB. It will be fascinating to see how Pitchford gets on as table tennis in particular has been hugely affected by the pandemic. Even at this stage, very few tournaments have taken place on the international tour in the past 18 months and nobody will be coming into the event with ideal preparation.
The 28 year-old will just be competing in the singles event. Pitchford was in the form of his life at the time when the pandemic first struck and the Games were inevitably postponed. He’s admitted in an earlier interview with me that he’s not yet returned to that level of form in early 2020 but is satisfied with how he’s progressed in recent months.
On his day, Pitchford has proved that he can beat anyone in this sport and is certainly an athlete to keep an eye out for. You may also witness his remarkable trick shot he can play, where he can hit the ball with his right hand behind his back!
Mel Reid (Derby) – Golf
Mel is currently ranked 37th in the world in the Women’s World Golf Rankings. The two highest ranked golfers automatically qualified for Team GB’s golfing spots so Charley Hull and Georgia Hall were the initial qualifiers. Following both of their withdrawals though shortly afterwards, Reid ended up getting the call-up for Tokyo along with Jodi Ewart Shadoff.
The 33 year-old has won six titles in her career so far on the Ladies European Tour and one title on the LPGA tour. Her best ever result in a major event was a joint-third place in the 2019 Women’s PGA Championship.
Molly Renshaw (former Derbyshire Institute of Sport athlete) – Swimming
The Mansfield-born swimmer is part of Team GB’s swimming squad which comes into the Tokyo Games with very high expectations. Molly is 25 and will be competing in the 200m breaststroke event and in the 4x100m medley relay.
Renshaw comes into these Games in outstanding form. She picked up two gold medals at the European Aquatics Championships earlier this year in the events that she will be competing in at the Olympics. Molly has to be considered as one of the best Derbyshire-linked prospects for picking up an Olympic gold at these Games.
Charlie Tanfield (former Derbyshire Institute of Sport athlete) – Cycling (Men’s Team Pursuit)
The 24 year-old cyclist who hails from Great Ayton in North Yorkshire was recently named as a travelling reserve for Britain’s men’s team pursuit squad at the cycling velodrome. If one of the squad members were to suffer an injury or to fall ill, then Tanfield will be in Tokyo ready to be called up for action.
Tanfield won a gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the men’s individual pursuit event.
Anna Toman (Derby) – Hockey
Toman is the final Derbyshire member of Team GB’s women’s hockey squad. Anna plays her club hockey for Wimbledon in the Women’s England Hockey League and can play as either a defender or as a midfielder.
The 28 year-old player has made 45 appearances for Team GB’s side and was also part of the England team that secured bronze medals in the 2017 European Championships and in the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Team GB’s women’s side are in a strong pool for the round robin group stage. They’ve been drawn against Germany, India, The Republic of Ireland, The Netherlands and South Africa. Their first game will take place on the morning of July 25 against Germany.
Jess Turner (Derby) – 400m hurdles & 4x400m relay
Jess is the only athlete from Derbyshire who will be competing in a track event inside the Olympic stadium. Her preparation for the Games has been a rollercoaster ride. When I first interviewed her shortly after the first lockdown ended, she told me that she had to train on grass fields and pretend to jump over hurdles as all the facilities she needed were closed during the first national lockdown in 2020.
There have been some injury setbacks too over the past Winter, but Turner has done extremely well to turn her write-off of a 2020 into the best season of her career for 2021. Turner set a new personal best time in the 400m hurdles at an event in Belgium earlier this year, which automatically qualified her for the Tokyo Games. Turner has continued to perform at this high standard and has now raced in her first ever Diamond League meetings.
Turner’s aim is to reach the final of the 400m hurdles in Tokyo but there is a very realistic chance of the relay team picking up a medal on the track. The 25 year-old is expected to feature in what has been described as a very strong 4x400m relay team. This is definitely an event to look out for in terms of Derbyshire medal interest.
Sarah Vasey (Derby) – Swimming
The 24 year-old swimmer from Derby will be competing in the 100m breaststroke event as well as the 4x100m medley relay event. Vasey was part of Team GB’s extremely successful swimming team at the European Aquatics Championships earlier this year. Sarah was part of the 4x100m medley relay team which won the gold medal in Budapest.
In 2018, Vasey won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in the 50m breaststroke event. The medley relay event will be of huge interest regarding Derbyshire and will be one of the key races to watch throughout the whole of these Games.
Jacob Whittle (Alfreton, attends school in Chesterfield) – Swimming
Our last two Derbyshire athletes can also be found in the swimming pool. Whittle, who is from Alfreton and attends Tupton Hall School in Chesterfield, is just 16 years old and is the youngest athlete in Team GB’s swimming squad. Whittle will be involved in two events at the Games. Individually, he will compete in the 100m freestyle event but will also be involved in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay event.
This is arguably Team GB’s strongest swimming squad they have ever had and there are very high expectations for a successful Games in the swimming pool. Mark England, Team GB’s Chef de Mission for Tokyo 2020, has stated that “the quality of this team is exceptionally high”. While an individual medal might be too tough a task to achieve at this stage of Whittle’s career, there is absolutely every chance that Whittle’s relay team will be fighting for a gold.
Abbie Wood (Buxton) – Swimming
And last but not least, we have Abbie Wood who is from Buxton. Abbie is 22 and has had an outstanding 2021. She won two gold medals and a silver in the recent European Aquatics Championships in Budapest and is in the best form of her career. She’ll be competing in three events at the Games: the 200m breaststroke, the 200m individual medley and as part of the 4x100m freestyle relay team.
Wood is certainly capable of reaching the final in both individual events and having an outside chance of a medal, but (similarly to Whittle) she has a genuine chance of winning a gold medal in her relay event.
It must be noted here how instrumental a role Derbyshire Institute of Sport has played in the progression of so many of the above athletes discussed. Based in Derby, the centre has helped train the following athletes at earlier stages of their careers: Liam Pitchford, Abbie Wood, Sarah Vasey, Jacob Whittle, Molly Renshaw, Jess Turner, Jess Piasecki, Ben Connor and Charlie Tanfield. All of these athletes couldn't have reached the stage they're at now without the help and support of Derbyshire Institute of Support in the past.
All in all, there is a real chance of medals for Derbyshire at the Tokyo Olympics and this is a sign of great progress in sport within the county since 2016. It will be fascinating to see what happens once the action finally gets under way.
At the time of writing, news has just broken that six athletes and two staff members from Team GB have been identified as close contacts of an individual not from Team GB’s delegation, who has tested positive for Coronavirus following an inbound flight to Tokyo on July 15. Whilst each unnamed member of Team GB involved here have tested negative for Covid-19 themselves, they still need to now self-isolate. It’s a stark reminder as to the fragile nature of these Games where dreams could be shattered in an instant.
Here’s hoping that none of the athletes competing, from every nation, have to pull out of the Games due to Covid-19 before they’ve even started competing.
All that’s left to say is that everyone at Derbyshire Media Company wishes all our Derbyshire athletes the best of luck in their quest for gold!