EXCLUSIVE: UK hammer great Sophie Hitchon retires
She admits it has been a difficult decision, but UK hammer great Sophie Hitchon is adamant it is the right time to bow out of professional athletics.
And she goes out on a high, as a trailblazer, having won Team GB’s first Olympic medal - indeed, the UK's first medal on the global stage - in the sport in 92 years, in Rio in 2016.
Hitchon, 30 in July, has also dominated domestically, bowing out with the top 59 throws of all time by a GB athlete, from her British record of 74.54m, set winning bronze in Rio, down to 68.98m.
She was the winner of 12 national titles - seven senior, two U23 and three U20, and was World Junior champion in Moncton, Canada in 2010.
Throw in a Commonwealth Games bronze in 2014, fourth place finishes at the 2016 European Championships and 2015 World Championships, and she can look back on her career with great pride.
However, having pushed herself as hard as she could to get back to the highest possible level, after a couple of testing years, she has decided to call it a day.
She had been determined to reach a third Olympic Games, but 2019 saw teething problems following the switch to a twist heel turn technique, designed to create more linear force and hit bigger distances, before she was forced to have an emergency appendectomy.
Then followed the global pandemic, and Hitchon feels it is the right time to step away and begin a new chapter in her life.
And, in her only interview, she explains why: “It’s never easy to make the decision - the sport has been a part of my life for basically forever, so it was difficult.
“Me and my coach (Tore Gustafsson) sat down and talked about it, where we were at and where we wanted to go, and ultimately came to that decision that we feel is right for me.
“When you’ve been at that level, at the top of your sport...most people know I’ve had a difficult couple of years, I haven’t competed much, and, for me, it’s about performance, it’s not about being number one in the UK, I want to be at a level I’ve been at before.
“I just felt we were struggling to get there again, I had a few different issues we’d been dealing with, and when you’ve been at that level, I didn’t want to drop down and just be mediocre. It’s not my style.
“There are other things I want to do, I’m turning 30 this year, so there are other things in life I want to do and succeed at, so that was the ultimate reason.
“It’s one of those things, if I can’t do what I want to do, I’m not going to do it!"
She could have continued to add British titles to her name, but didn't want to compete if she couldn't challenge for the bigger titles in her sport: “There are different styles of athlete, but for me, I have never really done it for the love of the sport or the enjoyment.
"I do it because I was good at it, and was succeeding at it, and my enjoyment came from bettering myself, seeing how far I could go.
“That was my decision.
"A few girls in the UK are throwing well, and I haven’t competed over the last couple of years...it’s more to me than winning a UK title, I want to push myself to a level I’ve been at before, and I’m not that sort of athlete who is going to keep going and going until I can’t do it anymore.
“If that’s for someone else, great, but it’s just not for me.
“It’s not that I don’t feel I could do it, as an athlete you always have that mentality that you can push yourself, but you have to come to the realisation that what it takes to get there, I don’t feel that’s in me, and that is difficult to say, as an athlete.
“To be an elite athlete, you always believe you can better yourself, but there are other challenges I want to accomplish in my life.
“So it’s the end of a chapter.
“I broke the British record for the first time 10 years ago, and it’s been a long time.
“I’ve been pushing, and the last couple of years didn’t pan out the way I wanted it to, and obviously the pandemic has been difficult for everyone.
“I think I’m just not that type of athlete who is going to keep going, I’m going to close that chapter and go on to hopefully something else and succeed at that."
There were a few tears, but ultimately no regrets, as she goes out with a staggering list of achievements: “There were a couple of things with my body here and there, the pandemic and everything, a lot of things in the last couple of years...the change in technique was just us wanting to push further and see what we could do.
“I feel I can look back, and me and my coach did everything we possibly could.
“I look back and there are some mistakes I would change or do differently, but I know we did everything we could, explored everything to see how far I could go, and ultimately no one really knows other than me and Tore my coach - even my parents and my husband, they’re not there all the time - everything we’ve done, the struggles and stuff we’ve been doing.
“If we feel we’ve done everything we can, I don’t feel the need to go and explain myself or make people understand my decision."
When speaking to Sophie, it was apparent she had come to terms with the decision, and is happy it is the right one at the right time: “I think I’m level headed about it, because ultimately I do believe it’s the right decision for me, it’s not easy, it’s painful, but it’s sometimes difficult to give up the things that you know are not good for you!
“There have been times over the last year where it has been really difficult, I’m not going to say it’s an easy decision, it’s definitely not, but ultimately that’s why I feel okay about it, because it’s the best decision."
You don't have to look too far to see what her career highlight was - breaking her own British record to become the first British woman to win an Olympic hammer medal in Rio, and she smiled: “The Olympics is the pinnacle of the sport, a lot of athletes retire and never win an Olympic medal - that sometimes makes it a little easier because I did reach a level no one really expected.
“The World Junior Championships in 2010 was a big one, a big stepping stone into that elite arena, and coming fourth at the World Championships was a realisation for me that ‘I’m here’, possibly people didn’t ever think I would get there, to that level.
“In the UK, there’s no culture of hammer throwing, it’s just kind of me, especially starting out - we had no idea what we were doing, there was no one there that had been there before, we were just navigating what we thought was the best way through.
“I then got together with Tore for the last four or five years, he had a lot of experience, but still, no British hammer thrower had been where I was, so you’re kind of going in blindfolded.
“So to get to where I got, I’m really proud, and we can definitely look back and feel it was a success."
She admits, watching back those successes feels like an out of body experience: “It’s like one of those things...I sometimes watch it and it’s hard to get used to it, like ‘who is that person!’ Especially when things weren’t going well, you feel it’s never going to get better, it’s sometimes difficult to watch, and think ‘I did that’, but it gets easier with time, to understand the significance of Rio and how special it was.
“When we went into London in 2012, everyone was like ‘this is so special’, it’s rare to get a home Olympics, so that was definitely something I’ll take with me, and I over-succeeded in a way, I got to a level where no one really thought we were going to do.
“I made an Olympic final at 21, and I’ve moved up to 8th over the years. It’s crazy to look back at.
“Being able to compete in the World Cup at the stadium, and win a medal there (silver in the 2018 Athletics World Cup), there are lots of memories.
“That is one of my favourite stadiums obviously, I always find that a difficult question, because it’s the ones you do well at - the Bird’s Nest in Beijing is an incredible structure and atmosphere, Rio for me obviously, was a great time, but probably not the best stadium I’ve competed in.
“London was unbelievable, you don’t understand until you’re there, thinking ‘is this real?’, you’re stood in the middle of this huge arena, and so many people turned out to cheer us all on.
“To stand there and know everyone was behind you, it’s incredible to be a part of.
“I’m truly grateful for all the experiences I’ve had, that the sport has given me.
“I wouldn’t be where I am now, without it.
“I put it all down to taking up the hammer when I was like 16."
While there were no British hammer throwers to inspire Sophie as she got into the sport, there is a clutch of youngsters hoping to follow in her footsteps, including fellow Blackburn Harrier Charlotte Williams, 19, who is coached by Sophie's dad Michael.
And Sophie added: “There are quite a few Brits now in college in the US that have thrown 66m, so the level is definitely coming on now, hopefully they’ll keep pushing forwards, but there was no one really before who had done it.
“I haven’t had that (people saying 'you’re why I took up the hammer'), but I haven’t really put myself out there, I’ve been very focused on myself and my own performance, you never really take a step back to see if you’ve had an impact on anyone else. I would hope so, maybe!
“It’s still very difficult in terms of media coverage, the global hammer throwing community isn’t the most represented in the media, but you would hope there was a little bit of exposure from where we got to, and that somebody looked at it and thought ‘that’s ok!’
“I’ve been a question on a few gameshows, and I think they always get it wrong so that shows how much interest people have in it!
“I’ve seen The Chase, and I think there’s another...
“It’s a little odd, especially now with social media, someone will take a picture and send it to you...it’s a little strange!"
So what is next for Sophie?: “Currently I’m just going into everyday life, being in California it’s a little bit more difficult to take advantage of any media openings, BBC media kind of stuff, so we’ll see what the future holds.
“Me and my husband have a small vacation planned, we’ll let loose a bit - I’ve been basically blinkered for 10 years, performance, performance, performance - that’s my personality and style.
“So I haven’t been able to do the things normally you would get to do, go on vacation whenever you want, go away for the weekend - that was never a thing, training is all the time.
“Even your days off, you couldn’t do much, you were tired and wanted to recover for the next day.
“Now it’s like we can go on a hike or a walk, or go biking or whatever, stuff I’ve never been able to do, so that’s exciting.
“I’m going to take a little bit of time to get things sorted here, I have to transfer a lot of stuff, and then go from there.
“It’s a little daunting, but I’m looking forward to seeing what comes up and where I end up!"
And like when Sir Steve Redgrave said after winning his fourth Olympic gold: “If anyone sees me go near a boat, you've got my permission to shoot me!", will we see Sophie in the throwing circle again?: “For me, it’s not about recreation or having fun, throwing was professional, the pinnacle, about being the best I could...you might see me at a Northern League meeting doing the shot or the 100m, but will I ever do the hammer again? I very much doubt it!
“Maybe in 10 years, who knows, but I’m currently happy putting it to one side and saying that was me being a professional sportsperson.
“To come down and compete in the British circuit isn’t what I want to do, and if I’m back in the UK I might pick up a few events for Blackburn, but I doubt it will be the hammer!"