Bringing up a world champion
13 March 2014
What’s it like to bring up a world champion? John & Carol Armitstead are the parents of Lizzie – Olympic Silver Medallist, National Road Race Champion, Team Pursuit World Champion, and now a pro rider on the Boels-Dolmans team.
We asked John & Carol about Lizzie’s early years of sport, and how they helped her develop from a primary school all-rounder to become a world-class pro cyclist.
If you’re the parent of a youth rider who wants to be the next Lizzie Armitstead, read the wisdom within the comments below.
John & Carol: I should say so! Even from a very young age she was noticeably very single-minded. Not in an unpleasant way, but always did what she thought was right for her. She was a very good pupil at primary school because she wanted to excel.
Was Lizzie always a very active child? Did you ever think that she might make a career in sport when she grew up?
John & Carol: Yes she was very active. She mastered the full length of the monkey bars down at the local park at the age of six, and was very happy to show off her skills whilst other parents looked on with great concern for her safety! Sports days and cross-country races were another chance to show-off her all round ability. As for a career in sport? No, we probably didn’t consider it as there were, and still are, only limited opportunities for girls to make a career from sport.
What kind of training did Lizzie do when she was a young runner and a junior triathlete, before she became a cyclist?
John & Carol: We took Lizzie twice a week to the local running club where they did speed sessions and probably a three mile run each time. She also did swimming at the local swimming club and took part in gala races. She played rugby on Saturday mornings with the boys and was a pretty fast winger, scoring tries on the few occasions she was given the ball. She also joined us in adult races at our running club and did a full 10k race at thirteen years old, finishing well up the field – it probably wouldn’t be allowed now! She also trained with City of Leeds athletics club and competed in 800m races with them. I know it sounds as though we were pushy sport-mad parents, but there was never an obligation to do things – she just wanted to do everything that was available.
Before Lizzie was talent-spotted at 15, had you thought that she would go to University? What kind of job and career did you think she might have?
John & Carol: Yes – I guess like most of her contemporaries we assumed she would go to University – it has saved us a fortune that she didn’t, although she says we still owe her for that! Once she had joined the British Cycling Olympic Development Programme she clearly wasn’t going to contemplate anything other than a successful cycling career. She couldn’t wait to finish her A levels and go full-time.
How much commitment did you need to make after Lizzie was talent-spotted, when she started training to be an elite cyclist?
John & Carol: Well, we had to accept that this was what she was going to do. She did need support and encouragement at times.
How much travelling did you do to support Lizzie’s training and racing, and how much of your own time did you devote to her cycling?
John & Carol: Quite a lot of miles, especially across the M62 to Manchester velodrome. I also remember an 8 hour round-trip to deepest Norfolk to pick up her first team bike, and journeys to British Cycling training camps in Wales. We never considered travelling to races a chore – it was something we enjoyed doing. I also went out on training rides with her. I remember one particularly tough hill ride where she threw down her bike in tears and declared “cycling’s rubbish, and I’m terrible at cycling!”. She seems to have got over that now! But supporting her cycling has also given us great opportunities to travel to Holland, Belgium, Poland, Denmark, and Italy last year for the World Champs.
How did you feel when Lizzie decided to become a full-time cyclist? Were you ever worried whether she would be able to make a career from it?
John & Carol: Never really worried about it, just glad that she was doing something challenging and fulfilling. You can always go to University later in life. There are lots of people with degrees and secure jobs but not many can have the privilege of riding in GB colours.
Has Lizzie’s success as a top sportswoman had any effect on other members of the family?
John & Carol: Yes, we are all very proud of her achievements. The Olympics was a fantastic experience and we’re looking forward to going to Rio in 2016. Lizzie’s brother Nick is now a keen cyclist and he races regularly. We all have a keen interest in a sport that we would probably not have given much thought to. We have been very lucky.
What advice would you give to parents of today’s talented youth riders?
John & Carol: Give them every encouragement but prepare them for some disappointment, if in reality they are not going to make it. Not getting to the top grade shouldn’t stop them enjoying the sport or competing at whatever level they reach – they will still benefit enormously from participating.