After years of injury and illness, British discus thrower Jade Lally started her season with an English record that puts her in the top five of the world rankings. We find out how a trip Down Under led to a long-overdue breakthrough.
George Harrison once sang about “doing it right” taking “patience and time”. Great Britain’s Jade Lally has needed more than most in her journey to the top echelon of women’s discus throwing.
Performing for many years on the margins of major international competition, south London-born Lally finally emerged from the shadows following a 10,000-mile journey to train with Australia’s 2009 world discus champion Dani Samuels.
It’s a long way from the estate in Mitcham that Lally grew up on. Hers was far from privileged upbringing, but she refused to be sucked into a life of recreational drugs and petty crime.
“I saw some trouble on the streets, but I knew I didn’t want to be a part of that,” she explains. “I didn’t like what I saw around me, so I did something about it. That has always been a driving force for me and I don’t understand people who moan about their situation and do nothing to change it.”
She channelled her energy into sport and, being tall for her age, she was encouraged to try high jump. Her athletics odyssey only started in earnest after her best friend asked her to try the discus.
“I’d never heard of the discus before, but I remember going down to my local club at Hercules Wimbledon and I beat everyone in the group,” she recalls.
London-born Lally's first major sucess came when she won bronze at the 2009 European U23 Championships
Lally, 29, linked up with her current coach Andy Neal not long after, some 14 years ago, but she was no age-group superstar. She placed sixth one year at the English Schools’ Championships. Only her “stubborn” streak and a strong work ethic kept her from losing heart in the face of her relative lack of early success. She persisted, and in 2009 secured bronze at the European U23 Championships in Lithuania with a lifetime best 54.44m. The following year she improved to 58.38m and ended her season less than a metre from the medal podium at the Commonwealth Games.
“The whole experience was amazing,” she recalls of New Delhi 2010. “India made a clean sweep of the medal podium. I remember thinking that because the Indians enjoyed so much support from the home crowd, that the London Olympics two years later would be unforgettable.”
Lally made a vow to compete at her home Olympics, only for events on and off the field to dash her dreams. In the discus circle, Lally twice exceeded the B standard of 59.50m and finished within the top two at the British national champs. This made her eligible to fulfil her dream, but the selectors overlooked the Londoner after a drop-off in form (only achieving the A standard and finishing top two at trials guaranteed selection).
Devastated, she launched an appeal that proved unsuccessful. Her “horrible” 2012 was to turn worse later that year when she was rushed to hospital for emergency surgery to remove kidney stones. The following year, despite achieving a pair of B standard marks, Lally was again overlooked for the 2013 Moscow World Championships. In typical fashion she refused to let the decision railroad her ambitions.
“I still felt I had unfinished business,” says Lally, who now lives in Horsham, West Sussex, where she works as a part-time personal fitness trainer.
The 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow presented another opportunity, but once more it was beset by trouble. On the day of her qualification, she started to feel unwell with back pain. Lally made do with pain killers, and on finals day hit a season’s best 60.48m to win bronze: a “big step” forward.
“It meant a lot to me personally to win something on the senior stage,” says Lally, who these days competes for the Shaftesbury Barnet club.
After first sharing the podium, Lally (right) and Samuels (centre) shared contact deets and have hooked up for training Down Under
It was in Glasgow that Lally met Samuels for the first time – an athlete she is not embarrassed to call “a hero”. She chatted to the Australian and arranged some time to train with the Commonwealth champ in Sydney early in 2015. Yet before embarking on her Antipodean adventure Lally suffered a further medical blow. The pain she had felt in her back was revealed once more to be kidney stones. “Lots of stones had to be removed, with one, known as a partial stag horn, measured at 5cm,” explains Lally.
Following the successful operation she headed to Australia to meet with Samuels. Lally revelled in the fresh environment. She learned about flexibility, massage and biomechanics, but more importantly discovered Samuels was not some alien being.
“When you don’t know someone and they are your hero, you believe they are going to be super-strong, super-fast and a super-athlete. And while Dani is all of those things, I’m a lot nearer to her than I thought,” Lally says. “It made me believe I wasn’t a million miles away.”
She returned to the UK full of optimism. However that was quickly blunted after tests revealed a benign tumour in her chest was causing excessive calcium build-up, itself causing the persistent kidney stones. Further surgery last May removed the tumour, only for an oblique injury to scupper her plan to compete at the Beijing World Championships.
Thankfully since last August Lally has enjoyed a period of uninterrupted training and implemented some of what she learned from Samuels and her coach, Denis Knowles. Then earlier this year she returned to Australia – and briefly New Zealand – for a second time where she produced her major, “life changing” throws.
Choosing to compete as well as train during her seven-week stint in Oceania, the 28-year-old has made huge improvements. First, at the Auckland Track Challenge in New Zealand, she made a 3 metre advance on her PB, notching an English record 64.22m (in that one competition she produced the three longest throws of her career). Just 48 hours later she threw 65.10m – making her the fifth best thrower of the year at the time of publication – to defeat Samuels at the New South Wales Championships in Sydney. The repeat proved it was no fluke.
“I’d done a couple of 62m throws, which had been my best ever in training, but I did not expect 64m in Auckland, then 65m in Sydney,” explains a slightly stunned Lally. “For some reason it all came together.”
Is there a reason behind the huge improvement?
“I think it is a combination of things,” she says. “It has been the build-up of getting gradually stronger over the last four or five years. I’m faster [in the circle] and I’ve been training in the right environment again back in Sydney. My gym work has been going well as have my other KPIs.”
Her recent form has brought Meg Ritchie’s 33-year-old British record 67.48m into her sights. While her performance level is such, Lally hopes to be invited to overseas Diamond League meets, with Shanghai her “fantasy”. But her primary goal is Rio, to get there and to perform to the best of her ability on the Olympic platform. “I hope to start throwing more consistently and the aim is to reach that final,” she says. “The next goal would be to medal.”
With years of strife finally ending with an upturn in fortunes, it would take a steely heart to deny her the opportunity.