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Olympic superfan Beth Dobbin becomes a headline act on the Tokyo track

·8-min read
Britain's Beth Dobbin once collected Olympic crockery - now she's looking for a medal (Picture: Reuters)
Britain's Beth Dobbin once collected Olympic crockery - now she's looking for a medal (Picture: Reuters)

By Rachel Steinberg

Beth Dobbin still hides the ‘embarrassing’ collection at her parents’ house.

She started it in the summer of 2012, two years after five strapping young lads named Niall, Liam, Harry, Louis, and Zayn appeared on the X Factor, finishing third as a newly-formed pop group that would soon line Simon Cowell’s coffers for a lifetime.

Like most teens, Doncaster-born Dobbin latched on to certain obsessions. Gripped by the fever sweeping the nation, she made it her mission to acquire every piece of memorabilia available.

But it was not One Direction wares she wanted. Dobbin was on the hunt for Olympic crockery.

“By the time London 2012 Games came around I was obsessed with the Olympics,” said Dobbin, who has benefitted from the National Lottery funding over 1,000 elite athletes on UK Sport’s World Class Programme, allowing them to train full time, have access to the world’s best coaches and benefit from pioneering technology, science, and medical support.

“I bought loads of cups and bowls that all said ‘London 2012’ on them. My family were laughing at me the other day because I even bought egg cups. I still use the egg cups.

“I was eighteen and I was moving to uni, so I needed all this stuff. Then I took them to uni and felt really embarrassed.

“Because I was like, ‘this is so sad. I’m obsessed with the Olympics.’

“So, I brought them back. Now my mum and dad have got them.”

Dobbin’s Olympic journey, the way she describes it, reminds the listener of Almost Famous.

In the semi-autobiographical Cameron Crowe film, a teenage music superfan and budding critic somehow persuades his way onto the tour bus of a bona-fide rock-and-roll band.

Patrick Fugit plays protagonist William Miller with a perennial expression of wide-eyed, how-did-I-get-here wonder as he walks amongst his idols and learns how the other half lives.

It is the same sort of look Dobbin wears these days, ever since she sealed a late Tokyo 2020 qualification at the British championships in June and attended Team GB’s kitting out day.

“It feels real now,” she gushed in a kid-in-a-candy-shop staccato. “It feels like such a big deal now. I have got a personal shopper! I do not think I have ever had one of those before.

“It’s mad. They close the doors for you. You are not even closing your own doors. I have never experienced anything like this, so it is phenomenal. It is wicked.

“Putting the kit on makes you feel like ‘I want it to be tomorrow.’ I cannot even wait. The kit is so nice. I kept filming and sending it off to all my friends and family doing stupid poses and deciding what to wear. It is so comfy!

“It just feels so special. It has got ‘Great Britain’ smacked across it and you just think wow, that is me. I am representing my country on the biggest stage. It’s completely different to anything I will ever do or have done in the past.”

If Dobbin is the athletics version of the film’s stunned cub reporter, her teammate, British Vogue cover girl Dina Asher-Smith, is ‘I am a golden god’ rock star Russell Hammond. Dobbin lacks the celebrity of her prolific medal-scooping Tokyo 2020 200m and 4x100m relay compatriot, but her remarkable rise to the start line will make a lifelong fan out of anyone.

John Blackshaw remembers Dobbin as the self-doubting girl who came to train with him at Doncaster Athletic Club.

“She was just a raw youngster, the same as they all are at that age,” he recalled.

“A little bit nervous, a bit ‘am I good enough’ sort of thing, but I’ll tell you what – I never had any doubt.

“She was one of the easiest young adults I’ve ever had to train.

“Beth always had the determination to do what she wanted to do. If I turned around and said I was training at six o’clock on a Sunday morning, Beth would have been there.”

The promising young sprinter also needed to navigate a unique challenge. Dobbin was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was 14 and remembers frequently weeping in the doctor’s office.

“I had regular appointments with my neurologist, and I always used to cry in them, said Dobbin, who said the National Lottery support of GB’s athletes had been vital throughout her career.

Thanks to National Lottery players, Olympic and Paralympic sport in the UK has been transformed over the past two decades, helping Britain become one of the best nations in the world.

“And he used to say, ‘why are you crying? Why are you crying? And I could not get into words because I was crying.

“It just felt so emotional, so I think it is a real psychological battle, not just physical.”

The medication’s side effects also had a direct impact on Dobbin’s performance, leaving her feeling “really tired, really lethargic, [I] just didn’t feel like myself at all.

“I was on medication for pretty much all my teenage life. My athletic performance was really hindered, and it just wasn’t good at all.”

Blackshaw, however, mostly remembered Dobbin’s dogged determination.

He said: “As she got older and she had to deal with her epilepsy, we cut back the training when she knew she wasn’t in a good spot and on nights where she was, we added a little bit more. She was quite happy to go through that process.”

Finally, after years without a seizure, Dobbin was offered the opportunity to come off her medication.

By then, Dobbin was a denizen of Powerbase, the Loughborough University gym where she worked and trained.

She would be up at six or seven AM to start her day at the reception desk, or the “ever so glamorous mini security box” where she would press the button to let people in and out. It started as a student job, but she still picks up shifts from time to time.

The flexibility - and proximity to gym equipment - allowed Dobbin to work eight-hour shifts, following them up with four-hour workouts.

In 2018, she saw world champion British hurdler Dai Greene speak about his own journey with epilepsy and realised anything was possible.

“That helped me massively,” she recalled. “Because I was thinking, well, if he’s world champion and he’s got the same thing I’ve got, then there’s nothing that can stop me from achieving my goals.”

Blackshaw always reinforced the value of self-improvement through personal bests—something he recalls Dobbin immediately took on board.

But Dobbin achieved more than a PB in 2018. Instead, she obliterated Sandra Whittaker’s 34-year-old Scottish 200m record, then bested herself three more times. She became British 200m champion that year too, earning her first GB vest at the European championships. A place at worlds followed the next year.

Beth Dobbin reacts after wining the women's 200m final at the 2018 British Championships and setting a new championship record (Picture: Reuters)
Beth Dobbin reacts after wining the women's 200m final at the 2018 British Championships and setting a new championship record (Picture: Reuters)

One day, she arrived at work to find her picture blown up across an entire wall, and gymgoers started doing double-takes at the woman pressing the button in the security box.

But just as things were finally looking up, whispers of a new virus reached British shores.

Dobbin is completely candid about how the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics felt, calling it “traumatic…it probably sounds really dramatic, and there’s worse things in the world.

“But when your sport is your world, it literally got ripped in two.”

Only one thing, she said, could piece her together again: standing on that start line in Tokyo, completing the magnificently improbable transformation from Olympic superfan to star frontwoman—no longer almost famous, but decidedly so.

She said: “It’s a dream come true, really. It does not happen to many people. Loads of people try, there’s loads of athletes out there who would love to be an Olympian. I think my mum would love to be an Olympian, but it does not mean it is going to happen!

“You just work so hard at it, and you make so many sacrifices, and it’s all just about things aligning at the right time and getting lucky and getting that opportunity.

“It is something that no one can ever take away from you.”

Neither is a near-complete set of Olympic crockery, but a new medal collection is looking more tempting these days.

No one does more to support our Olympic and Paralympic athletes than National Lottery players, who raise around £36 million each week for good causes. Discover the positive impact playing the National Lottery has on sport at www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk and get involved by using the hashtags: #TNLAthletes #MakeAmazingHappen

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