Ever since she electrified London 2012 under her maiden name Trott, Laura Kenny has been British track cycling’s insuperable force
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“I was sick of feeling like things were hurting all the time,” says Laura Kenny, a stark admission by an icon of the velodrome who, until January 2020, had not suffered a single major accident. “There was a good week in which I thought, ‘I just don’t know why I’m doing this.’”
For seven days after last year’s world championships, she was seriously contemplating quitting the sport. A rider celebrated for her resilience, the only British female Olympian ever to win four gold medals, Kenny had become a diagram of physical and psychological distress.
She had broken her shoulder in Canada, then her arm in Germany. Finally, just to reinforce the Calamity Jane misfortune, she fell off and hit the track with such force during her bid for a world omnium title that she required four stitches in her face.
Asked if her infant son Albie, then two, was aware of these accumulating war wounds, she laughs bleakly. “Oh yeah, mainly because I had a black eye. You should have seen his face when I walked in. He was almost frightened, because he had never seen me hurt. He ran at me, and he really hurt my shoulder. You try not to be upset in front of your children. I tried so hard not to cry. That was the first time he understood, ‘This is different. Mummy and Daddy can be hurt, too.’”
Ever since she electrified London 2012 under her maiden name, Trott, Kenny has been British track cycling’s insuperable force, building such a habit of peaking for the Olympics that she has never finished with a medal other than gold. But as she sets out on Monday on her most audacious Olympic campaign yet, establishing herself as the first female endurance rider to tackle three events at the same Games, she knows better than to believe she is unbreakable.
“I kept saying to people, ‘My arm’s not right, I think it’s broken,’” Kenny reflects. “But I kept being told, ‘No, it’s like a bursa, you just need to get it drained.’ But I knew that something wasn’t right. All of a sudden, I couldn’t even plait my hair, something I had been able to do since I was eight.
Laura Kenny sporting a black eye after falling and hitting the track with a huge force
“It was a difficult time, because I had never been injured for that length of time. I just thought, ‘This is bad.’ It started with my shoulder, and it didn’t end until we went into lockdown. I noticed it with silly things: we bought Albie a trampoline and I couldn’t go on it, due to the pain in my arm. I just couldn’t get it to go away. I had never experienced that in my career.”
For the next seven days in Izu, a city two hours south-west of Tokyo, the exploits of the British contingent will be dominated by the Laura-and-Jason show. Together, the Kennys, the pre-eminent couple of the banked-oval track, have amassed more gold medals in the past 13 years than India, a nation of 1.3 billion, has mustered in the history of the Olympic Games.
This week, Laura stands to eclipse Charlotte Dujardin as Britain’s most prolific female medal-winner at the Games, while Jason can put distance between himself and Sir Chris Hoy as the most decorated of all.
Not that you will ever hear the two of them succumb to conceit. Their relationship, which developed during London’s summer of love nine years ago, exhibits many shared traits. While Laura understates her own racing achievements with a breezy Essex charm, Jason is described by his father as “just an ordinary Bolton lad”. Laura is at pains to stress here that, for all her pedigree and popularity, she never envisaged herself as an Olympic idol.
“I was part of this funny little thing that they did as part of the London Olympic bid,” she says. “It was 2004, and they were featuring 20 12-year-olds to look out for. I was one of them. I was only 12, and I remember, thinking, ‘I don’t know why I’m here. There’s not a chance I’m going to London.’”
Such self-effacement is a theme. For this year’s International Women’s Day, Kenny found herself heralded as an inspiration to all young girls. It was an acknowledgment, in part, of the struggles she endured as a child, after being born four weeks premature with a collapsed lung, later developing asthma. Only she has never viewed her life in these terms.
“It is not until someone’s reading the stats out that I think about what I’ve achieved,” she says. “It just seems so far away from me. I just ride a bike. I don’t see myself as a role model. I mean, it’s nice to be recognised for that. I love the fact that people come up to me and say, ‘My daughter has started to ride because of you’, or, ‘She wants to wear her hair like yours.’ But it’s not something I actually think about.”
As for any intra-household medal rivalry, she is content, for now, to be in Jason’s contrails. “If he goes on to win more, he absolutely blows the thing out of the water. Everyone says to me, ‘Oh, you could be Britain’s greatest ever Olympian.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Right, yeah – except my husband’s still competing. One slight issue there.’”
Laura and Jason Kenny have won more gold medals between them than India has in its entire Olympics history
Where Kenny would like her feats to establish an example is as a mother. She had always been clear in her desire that she wanted to start a family as soon as possible, but nothing could have prepared her for how much the effects of pregnancy would dent her competitiveness on two wheels. “I was starting from scratch,” she explains. “When I first began exercising again, I didn’t know what standard my body could get to any longer.
“It was like training a new machine. There were times when I felt, ‘Wow, this is so much harder than anyone told me it was going to be.’ In January, five months after Albie was born, I went on a training camp with the girls. I felt so far off the pace. Being on a road bike was one thing, but trying to do efforts with them, I was nowhere.”
Piece by piece, Kenny solved the puzzle. It helped that she could call on the wisdom of Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill, who won a world heptathlon title in 2015, a mere 13 months after giving birth to her son, Reggie.
“I’ve been lucky to be able to speak to her. When she had Reggie, I didn’t know her. I was reading articles about events she had been at and thinking, ‘This is mad. Is she really going to go to the Olympics and get a medal?’ When she did, in 2016, it proved that it was physically possible.”
Alas, Tokyo’s draconian Covid restrictions militate against Albie being here in person to witness his parents’ quest for history. It is a source of regret to Kenny, who opens her team pursuit campaign on Monday, before switching to the madison and omnium.
Still, she draws consolation from the idea he might now appreciate what they put themselves through to reach this point. “It’s a shame Albie can’t travel, because I would have loved for him to see his mum and dad compete in the Olympics. I just want him to see what all the sacrifices are for.”
She is conflicted about whether she wants Albie to follow her into her profession. On the one hand, she has discovered over the past 18 months just how savage sport can be. On the other, she grasps how significant it has been in her transformation from shy schoolgirl to cyclist extraordinaire.
“When I was in school, I didn’t have a big group of friends,” she recalls. “If I had to do a drama lesson in front of people, I hated it, I couldn’t think of anything worse. But when I went down to the velodrome, I was this bubbly, outspoken 16-year-old, who wasn’t afraid to put her ideas forward.”
It is striking, as she embarks on this latest hunt for gold, to learn how Kenny was once afraid to stand out from the crowd. For if she succeeds in what she covets here at these Games, she could soon stand out from every British sportswoman who has gone before her.