telegraph– Ican remember the first time my worth as a female and an athlete was questioned: I was six years old and it was my first school sports day. We were competing in teams and our teacher asked us to partner up with a classmate. Enter the golden boy, Dustin Fuller, the best athlete in our class. All the boys hoped Dustin would pick them. The class waited with bated breath to see who he would choose. Imagine the shock when Dustin walked over to my desk and asked if I would be his partner.
As my classmates jeered, I stared at the ground, embarrassed. But Dustin calmly explained that he wanted to win, so he chose the fastest person in the class – me. Sport has had a huge impact on my life ever since. I’m not talking about my medals or my athletics; I’m talking about the way sport has transformed how I see myself, what became possible in a body that doesn’t quite “measure up”.
At the age of 15 I was run over by a boat, and my right foot had to be amputated. It was a devastating blow for someone who loved sport and who dreamt of being an international rugby superstar. In the aftermath of the accident I struggled with my identity, and I struggled with how I looked.
But being able to excel at sport changed everything. I went from someone who would do anything to hide my artificial leg, to someone who ordered a new leg in hot pink precisely so that it would stand out even more. Sport reminded me the most important thing is what your body can do, not what it looks like.
First, though, you’ve got to get on the playing field. For women and girls that can be immensely challenging because – from as early as primary school – sport considers men and boys as the default. As a consequence, women and girls can feel their bodies and abilities don’t quite measure up.
The consequences range from disappointing to dangerous. Sport is an incredible tool for personal development and well-being and no one should miss out because of their gender. Sport also tells us who is valued; who is welcome in the sports arena; who matters; and who matters a little less.
On the playing field, women learn the opposite of what society teaches them. Here, looks count for nothing (admittedly, this is still not true in the sport sponsorship arena, but we’ll save that for another day). What matters is mental and physical strength, perseverance, teamwork, strategy, ability to deliver under pressure. These skills set us up for success in life and we cannot afford to miss out on half of the world’s potential.
Female athletes are constantly reminded that they are only guests in the sporting world, and the world of sports science is one of the worst offenders. Between 2011 and 2013, women accounted for just three per cent of participants in sport science studies. It is possible that much of what we know in the fields of physiology, nutrition, psychology, and strength and conditioning may not actually apply to women. Women are trained as though they are men – but a woman will always make a second-rate man if she is having to be something she is not.
There are serious consequences to this approach. In my early years as an athlete, I thought it was quite normal not to have a regular period. In fact, I would use it as a marker that my training was going really well. It meant I was leaner, had more testosterone and was more like the ideal male athlete.
Female athletes across several sports have spoken out about similar thought patterns and a striving to be as lean as possible. Theoretically, it makes sense, especially for athletes involved in power events where a higher power-to-weight ratio means a better performance. But this does not take into account female physiology that requires a certain amount of fat cells to maintain a normal cycle, and that maintaining a menstrual cycle is important if you want improvement and sustained performance.
The consequences for female athletes who have spent long periods in energy-deficient states and without a menstrual cycle are scary, and the honesty with which athletes have spoken out is exactly the alarm bell that was needed.
To be clear, I am fairly certain sport scientists do not have an agenda against women and there is a good reason why they prefer male athletes for research: menstrual cycles can often make data difficult to interpret. I have sympathy for scientists who are under a lot of pressure to produce statistically significant results. But if you want to understand something more, you dive in. You do not avoid it.
The good news is that not only are sport science practitioners hungry for this data, but new technology is making it possible. In August, the English Institute of Sport announced the development of Hormonix – an easy, rapid and accurate test for hormone levels that uses saliva. The more we understand female physiology, the more we can use it to our advantage. What if your coach was able to periodise your training alongside your period? What sort of power-and-strength gains can women achieve by making the most of variable hormone environments?
Thankfully, progress is happening. This year I was invited for a performance bra fitting ahead of the (now postponed) Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. I had never previously considered breasts in terms of performance. Men don’t have them, so they aren’t really on the agenda. I signed up immediately.
The fitting did not happen, because of lockdown, but Dr Emma Ross kindly took on my questions. She explained that if I were to run a marathon, the version of me wearing her performance sports bra versus me wearing a regular sports bra would finish a mile ahead. Yes, you read that correctly. That is roughly a four per cent improvement. Properly supported breasts impact stride length and centre of mass, all while allowing the lungs and rib cage to move and expand unrestricted. This is hugely exciting in a competitive landscape that idolises marginal gains. But I am equally excited for my best friend in university, who decided to quit her intramural football team because her breasts and back hurt too much when she ran.
These developments are desperately needed in a sporting world that continues to treat women as second-class citizens. Such as this summer when Canterbury launched their Ireland rugby jerseys using international male players for the men’s jersey, and professional models for the women’s; as though elite women rugby players simply don’t exist. Canterbury did apologise, but it highlighted the fact that we celebrate men for performance and women for looking good.
There is so much to learn and so much to look forward to in women’s sport. I’m thankful for the sports scientists who are taking on uncharted territory. I’m thankful for the women who are speaking out and challenging the status quo. I am thankful for men such as Dustin Fuller, who, from the very beginning, were prepared to use their influence to champion performance, regardless of gender. Most of all, I am excited for more women to learn about the awesome, untapped potential of their bodies. This is the new horizon of women’s sport