'I reckon my speed hit 8.8 metre per second which is a pretty good stat for a forward'
June 1 is a special day for Heather Fisher, the rugby Olympian who is limbering up for what she hopes will be her latest Games appearance later this summer for Team GB in Tokyo. The rugby 7s star, who initially made her name with England XVs while also spending 18 months as a British junior bobsleigh competitor, is now a poster girl in the search to find more than 13,000 volunteers for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.
That is a celebration of sport close to her heart as a local Brummie fully clued into the power of activity and how it can change lives. It changed her own. Struggling to fit in at a myriad of schools, she developed severe anorexia in her mid-teens only for sport to eventually pull her back from the edge.
Not that this passion hasn’t been without its issues. Her short-lived dabble in bobsleigh didn’t lead to the Olympics in Vancouver. Instead, rugby lured her back and the stress of the 2010 World Cup coincided with the emergence of her alopecia. But she continued to doggedly fight the good fight, becoming a 2014 World Cup winner and a 2016 Olympian, and while athletes are supposed to wither the older they get, the soon-to-be 37-year-old is inspiringly raging against the dying of the light.
“I had a PB in my speed last year,” enthused Fisher to RugbyPass from the Birmingham Moseley club where the Team GB player was hosting a surprise training session for young players to coincide with the launch of the volunteer recruitment programme (click here to see the video). “Before Covid, I’d a PB in my speed so I actually don’t think my tank is empty. I reckon my speed hit an 8.8 metre per second which is a pretty good stat for a forward.”
Does she still have that gas? “I know I wouldn’t be selected in a team for Tokyo or for England if I wasn’t at my best. It’s not enough just having experience these days if I am honest. I reckon I have hit my peak and I’m probably still there and I’m holding on because I want to get to Tokyo. I could easily have retired last year but I chose to continue for one more year.”
The wait is over. Applications for volunteering are now open!
— Birmingham 2022 (@birminghamcg22) June 1, 2021
There is still much pandemic speculation about the status of the Tokyo Games and whether it will definitely go ahead. Fisher tries to steer clear of all the ifs, buts and maybes surrounding Team GB, yet getting to this stage where the rugby 7s is now just eight weeks away has been an ordeal. “I steer clear of the whole thing,” she said of the on-off speculation. “Every time someone asks me a question I don’t really engage in it because you can get so frustrated. As an athlete, I have got one job and that is to be fit.
“I’m so impatient, I reckon most athletes are. It’s very tough. Everyone has got their journey, everyone has got their story of what has happened through the Covid situation but for athletes, it’s so difficult because we have had to keep on training because you just don’t know what is going to happen.
“Mentally you try and push it but physically you can’t push as far because you haven’t got the physios and everyone to pick up the pieces. When you were in lockdown you couldn’t really push that far because your body couldn’t go without picking up the pieces.
“That has been a challenge and I have doubted myself a few times and everyone has. Everyone has picked up niggles. I picked up a niggle recently with my ankle ligaments in the last five weeks. We have issues but the finish line is nearing.”
After all these years, how adept is she now at coping with the stress involved? “I’m probably much better at it but the closer you get to a tournament where you know it is a one-off opportunity your stress levels rise. It’s still difficult but it is one of those that we learn to deal with better but we could all deal with things better and there is still stress there.
“There have been a lot of challenges in my career – from losing my hair to breaking my back, a broken thumb in the World Cup semi-final, missing out on world champs and stuff, overtraining, glandular fever… that is just a few to list off but the higher you go the lower you fall.
“When you take on the high, you have to understand that you can fall and for me, it has affected my health, I have had glandular fever two or three times and I have lost all my hair, it just shows you the stress that your body goes through to get to where you want to get to. But none of it defines me, it’s just a bump in the road.”
RugbyPass only had 15 minutes of interview time with Fisher over a pesky phone connection while she was at Moseley, but it was more than enough to appreciate how much of an inspiring open book the Team GB 7s player is. And yet, there are still parts of her invigorating story that won’t be unlocked until her playing days are past tense and she can finally take a well deserved breath.
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“I feel like I can talk about it but I feel like while I am in the sport, I can’t really talk about it,” she explained, conflicted. “There is only so much that you can do and say because at the end of the day you are still representing who you play for in Team GB and England, so it kind of makes it difficult but when you take on a role as an athlete you are bigger than yourself.
“It is all the people you are representing in your shirt behind the games, your family, your friends, every physio, doctors who put you back on the pitch. You are representing everyone so the sport is always bigger than yourself, the game is bigger than one person and it is all the community so from that view, when I feel like I can open up and talk about it I’m sure I will naturally but there are still things close to my heart that I feel I probably can’t talk about.
“People keep saying, ‘Oh, when are you retiring, what are you looking to do next?’ As an athlete, you are always looking for the next medal, the next thing. There is a lot to be said about being present and being solely present in what you do now because that enables you to look after your own head.
“I have been fortunate enough to have an amazing career in two different sports. It hasn’t come easy and it has been a tough journey but at the same time that is the challenging part which is also the most amazing part because you push so high. I don’t think anything compares to putting an England or a Team GB shirt on. Transitioning out in the next few years will always be difficult.
— GB Rugby Sevens (@GBRugbySevens) May 30, 2021
“From the age of 13, my aim was to be an Olympian. I have never not had sport but just for me to have the confidence to be myself, stay true to who I am, it has given me my identity but that is really hard because when you retire it’s where does your identity sit? It’s really hard to transfer out from who you are on stage versus who you are in human life. That is a really difficult one.”
First capped by England at XVs level in 2009 after switching back to the sport from bobsleigh, Fisher describes the transformation in women’s rugby as night and day in terms of the resources now at their disposal but the intensity of the professionalism has brought has alternatively sapped some of the original fun that existed way back when.
“We didn’t exactly bring our own sandwiches but you may as well,” he said. “But when you are paid to do something and it’s your job you have to withhold a certain amount of yourself and it is very different. When I started out it wasn’t my job, it was only my part-time job. We had a bit more laughs and you could mess around a bit more.
“You always knew it wasn’t about the money, it wasn’t about what contract you were going to get signed up or what possibility you had, you were doing it for the love of the game and the love of playing for each other and that produced a camaraderie which helped on the pitch but it didn’t always mean you played the best. But playing for each other and knowing you always had a job to go back to and then come back into rugby, you loved it so much that you wanted to be there… but now a lot is expected.”
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Over the past decade, Fisher has been easily identifiable as the girl with no hair. You do wonder if this lazy stereotyping has ever taken away from the calibre of her play getting the full credit it deserves? “It’s a very good point. People judge you for how well you play on the pitch and I make it that but away from that it has always been about the lack of hair which is difficult but I have to understand as well that I have to learn to deal with it.
“Part of me is that I have no hair and it’s just part of who I am but it hasn’t been difficult. I don’t think it has masked any performances. If anything I stand out because everyone is blonde and dark and I’ve got nothing. So it’s not like anyone can’t see me when they are commentating, that is for sure. It’s been a difficult challenge in itself that rugby has helped me deal with. It doesn’t define who I am but at the same time it has allowed me to deal with it as all, the fact that it is what it is.”
- Heather Fisher was speaking at the launch of the volunteering applications for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. Apply now to volunteer and become part of the Commonwealth Collective at: https://www.birmingham2022.com/
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