From the grassroots to global greatness

Laura Weightman and Lucy Bronze. Picture by Jane Coltman
Laura Weightman and Lucy Bronze. Picture by Jane Coltman

Pictured together more than a decade ago, a triumphant Laura Weightman and Lucy Bronze hold medals aloft after helping an Alnwick school relay team to road-race victory.

Even at an early age, the pair harboured ambitions of making it big in the world of sport.

Bronze, then at Lindisfarne Middle School, was a promising footballer, while Weightman, at the Duchess’s Community High School, was showing her potential as a runner.

Fast forward to 2017, and the talented Northumberland duo are very much at the top of their game.

And how fitting that they would once again be in the spotlight together; Lucy at the recent Euro 2017 competition and Laura at the ongoing World Athletics Championships in London.

Talented Bronze helped England reach the semi-final of the tournament, before The Lionesses crashed out to hosts and eventual winners, Holland, last Thursday.

The 25-year-old was subsequently named in the team of the tournament; a glowing endorsement of her ability and performances on the big stage.

And 26-year-old Weightman – having come through a heat and semi-final – finished sixth in a high-class women’s 1500m final on Monday evening.

The fact that these talented women from Northumberland are among the best in the world in their chosen sports is inspirational and outstanding.

And it’s amazing to think that their sporting stories started together, here in Northumberland.

World-class performances from two of county’s finest

The eyes of the world have been on two Northumberland sporting stars over the last week, and they both did themselves proud on the big stage.

On Monday night, middle-distance runner Laura Weightman, from Lesbury, came sixth in a high-class women’s 1500m final at the World Championships, in London.

Meanwhile, footballer Lucy Bronze, from Alnwick, was one of England’s stand-out players as The Lionesses reached the semi-final of Euro 2017, before losing to tournament hosts and eventual winners, The Netherlands, last Thursday evening.

For Weightman, her strong showing at the Worlds showed that she can match it with the best in the business – in a 1500m final that was dubbed one of the highest calibre of all time.

The 26-year-old’s fine performance inside the London Stadium also finally broke her World Championships hoodoo, having suffered early exits in her previous two attempts; plagued by injury at Moscow 2013 and forced to pull out of the semi-final in Beijing 2015 after suffering concussion in her opening race.

Then, there was a message of defiance to British Athletics, which cruelly cut her funding towards the end of last year, months after she finished 11th in the Olympic final in Brazil.

An encouraging display in London, then, was a much-needed tonic for Weightman and it has given her the belief that she still has a future at this level. In fact, the Commonwealth Games silver medallist ran so well in the final – finishing in 4:04.11 – that she admitted afterwards that, in the context of the race, she was disappointed not to have snuck into the medal positions.

Reflecting on the race – won by Olympic champion Faith Kipyegon in 4:02.59 – Weightman, a Morpeth Harrier, said: “I am delighted with sixth, but I’m also still a bit disappointed.

“I just wanted to prove I can mix it with the world’s best. But to finish sixth, I think it’s given me huge relief, to think I can be quicker and be more competitive in these races.”

Weightman made the final after a gutsy semi-final run on Saturday, following her heat on Friday – the opening night of the Championships.

Even before she opened her account in the capital last week, Weightman had fond memories of the London Stadium – the place where she made her Olympic debut in 2012 and finishing 11th in the final (although she has since been promoted after numerous athletes in that race have been disqualified after failing drugs tests).

And the reception she received at the World Championships – especially in the final –did not disappoint. She said: “It was one of the best experiences of my life. The roar of the crowd and stadium atmosphere was incredible.”

Then there’s Lucy Bronze. Admittedly her Euro 2017 ended in disappointment, with last week’s 3-0 semi-final defeat to The Netherlands, but there were positives on a personal level. Following on from her headline-grabbing exploits at the World Cup in 2015, Bronze once again proved that she is one of the best players in the world.

The attacking full-back picked up two player-of-the-match awards during the tournament. Her brilliant all-round performance in the quarter-final victory over France won her many plaudits, including from former England striker Michael Owen, who described her as ‘world class’.

Following the Euros, the Manchester City star, 25, was selected in the Team of the Tournament, along with England colleagues Steph Houghton and Jodie Taylor.

Reflecting on the competition, Bronze said that it was great to be recognised as one of the Euros’ best players, but felt a mixture of emotions following England’s loss to The Netherlands, including anger, hurt, pride and honour.

She said she was proud of her team-mates and congratulated The Netherlands.

Semi-final defeat was like ‘a stab in the heart’

A disappointed Lucy Bronze admitted that England’s Euro 2017 semi-final defeat last Thursday evening was like ‘a stab in the heart’.

And she also criticised the referee for some of the decisions during The Lionesses 3-0 loss to hosts Holland in the last-four of the competition.

This included the official’s decision to not award England a penalty in the second-half when Bronze went down in the box after a tackle by Sherida Spitse.

Bronze, 25, said: “I didn’t think I could be any more determined after what happened at the World Cup [when England also lost in the semi-finals] but with what has happened and what we have been through at this tournament, I am. It was a stab in the heart – tournaments don’t come around too often and I’m not getting any younger.”

Then there was that incident with 17 minutes to go, and the score at 2-0, when referee Stéphanie Frappart waved away England’s appeal for a penalty after Bronze was felled.

It came after England’s Ellen White was denied a first-half spot-kick, after she went down from what appeared to be a blatant shove from behind. Bronze believes these decisions contributed to England’s defeat.

She said: “The crowd played a huge part and a lot of decisions went against us at key points – crucial, game-changing decisions.

“If we had got one of the penalties it would have silenced the crowd and given us a chance of equalising at the end. I’ve watched them back and I can’t see how at least one wasn’t given.

“On my one, I even said to the referee: ‘If you think I went down too early, the girl was steaming in, I’ve got to protect myself, so if you think I’ve dived give me a yellow card.’ There was no yellow card, she didn’t make a decision. It’s either a penalty or a yellow card. In my eyes, something wasn’t right there.”

Bronze also felt Holland were ‘good at breaking things up and knowing the ref wasn’t seeing it, so continuously doing it’.

It epitomised a disappointing night for Bronze and her England colleagues.

And perhaps one of the biggest frustrations was that England felt Euro 2017 was there to be won, having beaten France in the quarter-final and with Germany suffering an early exit. But Bronze believes England can bounce back.

She said: “The team is in a good place. We’ll be fighting fit, ready for the next tournament. We’ve got a good core of players who will still be around and we’ve got some good young players coming through. I think we’re all more determined than ever to get to the World Cup final (in 2019).

“We did everything we could, but unfortunately some things are taken out of your hands.”

As it was, The Netherlands went on to win Euro 2017, beating Denmark in Sunday’s final.

Sixth-place finish is bitter-sweet for Laura

Such has been the standard of her performances at this year’s World Championships in London, Laura Weightman could do little but feel bittersweet after finishing sixth in the 1500m final – her highest ever global finish.

Weightman had labelled her semi-final race the best of her career to date, a confidence booster like no other as she prepared for her first-ever final at World Championship level.

Coming into the medal showdown, she felt in the form of her life, determined to continue impressing on the home stage.

That she did, her final time of 4:04.11 quicker than her effort in the semi-final, but it was ultimately not enough as Faith Kipyegon took gold with Jennifer Simpson and Caster Semenya joining her on the podium.

Weightman’s British teammate Laura Muir finished agonisingly close to the medals, just 0.07 seconds shy of bronze.

And while this race may play on the mind of Weightman for some time to come, she promises it’s only the start of things to come.

“It was a bit of a murky race, I thought it might have gone a bit quicker than that,” said the 26-year-old.

“I felt like I was there the whole way, I got myself in a little bit of a bad position when everyone came around me with a lap and a bit to go.

“A bit of pushing and shoving got me through, and I’m really pleased to have finished so strongly, but I’m disappointed that I was only sixth.

“It was a great race though, and it’s my highest global finish, so I’m really happy.

“I felt incredible coming into the race. I’m in the best shape of my life and I think that has shown at these championships how well I’ve been racing. It’s a bit of a bittersweet moment finishing sixth.”

Her coach, Steve Cram, who was commentating on the race for the BBC, described her run as superb.

Disappointed as she may be following the final, there is no doubt that the future is bright for Weightman.

That’s a view she shares herself, and she’s only too confident she can continue to compete with the very best on the planet.

“Next step for me is to run faster. Being as competitive with those girls as I was, I think it’s given me the belief that I can move forwards and I can be competitive with the best girls in the world,” she said.

“I can run at championships, and I think if I can get under four this season, then I’m doing pretty well.”

You can help the next generation of young British athletes by getting involved in SportsAid Week this September with London 2012 hero Greg Rutherford MBE. Find out more about how you can support the week of fun and fund-raising by visiting www.sportsaid.org.uk/sportsaidweek