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Women’s Week: Suffolk’s This Girl Can ambassadors reveal how sport transformed their lives

PUBLISHED: 09:00 15 January 2018

Ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can'campaign outside Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can'campaign outside Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

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The mayor of Ipswich has told how running competitively gave her the confidence to enter politics.

Adele Chaplin, one of the ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN Adele Chaplin, one of the ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Sarah Barber, 45, is one of 68 This Girl Can ambassadors across Suffolk, whose role it is to inspire females across the county to get active.

Borough councillor Mrs Barber has endometriosis, a painful gynaecological condition, which left her severely ill during her 30s.

“I was really quite unwell so several operations following that I thought ‘I’m going to get fit’,” said Mrs Barber, who is also a nurse at Ipswich Hospital.

“Following my last surgery I went from only being able to walk 100 metres to running for five minutes to before I became mayor I ran three marathons.

Ipswich Mayor, Sarah Barber, is an ambassador for the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN Ipswich Mayor, Sarah Barber, is an ambassador for the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

“So I know the impact of exercise, making you physically and mentally feel better, and it’s not about running marathons for everyone, it’s about doing what you feel good doing.

“That’s why I was really proud to be able to get involved in this because being able to run and being able to finish a race gave me the confidence to become a councillor because I could achieve something.”

This Girl Can is a national campaign that aims to celebrate active females, and help others overcome the fear of judgement that stops many women and girls exercising.

Suffolk Sport is leading the project locally and around six months ago started recruiting female ambassadors across the county to act as fitness role models.

Alexandra Oliver, one of the ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN Alexandra Oliver, one of the ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Zoe Verow, from Ipswich, is one of them.

The 28-year-old plays National League volleyball in Division One for Essex and she said this had helped improve her mental health.

“It’s such a team sport, you have to rely on each other and you build up such strong friendships with the people on your team and I just get such enjoyment and fulfilment from it,” Miss Verow said.

“Being able to compete at a high level has been such a turning point in my life. It made me realise I can do anything if I put my mind to it.”

Carla Wiggins, one of the ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN Carla Wiggins, one of the ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Fellow ambassador Alexandra Oliver, from Ipswich, writes a blog called This Working Mummy Runs, showing it’s possible to juggle family life with employment and exercise.

The 29-year-old, who has two sons aged six and three and works full-time in shipping at Felixstowe, struggled with bulimia in school and she said running helped her stay both physically and mentally strong.

She added: “It’s surprising how much running can be quite freeing. You have so much time to reorganise your thoughts and get rid of anything negative and focus on your run, and it helped me lose weight.”

Adele Chaplin, from Ipswich, is the welfare officer for Ipswich Judo Club and one of her motivations for getting involved in This Girl Can was to redress the sport’s gender imbalance.

Vic French, one of the ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN Vic French, one of the ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

The 41-year-old, who has a seven-year-old son, is also a member of Felixstowe Road Runners.

When asked what she gets out of sport, Mrs Chaplin said: “I have made lots of new friends, it helps mentally, it clears your head and I just like it.

“I hated sport as a child but now I really like it. I’m not the fastest, I’m possibly the slowest, but I don’t care. I’m still going quicker than the person sitting on the sofa.”

Joanne Brooke, from Ipswich, didn’t start regularly exercising until she was 45.

Lea Denley from Suffolk Sport.  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN Lea Denley from Suffolk Sport. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

“I was so unfit, I always felt tired, I had put on a lot of weight and I just didn’t feel great about myself,” said Mrs Brooke, now 47.

“I started swimming then running and it made such a big difference for me physically and mentally and I wanted to spread the message and show people no matter what your age you can always begin exercising.”

Carla Wiggins said she started running 10 years ago and it had given her enough confidence to start her own graphic design business, called By Twig.

The 37-year-old, from Kesgrave, is currently preparing for her 13th marathon.

Sarah Hainsworth, one of the ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN Sarah Hainsworth, one of the ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

She said: “I have made so many friends through running, it’s such a social thing. It clears your head and de-stresses you after a long day and it helps me be creative, thinking through ideas, which is good for my business.”

Ipswich’s Vic French, 45, and Sarah Hainsworth, 26, both became ambassadors to support the work they do with inactive teenage girls.

Miss Hainsworth said concern around body image was one of the largest barriers to young women taking part in sport.

Female participation in sport is increasing in Suffolk.

Joanne Brooke, one of the ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN Joanne Brooke, one of the ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

In 2013/14, 29.1% of women and girls in the county were active for at least 30 minutes once a week.

This rose to 31.7% in 2014/2015 and 32.4% in 2015/2016.

Those behind the This Girl Can campaign locally hope to up this in further.

Lea Denley, who leads the project at Suffolk Sport, said: “This Girl Can is a celebration of all the active females in the UK, breaking down barriers to being active and it’s all about how us females shouldn’t care how we look, how sweaty we are.

Zoe Verow, one of the ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN Zoe Verow, one of the ambassadors of the 'This Girl Can' campaign. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

“We are used to seeing perfect images of females and we are all perfect in our own ways and it’s about recognising that we do sweat when we do sport and we do get a red face, and that’s OK.”

Miss Denley, 21 and from Framlingham, said negative experiences of physical education at school and a dislike of transitional sports like netball cause many girls to stop exercising.

Follow the campaign on Facebook @ThisGirlCanSuffolk, Twitter @TGCSuffolk and Instagram @thisgirlcansuffolk

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