Golden girl Sharron still a winner

One week South Africa, the next Ipswich. Life's a whirl for former swimming golden girl Sharron Davies.

One week South Africa, the next Ipswich. Life's a whirl for former swimming golden girl Sharron Davies. STEVEN RUSSELL found her in the gym - happy to discuss childhood obesity, the joys of sport and glamour shots

HERE'S what separates Olympians from mere mortals. While most of us share a leisurely start to Saturday with a coffee and the newspapers, Sharron Davies is at full revs.

She's chatting while on the step machine in her gym - a converted stable block at the family's home in the Cotswolds ­- and manages to do both without getting out of breath. Oh, and she's keeping half an eye on the TV. It's playing a recording of a “cold case” detective show - Law & Order, it looks like. Sharron and husband Tony planned to watch it last night, but sleep got the better of them.

After years of rising at 5am to tackle six hours of training, six days a week, her fitness regime these days is designed simply to keep things ticking over nicely, she says. Hmmh. After 45 minutes of steps comes a quarter of an hour on the bike and a few sit-ups. A little bit of work with the weights rounds off the morning session.

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Thoughts will then turn to tomorrow's flight to South Africa. Sharron is taking advantage of her husband's schedule - he's a British Airways pilot - to snatch a few days with him in sunnier climes. She's looking forward to the treat: although swimming and then media work have taken her to locations from Moscow to Melbourne and Montreal, South Africa is a new place to explore. Her children, meanwhile, are off to stay with their dad for a while: the former athlete Derek Redmond.

Is life normally this busy?

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“It is pretty hectic most of the time,” admits the 43-year-old, “but that's the way I like it.” She also takes in her stride the enforced absence from Tony. “I am not the kind of person to need someone with me 24/7, and neither is he. That way, it's nice when you meet up after two or three days apart.”

Since retiring for the second time from competitive swimming in 1994, she's built a successful career as a BBC commentator and motivational speaker. Having an efficient personal assistant is the secret to being a working mum, Sharron reckons.

Folk in Ipswich have a chance later this month to hear her thoughts when the Commonwealth Games gold medallist is guest of honour at the second Team Ipswich business lunch. It's a bit of a favour for “an old mate”, fellow swimmer Karen Pickering, a local ambassador for sport. The lunch will raise money for young sporting hopefuls from the Ipswich area.

It's a subject close to her heart, for Sharron believes sport is one of the keys to a healthy society. She thinks we should be doing more to encourage people, especially children, to get active.

Hosting the 2012 Olympics is obviously a golden opportunity to raise the profile of athletics as never before. But Sharron thinks we're missing a trick or two by not building the sporting infrastructure quickly enough.

“Some of the facilities won't be build until 2011,” she points out. “Yes, they will prove a great legacy, but we need them now!”

She'd also like to see the Government putting more money into sports facilities that would benefit both elite athletes and the general public, including 50m pools.

“By their very nature, pools like that are not going to make money, so the Government has to subsidise them. But the money it spends now would be recouped later by having to spend less on the NHS” - the theory being the exercise leads to healthier bodies that require less medical attention.

Ah, yes. The issue of obesity issue - which Sharron recognises is going to increasingly become a problem for society. Just a few days ago new research showed the number of obese children aged 11 to 15 had almost doubled in a decade.

The western world's fast-food culture often shares the blame with our couch potato mentality.

“My honest belief is that it is not so much a food issue as an exercise issue,” says Sharron. “When we were kids, we would walk to school, kick a football about, and ride our bikes outside. Parents worry about their children going out after school now. Unfortunately, this can do more harm than good.”

We ought to declare a slight interest here on her behalf. Sharron's fronted a mums' panel for McDonald's, managing to get snacks such as carrot sticks on the menu, alongside the burgers and fries.

Living healthily all boils down to maintaining a balanced diet, with your five portions of fruit and veg each day, and taking enough exercise. “It's a simple enough equation: calories in and calories out.”

Sharron's not beyond taking her children to McDonald's perhaps once a fortnight, “but not every day”. As a parent, you have to use your common sense.

Basic facilities for the public are the first rung of the ladder “and help broaden the pyramid”. The more people participate in sport, the greater the chances of finding a gem or two.

It's hardly rocket science, she laughs. “Success usually graduates to where there are the facilities - like the swimmers at Loughborough, where they can combine their education with use of the pool.”

Obesity and general well-being aside, there are other life lessons that sport gives us.

“I think that challenge is part of life. The attitude we had in the 1980s and '90s, that sport was all about participation and not about winning, is sadly not true when applied to life. The challenge if you don't get that job you're going for is to pick yourself up and start again.

“Sport teaches us that life is a pretty competitive place and that you have to dust yourself down if you fall and get back up on your horse.”

That 2012 Olympics staging is oh so important. It will leave us with inspiring facilities and, if British athletes do well, a powerful feelgood factor to harness.

“Success is incredibly contagious. Unfortunately, in this country 95% of the money and enthusiasm goes into football. Look at the money that can be earned by players in England. It's astonishing, especially compared to athletics.”

Sharron's own sport, swimming, dwells among the poor relations. In her heyday, four or five meetings would be on TV - along with the major championships.

“I do think it's a chicken-and-egg thing,” she says. “To change it, we do need success and we probably need people who are slightly different.” A swimming version of David Beckham, perhaps.

What about the thorny question of lottery money for athletes? It might benefit them in the short term - paying for winter training in sunny climes and top coaching input - but might it feather-bed them in the longer term?

Some athletes can be a little bit complacent, she recognises - taking the edge off the hunger that often helps turn a very good performer into a winner on the international stage.

“I wouldn't like to see any of them starve, of course, but there needs to be a balance. I would like to see more money going into facilities for the general public as well as the elite athletes. That way, parents would not have to be forking out a lot of money for club fees.”

Her son Elliott is now 12, and Grace is seven. Sharron was 11 when she competed in her first international meeting. Is it now odd, as a mum, to look at her children and remember what she was doing at that age - her life already dominated by sporting dreams.

“It's scary. I was competing from the age of nine or 10, and it was consuming my life when I was his age.

“What we have learned since is that a swimmer is at his or her best at the age of 26, not 16. The danger then was that you got to the age of about 10, you'd been training six days a week, six hours a day, and you get a bit fed up. I was like that. I needed to learn more about life - to go skiing, or to learn to play an instrument. And let me tell you: it's easier to start skiing when you're young than it is in your 30s!”

Both children appear to have inherited their parents' sporting genes; young Grace is keen on running and Elliott is displaying some talent as a rugby player.

However, Sharron has deliberately set out to give her youngsters a more rounded childhood than she had, with a wider variety of experiences.

As well as her obligations as a wife and mother, Sharron devotes time to charitable causes. She's the new face of Breast Cancer Campaign's annual Swimming4Giving event, for instance.

While she's waiting to see what the BBC is planning for future swimming coverage there are the motivational talks. (A booking costs between £4,000 and £7,000, according to the City Speakers International agency.) The angle is frequently about how teamwork is critical to success. “There's quite a neat fit between sport and business.”

The first part of the workout is nearly over. A final question concerns the gallery of photographs on her web site. I'm no prude but confess to being a bit . . . what? . . . surprised?

After 45 minutes of essential research I can confirm there's an awful lot of lingerie, underwear and chains, high heels, long bare legs and black gloves. There's even a black whip in one.

The former Olympian is comfortable with what she does, and has a ready explanation.

“I have never done topless shots. I have never done naked shots. You have got to remember that with girls in particular there is a big drop-off rate at 13, 14, 15, because they see sport as uncool and not very feminine.

“Perhaps those images will help deter them, by showing that you can be strong-willed and also feminine.”

She doesn't duck an issue - and insists she wouldn't when she comes to Ipswich later this month.

“I'm an honest person and will answer any questions. What you see is what you get . . .”

(The Team Ipswich business lunch is in the Corn Exchange on May 16. A table for eight costs £320. To check on availability, call Adam Baker on 01473 433505.)

Golden Girl Sharron

Sharron Davies was born in Plymouth in November, 1962

She was the youngest member of the 1976 British Olympic team in Montreal - at just 13

Sharron broke or re-broke more than 200 British swimming records

She won two Commonwealth gold medals at the age of 15

The 1980 Moscow Olympics brought a silver medal in the 400 metres individual medley

Winner Petra Schneider was later exposed as one of the drugs cheats created by the East German sporting system

At the age of 18, Sharron quit swimming and began developing a media career - starting with an appearance on TV's Give Us A Clue, with Lionel Blair and Una Stubbs!

She returned to the international arena eight years later, winning Commonwealth silver and bronze medals

In 1993 Sharron became an MBE

She was Amazon in ITV's Gladiators show

Her BBC reports from the 2004 Athens Olympics caused controversy because viewers could see her nipples underneath her top. Sharron denied cameramen were told to shoot her from the neck up - and was bemused by all the fuss

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