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Denise Lewis on why winning Olympic gold is all down to her mum
The Olympic champion talks to Lisa Salmon about a new TV documentary showing how much she learned from her single mum Joan’s struggles to raise her.
Denise Lewis is in no doubt about where she picked up the all-consuming drive and determination that led to her becoming an Olympic champion. From her hard-grafting, tenacious mum.
From a Jamaican immigrant family, Joan Lewis became a single mum to Denise at the tender age of 17. The quiet young mum was no athlete, but it was her unrelenting determination to create a good life for herself and her daughter, as she struggled to make ends meet by doing two jobs, that rubbed off on young Denise and eventually helped her win heptathlon gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
“I’ve tried to impart with her, as I’ve got older, that she should be incredibly proud of herself and how she’s nurtured an only child,” says Denise, who can remember hearing her mum’s quiet cries when she was a young child. “I used to hear my mum sob every now and again, crying – I imagine that was because some days she was really struggling to make ends meet,” she says.
“That drive, when you’re from a migrant family, that sense of pride that the Caribbean imparts to the next generation to work hard. I think that work ethic from my mum really did land with me, and I respected her greatly for her endeavours.”
Denise’s success didn’t start and end with her own sporting achievements, as after retiring from athletics in 2005, she became a well-respected TV presenter, is president of Commonwealth Games England, and has been awarded an OBE, an MBE, and, last month, a damehood.
Her mum went with her to receive the honour from the Princess Royal at Windsor Castle, and simply said afterwards that she was an “extremely proud mother”.
Denise, 50, has now appeared with Joan in the My5 documentary series Me And My Mum, to show the wider world how much she owes to Joan. “I’ve always wanted to tell some of my mum’s story – I’m incredibly proud of her,” says Denise. “She’s struggled, she’s battled, she’s produced an Olympic champion.”
But despite the heartfelt praise, Denise suspects her mum still doesn’t really grasp how important her role was in her daughter’s stellar achievements. “Knowing my mum, she probably just thinks ‘Oh gosh, I could have done better’,” she reflects. “But I think it’s a testament to her discipline and graft that I just stuck out what I was doing, and that was my passion. I had the tools to be able to keep staying with it – I wanted more for myself, thanks to her.”
Joan, who lives in Wolverhampton, where Denise grew up, had two jobs for many years when she was bringing Denise up, and was a care worker looking after the elderly, and supporting children with special needs and learning difficulties. “She’s a real giver,” says Denise proudly, “spending most of her life giving not only to me, but to wider society.”
Joan is also a grandmother to Denise’s four children – Lauryn, 21, Ryan, 17, Kane, 14, and Troy, aged four. Lauryn lives in Belgium, where her father – the Belgian sprinter Patrick Stevens – is from, but the others live at home with Denise and their father, Denise’s husband Steve O’Connor.
Denise’s eldest sons have watched the Me And My Mum documentary, and she says: “They applauded at the end – they’re incredibly proud of their grandma. And when he gets older, little Troy can learn a bit more about his grandma too.
“It shines a light on just how difficult it was if you’re someone from overseas in that era of the 1970s, bringing up a child if you didn’t have much money, and the struggles and the pride they took in trying to work hard. That’s what came out of it for me, that parents really did graft and try and instil discipline in their children.”
Fortunately Joan, 68, has now retired from her hard graft, and has even taken up golf – a sport that Denise now enjoys too. “Golf is one of her hobbies, which I’m absolutely made up about,” says a smiling Denise. “It gives me so much pleasure knowing she’s found this time in her life where she can do whatever she wants. As a working mum, you don’t always find the time just to sit back and think ‘This is for me’. This is what I always wanted for her.
“She was able to travel the world and get really up close and personal in my athletics journey, but other than that, she’s just a grafter, working, working and working really hard, so to see her with a pastime, a hobby, is wonderful.
Although Denise does play golf herself when she can, she’s incredibly busy looking after her kids and with her TV work. “I guess it’s a different type of busy to my time in athletics,” she reflects. “The busyness of the life of an athlete becomes a lifestyle. It’s very insular, you’re very much focused on your own drive and your own ambition.
“People say it’s quite selfish, and yes, it has to be, because it’s all about maximising a very short window of opportunity, training twice a day, in my case, five days a week. It was tough, and there wasn’t much room for anything else.
“But now it’s about the kids, their school, mobilising them, nurturing them and trying to work in and around that. So it’s a different type of busy, but it does require that I’m not always at the forefront of my mornings – it literally is about have I sorted everyone else out, have I got them up and running? Then I can start thinking about what I need to do.
Does she think her children are as proud of her as she is of her mum?
“I really hope so,” she says. “My kids were with me not during the ceremony but when I got my damehood, and my latest honorary degree. I think they’re getting a sense of pride, understanding that mum’s not just telling them to pick their stuff up off the floor, tidy their bedroom and do homework, and that outside in the wider community she’s done some good.”