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Interview: Team England chef de mission Sarah Winckless

Sports Mole speaks to Team England chef de mission Sarah Winckless as she prepares to lead the biggest ever squad to travel to a Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.

Team England will travel out to next month's Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast with a big squad of athletes and even bigger expectations on their shoulders.

Almost 400 athletes will participate under the English flag across the 18 sports and seven para-disciplines represented at the 2018 Games - the largest English team to have ever travelled abroad for a major tournament.

Team England set the bar high for themselves in Glasgow four years ago when they came back with a record 174 medals, including 58 golds to top the medal table at the Commonwealths for the first time since 1986.

More of the same may be expected on the Gold Coast, and the woman in charge of it all is chef de mission Sarah Winckless - a former world champion rower and bronze medallist at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

Ahead of her trip out to the pre-Games training camp in Brisbane, Sports Mole spoke to Sarah about the team's preparation, a medal target and how she has taken inspiration from Team GB's success at the Winter Olympics and Winter Paralympics.

Team England Chef de Mission Sarah Winckless pictured prior to the 2018 Commonwealth Games

We're less than three weeks away from the start of the Games now - how is the preparation going?

"It's going well, thank you. I can't complain at all. We've got a fantastic team that is just building day by day, really. We've got a few announcements left, but the majority of our team are now selected and the first half of our team are now travelling out to Australia.

"We're flying out to a pre-game training camp in Brisbane, we believe it's a great opportunity for our athletes to use the fantastic facilities that the Gold Coast and Brisbane offer, but also to acclimatise to conditions and get over their jet lag and to come together as Team England to do their final preparation."

How important is it to have that training camp when the Games are so far away from home?

"It's interesting - in Melbourne in 2002 Team England provided a prep camp and we saw in Belo Horizonte two years ago Team GB did help their team prepare for Rio, so there are certain occasions where you would need a bit more time.

"Jet lag can take - for every hour you shift you need a day to properly recover for performance - so we know that it will take our athletes up to 10 days to be at their best form. A preparation camp is a really good environment for them to do that and they can't necessarily be in the village 10 days before, and they wouldn't necessarily want to be either - they'd want to be in a more England-centric, quiet environment."

Is it the biggest ever Team England team you're taking over to Australia?

"It's certainly the largest team that will have travelled underneath this flag that's ever been assembled. We're likely to have 393 athletes on the team, which is a huge delegation.

"Equal number of medals, male and female, that are going to be on the sports programme and obviously as we march out in the opening ceremony it's going to be very exciting. We're going to be hoping to hear our victory anthem Jerusalem on a number of occasions in the next 11 days."

With the biggest ever team, does that equate to the biggest ever medal target we've had?

"Luckily we believe our athletes put a huge amount of pressure on themselves so we don't set them medal targets. Clearly we'll be celebrating performances from the athletes, whether it'll be their personal bests or medal-winning performances."

It's a big ask to match the 174 Team England won in Glasgow - do you think it's realistic to expect a similar tally?

"I'm sure in Glasgow we had a very good neighbour advantage, the crowds were fantastic and supporting all the home nations. I really don't want to put those expectations on the athletes at this stage by guessing what the medals might be."

Who do you feel will be the biggest stars to come out of these Games for Team England?

"The biggest stars to come we don't yet know - we've obviously got established stars that we're celebrating to have in. The Brownlees are competing together, we've got Adam Peaty on our team, in our para events we've got Jade Jones who's competing in both the triathlon - the first time it's been in the programme - and the athletics.

"We've got some huge names already. The new stars you'll have to wait and see - they're going to step up, they're going to love the field of play and the Australian sporting fans and do their best, and we don't know yet who they are."

You mentioned Adam Peaty there - he is one of many Team England medal hopes who got their first taste of international success in Glasgow four years ago. Are there any dark horses you are tipping to catapult themselves into the limelight this time around?

"I think you're going to have to watch over the next couple of weeks I'm afraid. We've got some really exciting young athletes but again let them do the talking on the field of play rather than me putting pressure on them at this stage."

Rowing was your sport, but that isn't an event in the Commonwealths so how have you been able to pass on your past experience to help the athletes?

"As a young athlete my dream was to go to the Commonwealth Games. I actually threw far enough in the discus to go in my late teens, early 20s, but I wasn't quite selected for the 1994 Commonwealth Games. However just a few years later in '99 I was preparing for my first Olympic Games in the very site that we're using for both our prep camp and for competition.

"For me, there's an element of 'What did I need as an athlete? What do the athletes need and how do you best perform?' I was lucky enough to go to three multi-sports competitions as an athlete and then I've been involved in three or four more as chair of the athletes commission for the BOA, sporting stakeholders in Rio and two Chef de Mission roles.

"So hopefully I've got a bit of experience there that I can pass on. But this is the athletes' own journey and also the team leaders' - it really is our job to make sure that they have the conditions to be at their best and if we do our job well they won't notice we've done anything because everything will work smoothly. That's what we're working towards - to quietly help them to prepare."

Do you use Britain's success at the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Pyeongchang as inspiration?

"I think it's incredible. Every morning, when you wake up to medals, it gives you a buzz as sportsmen and women. We're incredibly proud and for me, it makes me incredibly excited.

"I know for anyone who's preparing for these Commonwealth Games, they'll turn on their telly and I'm sure there's a moment where they think 'I want that to be me'. That's amazing positive emotion and it makes clear what we'd love to see - we'd love to see England athletes having their best performances and winning medals, of course we would."

How important is this experience for those who have got one eye on the Olympics in Tokyo?

"For me, as you said Adam Peaty had his first step with this, Greg Rutherford also talked about the Commonwealth Games, Jessica Ennis-Hill... we're talking about athletes who are lucky enough to have their sports be Olympic sports as well as Commonwealth sports and they can use this as a first step on the ladder.

"A multi-sports environment, the field of play is pretty much the same, but everything else that goes around it can feel very different. Having the experience of that is key in any athlete's preparation, or team leader's.

"I talk about you can't prepare for what you can't imagine. It's very hard to imagine a dining hall the size of four football pitches, it's very hard to imagine multi-sports living if you've never experienced it. They will be experiencing it, so they'll come away from it, they'll learn and they'll grow from this experience."

How important is it just to get the experience of travelling so far East too, considering the Olympics will be in Japan?

"Yeah, that's a great spot - the body does train and accommodate getting used to [that]. We've worked really hard to give our team leaders the best intel and the most up-to-date thinking about how to best prepare for a flight like that.

"It's going to be a bit shorter for Tokyo - but absolutely, the athletes will have to get on the plane in their best state, work in that environment to get the best rest that they can. It's not easy - we've all been on flights which aren't the easiest resting environments - and then understand how best to recover quickly. We've supported them and our team leaders with that information. I'm learning myself."

Looking even further ahead than Tokyo, Birmingham has been chosen to host the 2022 Games. I know your focus is only on these Games, but how much has that raised the excitement for these Games?

"As an athlete I remember the Manchester Games, when I was a track and field athlete. The opportunity to perform in front of a home crowd - we've had 2012, the home Olympics, and what we now know about the English and British sporting fans, they are fantastic. They get behind our Olympic and Commonwealth athletes like no other.

"Also the volunteer programmes around our Games are really, really extraordinary. It is my job only for 2018, so I'm very lucky to be able to have that thinking and focus. When I heard that Birmingham had got 2022, there's always that pang as an athlete - to compete in front of a home crowd is a wonderful opportunity and another generation of homemade athletes are going to get that - it's just amazing."

You mentioned earlier that there will be an equal of number of medal events for men and women at these Games...

"It's the first time it's happened. It's about time. It's great that GOLDOC have looked at their medal programme and really made sure that there are equal numbers."

The Commonwealths are also unique in that the para-athletes compete alongside the able-bodied athletes - how important is this competition in terms of equality?

"For me, I've been speaking to some of our athletes as they've come through kitting out and to have that opportunity - it's a rare opportunity to compete under the Olympic flag and at an integrated event, it's seen as a very positive one from everyone I've spoken to.

"For me as the Chef, it's absolutely understanding the whole diversity of our team across the 18 sports and the 7 para-disciplines and best understanding what we need to put in place. It adds a great dimension to it, is my belief."

These Games also provide the chance to compete as Team England rather than Team GB - how does that differ?

"Well the English team's bigger than GB actually! Just by a small amount. For me as I said it's a rare opportunity for our athletes to come together and to compete for England, so I know they're looking forward to it."

That rivalry with the Scots and Welsh must add a bit of extra spice, though...

"We've seen it in the rugby in recent weeks and we've seen how absolutely it feels like it can shift on a pin. Those sporting rivalries, whichever ones there are at the Commonwealth Games, are going to be very special.

"Also what I think will be really good is that in our preparations we four Chefs have been supporting each other - we've done our UK Anti Doping scenarios planning together, so while absolutely there's a rivalry amongst the home nations we're also aware that we're travelling halfway across the world and we need to best support our athletes."

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Gold medallist Greg Rutherford of England poses on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Men’s Long Jump at Hampden Park during day seven of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games on July 30, 2014
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