Alison Williamson on perfecting her concentration for London 2012 and making Olympic history

This news broke on Friday, July 15th, 2011 | For more breaking news visit our news page

Normally, the grounds of Lilleshall’s high performance centre in Shropshire are tranquil. It was to this remote location, where ornamental gardens lie within gazing distance of what once served as the Duke of Sutherland’s hunting lodge, that Sir Alf chose to bring his merry men as he prepared them to win the 1966 World Cup, anxious that they should not be within reach of any establishments likely to make them – even remotely – merry while in training.

So the news that some of the few neighbours this sporting enclave enjoys have been complaining about noise comes as a surprise. But complaints there have been – about shouting, cheering, jeering. In short, complaints about a raucous crowd.

Alison Williamson, five-times an Olympian in Britain’s colours, confesses: it’s the fault of herself and her fellow archers.

The reason why Lilleshall’s disgruntled neighbours are hearing a racket is that the racket in question was recorded at one of the British archers’ recent competitions – in this case, their World Cup match in Turkey – and is being replayed at top volume during team practice.

“We have had some complaints and requests to turn it down,” Williamson admits, with a rising giggle that seems at odds with the serious, concentrating persona on display during her competitions.

The idea, introduced last year by Archery GB’s new American head coach Lloyd Brown, is to enable the individuals involved to become immune to such distractions.

If they aren’t already.

Williamson, who will be 40 this year, has competed all over the world since the first of her Olympics at Barcelona in 1992, and experienced pretty much the whole range of atmospheres available.

But her concentration and fortitude were put to the test in Delhi last October when the level, and more particularly the timing, of the noise coming from an enthusiastic crowd quite inexperienced in the etiquette of archery spectating put a number of competitors off their normal game.

Most painfully for the England team, one of those competitors was 23-year-old Amy Oliver, whose score of six on her final effort, amid a cacophony of local anticipation, was a significant contributory factor which allowed the host nation to move past Williamson, Oliver and Naomi Folkard and claim gold by one point.

“In Delhi I think many of the crowd at the archery had probably never seen the sport before and some people were making a noise when archers were shooting, which is a bit like shouting when tennis players are serving,” Williamson recalls.

“The spectators were very enthusiastic, and the message was soon relayed to them to please respect the archers. By the time I was in the individual competition it was a lot better.

“I think we all learned a lot from Delhi – particularly the younger members of the team. But you can’t guarantee silence at an event. Maybe children will start to make a noise, or a baby will start to cry. You can never be sure.

“The Beijing Olympics, for instance. The crowds made a fair amount of noise there as I recall.”

And indeed, as the Lilleshall locals can vouchsafe, so did the Turkish World Cup watchers.

But at this stage in her career Williamson has had a chance to develop her own personal method of maintaining concentration in the face of distractions.

“For me, when I am competing, it’s as if I am going underwater,” she says. “The sound around me gets muffled and my other senses get heightened.”

With another infectious giggle, she recalls how she has spent many hours setting up her own domestic obstacles in order to become more single-minded.

“I will do things like trying to read while the TV is on in the background. That gets difficult when there is something good on – you really need to concentrate!

“Even when I am practising in my back garden I will have a radio on.”

Such repeated practice has helped Williamson establish herself as one of Britain’s all-time best performers in a career which has seen her claim individual world silver in 1999 and Olympic bronze in 2004, as well as a world team bronze in 2007 and – very nearly – an Olympic team bronze at the Beijing Games, where she and her two fellow shooters were beaten in the third and fourth place match by France. “That was really hard,” she recalls. “I wouldn’t want to be in that position again!”

Her challenge this week will be the World Championships in Turin, where she will be accompanied once again in the team event by Oliver and Folkard. Williamson has the advantage of having competed at the venue on many occasions.

“We are using it as a hurdle before London 2012,” she says. “We need to make sure that we are all working well together as a team. That is the main objective. But if we are all shooting well we have just as good a chance as anyone else of finishing on the podium.

“Sometimes in a team, if two people are shooting well it can lift the other person. You get to learn what works with your team mates, and how to motivate each other – you get to judge if you need to say something, or if you don’t. We’ve got a good understanding now.”

If she is to reserve her place at London 2012, Williamson, like all the GB archers, needs to perform to her best in the three trials events scheduled for next year, from which two archers will earn automatic selection in the three-strong team, with one other place being open to the selectors’ discretion.

If Williamson does get to draw her bow competitively at the London 2012 Games, it will be a historic achievement. Only two other Britons have competed at six Olympics – javelin thrower Tessa Sanderson, who won gold at her third Games in 1984, and fencer Bill Hoskyns, who competed from 1956 to 1976 at the Games, winning two silver medals.

It would be a proud moment for Britain’s highest profile archer – but, as you might expect, she is unwilling to dwell upon such a hypothetical situation this far in advance.

What is motivating her at this stage is the memory of competitions such as that she experienced in April, when she won gold in the final of the European grand prix in Antalya, Turkey against Italy’s multiple world champion Natalia Valeeva, who, at 41 is aiming to add her first Olympic gold to the CV next year – and who is also making out at least a good a case as Williamson for the fact that archers can have a long and successful career.

“I think it’s always been that way in archery,” Williamson says. “If you are good when you are young you can still carry it on. Experience counts for a lot in this sport. I react very differently now to the way I did when I was 18 or 20. If you haven’t had a good competition when you are that age you react in a different way. Nowadays I am able to see the bigger picture.

“Sometimes you think ‘Oh God, you are getting too old for this.’ But after competitions like the one I had with Natalia, you realise ‘No. I can still do it’.”

She can indeed. So bring on Turin. And bring on London…


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