Lorraine Ugen: Britain’s long jump battle for fitness and finances

Lorraine Ugen’s world indoor bronze in Belgrade in March came six years after winning the same medal in Oregon

At first you don’t see it.

It’s October 2020, nine months from the Olympics, and Lorraine Ugen is lying on a massage table. The British long jumper’s legs dangle from the end, her eyes are fixed on a point on the ceiling.

Ugen has just started rehab after surgery to fix a hamstring she had, in her own description, “ripped out.” Across the room, physio Michael Giakoumis asks him to lift his leg and point his toes.

She does. And then you see it.

His right leg, the one that carries many times the weight of Ugen’s body on takeoff, and propels him down the long jump track, through seven meters of clean air is, in his words, “a twig”.

Her lower leg is the same circumference all the way – there’s no curve or bulge. The calf muscle has become almost nothing. It’s the same circumference as his ankle.

As Ugen swings his leg and stares at the ceiling, qualification for the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics suddenly seems a long way off.

At this point, Ugen is 10 months away from his 30th birthday. People tell him that maybe it’s time to retire from elite sport.

But not only did she make it to Tokyo, but she continues to compete in the face of physical and financial difficulties. This is the story of how.

“Winning a medal told me I could compete at the elite level”

Ugen ignored his doubters. She went on and trained hard. Giakoumis, Helen van Kempen and the rest of the British Athletics support team helped her regain her strength. She was part of the British Olympic team.

She couldn’t make the long jump final in Tokyo, but she continued to improve.

And then in March of this year, she won bronze at the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade.

It was not his first major medal. Six years prior, she won world bronze in Portland, Oregon. But this time the emotions were different.

“Secretly, I enjoyed this one a bit more,” she told BBC Sport.

“Winning a medal let me know that I could get back to the elite level, that I could compete against the best in the world and get back on the podium.

“It gave me confidence that I’m good enough, back and ready to go.”

But this World Indoors campaign could have ended very differently.

His first two jumps had been faults. The cut – after which only the top eight jumpers continue – came after three. She had no room for mistakes. Another fault and she would be excluded from the competition without registering a mark.

This has been a problem throughout his career – keeping his footwork precise on the board as his sprint speed peaks and the pressure mounts.

“I was like, ‘Please don’t start this madness again! I need you to fix this,'” Ugen said.

“I knew I was fit and had the ability to get on the podium.”

The hamstrings were repaired, the calf was strong, but she needed something to soothe the most important muscle of all.

She turned to her coach in the stands. Dwight Phillips is a former Olympic gold medalist, four-time world champion. He knew what to say. Ugen knew how to listen.

“Normally people walk away from the set if they foul, but he told me to move in,” Ugen said.

“The psychology was that I was in a hurry, I had no more space, I had to put my foot down.

“In the long jump, it goes hand in hand, technique and trust in your coach.”

“People see you on TV and assume you make a lot of money”

However, Phillips can’t always be there because alongside his fitness struggle, Ugen also has to make financial decisions.

She is at the highest level of funding allocated by British Athletics, an arrangement worth up to £28,000. But there are still compromises to be made.

Taking Phillips’ tab to travel to Europe from its base in Atlanta is possible for some events, but not all. Physio sessions in the United States are not cheap. Gym tips may come from a search engine rather than a dedicated strength and conditioning coach. Down the road, Ugen must make a choice between health and wealth when it comes to fast food options.

Sponsors would help. But, for the moment, Ugen does not have one. It was discontinued by sportswear brand Spyder in December 2020.

But, just like on that massage bench, she didn’t take it lying down.

Ugen is now competing in its own brand, the one it designed, manufactured and modeled. It is called Unsigned.

“It’s about building a community of athletes, so people don’t feel ashamed and have to hide the fact that they don’t have sponsors,” Ugen said.

Lorraine Ugen
Ugen takes part in its own brand of kits, aimed at raising the profile of athletes without sponsorship agreements

“People see you on TV and automatically assume you’re making a lot of money. They don’t realize we’re world-class athletes, winning medals, competing at the highest level of sport, without a kit sponsor.”

The plan is for athletes to wear the brand and attract their own endorsement deals, while fans buy it and support the sport’s underdogs.

Unsigned first appeared on UK tracks at February’s indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham. He’ll be back there on May 21 when Ugen takes on Olympic, World and European champion Malaika Mihambo in a stellar Diamond League field.

“It’s a really stacked roster. In a world championship year, it’s going to be great to compete against some of the best girls in the world early in the season,” Ugen said.

“Everyone is going to be looking to see what shape people are in, what everyone looks like.”

As Ugen knows though, you can’t always see everything. Physical fatigue, mental pain, financial gambling – there are many things that go unnoticed.

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