Holly Neil

Holly Neill for web

‘My family’s all Dorset born and bred, I’ve lived here in this house all my life, and my Mum and Dad come from round here too. Mum works at Beaminster School as a teaching assistant for SEN children, and my Dad has his own business providing hoof care for cattle. I have two younger brothers, one working in a hospital in Southampton and the other living in London.

Growing up round here my first school was at Evershot, which was tiny with about 10 of us in a class, and then I went to Beaminster comprehensive. Living in the country meant I was very much into horses from a young age. I did all the usual pony club things, and then in about 2007 took up lessons in equestrianism. That really opened up another dimension for me, the para-equestrian world. It introduced me for the first time to competitive sport, and I was being trained and competing in dressage, which is basically getting the horse to perform a kind of ballet in an arena. Obviously on a horse the challenge for me is my height, being 4ft 6in, and my last horse was 17.2h. Staying on is tricky when your legs barely reach below the saddle, but I had a specially adapted saddle, a very tame and willing horse, and plenty of people to help me overcome the difficulties. So when after a few years of competing in dressage I had to give it up – it was becoming too expensive – it was a bit of a shock having been involved with horses since I was about 5 with my first Shetland pony. And now I have no contact with horses at all, but that’s because athletics took over.

As an equestrian I was put on to the Talented Athletic Scholarship Scheme which helped with funding, access to physiotherapy and other resources I might need to help with my performance. That was based in Yeovil, with a man called Andrew Roda from Yeovil College. He’s an athletics coach, so he helped me make the transition from equestrianism to the world of throwing in athletics, where there is a competitive pathway that can lead to the Paralympics. I took to it straight away, mainly doing shot put, and in my first year I competed locally at Yeovil, and Millfield School. I soon progressed from junior level to international, and then was selected for a junior world championship in the Czech Republic, at which I was lucky enough to win gold. There was then only 2 years in which to build up to the London 2012 Paralympics, and despite earlier successes I sadly wasn’t selected, which was a bit of a disappointment. But in sport you have to accept both sides of fortune, and get back to working for the next opportunity. So I knuckled down and started training 6 times a week for the senior level and the 2016 Rio Paralympics.

Back in Yeovil College I trained on the athletics track and in the gym. The selection process for the Paralympics is all based on your competition performance in the world ranking, so you have 4 years to get to the top 8 in the world. That means you have to compete in the European championships which is every 2 years, and the World championships which are also every 2 years, and achieve a potential medal or finish in the top eight. In 2013 I made my senior debut at the World Athletics Championships in Lyon, where I took bronze, after which I was put on the World Class Performance Programme, which is funded by the National Lottery. That gives us a small salary every month which helps with training and expenses such as travel. Things went pretty well for me during that time, and I was selected for the 2016 Rio Paralympics.

There are all sorts of categories for the competitors so that as far as possible there’s a level playing field for everyone according to their disability. In my class for instance I compete in class F40 or F41 which is for people of short stature, and in my category in the discus, which is now my sport, I was competing against 14 people from around the world. Everyone gets 3 throws, and after 3 rounds the top 8 get another 3 throws, which is the final. My coach and I decided that my target was to make the final, and despite my throws not being my absolute best, I made the top 8. It was of course a very different and massively overwhelming experience for me, so I was really pleased to reach that target. The best competitors in my event are the Tunisians, who are the ones to beat. One thinks of throwing as being an event dominated by Eastern Europeans, but the number one is a Tunisian girl and if she doesn’t win there’s usually something wrong. And there were quite a few new entrants who popped up and turned out to be very good too.

We were in Rio for 3 weeks. The first 10 days was for acclimatisation and training with our GB coaches at a camp about an hour’s flight from Rio, and then we moved to the Olympic Village. I went to Rio on my own, as I usually do at big competitions. I just prefer to have no one around me, even family; that way I can be more focussed. You get a lot of support out there from the team, and I already knew all the GB team members in my event, but as a multidisciplinary sport it was good to get to know the many I didn’t. And it was amazing to be able to see all the other sports and watch the world’s best competitors. We weren’t allowed to go to the opening ceremony – it’s British Athletic protocol – because there’s hours and hours of standing around which is very tiring. We watched it on the big screen and had a celebration at our house, but after the competition we went to the closing ceremony which was indeed amazing.

This year there’s the World Championship in London to be held at the Olympic Stadium, so I’m hoping that after my disappointment at the 2012 event I’ll get my chance to compete there. It’s combined with the able-bodied Athletic World Championship, so all the top athletes like Usain Bolt will be there. I had a 2-week break from training after Rio, but I’m back into it now. In the winter it’s mainly strength and conditioning work, then it’ll be work on technique in the spring. They say that throwers can be more lenient with their diet than sprinters, but I’ve always been pretty careful with what I eat. Before Rio I had no time for anything else, but now that I’ve hit my main goal in life I’m starting to plan ahead for the future beyond athletics. I’m doing a degree in Primary teaching at the Open University, and I work part-time at Birchfield Community Primary School in Yeovil.

I’ve always taken a very positive approach to life, I really love a challenge and I’m not afraid to push myself to higher levels if I can, in life in general as well as in sport. One never knows what’s round the next corner, but this seems to me to be the best way to find out.’