The question does not escape in full before Shara Proctor chimes right in. Did she feel she handled her first Olympic Games well? “No way,” comes the response. “Definitely not. I felt like a fish out of water.”
It is striking honesty but Proctor can make a splash in any company now. Or, more accurately, she can make her mark in the sand, just as she did at last year’s world championships in Beijing in taking the long jump silver, leaping a British record 7.07m. The contrast with her error-strewn ninth-placed finish at London 2012 is clear; in a way that experience is now viewed as a necessary rite of passage.
“I think I let the atmosphere get the best of me in London,” Proctor says. “I was thrown by the crowd and their welcome. It was huge – I’d never seen anything like it, never been to an Olympics and I was a lot younger. It was just overwhelming; I let it get on top of me and I won’t allow that to happen again.”
Proctor is now 27, a far more battle-hardened competitor than the one who had transferred allegiance to Great Britain from her native Anguilla – a British Overseas Territory that does not enter an Olympic team of its own – only 21 months before the last Games. Consistent exposure to a higher level of sport has paid dividends, as it would in most athletes of a similar age, and Rio holds few fears.
“I just had to jump more in front of similar crowds and against top-class female jumpers, and more practice helped me adapt to those situations,” she says. “I know myself now, know I can handle pressure, know how to compete. It’s just me, I’ve grown.”
There have been further bumps along the way and two years ago the grimmest prognoses had Proctor struggling to be in prime condition for the Olympics. The final of the 2014 Commonwealth Games should have been a chance to show how much she had learned since London; instead she ruptured a tendon in her thigh during her run-up and found herself unable to walk for four weeks.
“I had to relearn to walk, run, everything else and it was a long process,” she says. “I wasn’t sure [what would happen] as I kept being told I would not be able to compete in 2015 and might not be at my best in 2016, but I was just looking for that one positive to keep me going. I just needed to know I’d be able to run and that was all. I fought my hardest to get where I wanted to be.”
Proctor’s “fighting spirit” – a term she visits several times during the conversation – yielded a return to training in January 2015 but even then it was some effort to take that second-placed finish seven months later, beaten only by Tianna Bartoletta. It was the end of one long road, she believes, but just the beginning of another.
“It had been such a long, hard journey, such a lot of work, a lot of upsetting moments and triumphs to reach that point after all that hard work,” she says. “But then there is an Olympics this year and that’s the main goal. It was just the stepping stone to that.”
Pivotal to Proctor’s recovery, and to so much more, was her coach Rana Reider. When Reider’s two-year spell at British Athletics controversially ended in October 2014 Proctor moved to the Netherlands to continue the working relationship with a mentor she had originally followed to Loughborough from Florida.
“Rana has been my coach ever since 2008, when I was at college,” she says. “He got me jumping from 6.24m to 6.71m, so I decided that, if I became a professional athlete, I wanted to keep working with him – because if he took me that far when I wasn’t really serious, imagine what he could do when I actually was. He’s the perfect fit for me, both in technical matters and the way in which he pays attention to individual needs and not just the group.”
The group has benefits of its own. Proctor’s training partner is the men’s world and Olympic triple jump champion, Christian Taylor, and they spark off each other in the kind of friendship – playful but, when it comes down to business, serious – that can drive elite athletes on.
“We’re like brother and sister,” she says. “We always push each other. He’s a triple jumper, I’m a long jumper, but we always end up in the sandpit together and we jump against each other. He just makes practice fun for me and vice versa – there’s a positive energy and that makes it enjoyable. Everything you want in a partner, that’s him. All work and no play makes Shara a dull girl; I think training should be fun, and that way you end up competing better.”
Life in the Netherlands has suited Proctor well and she will join the Dutch team for their pre-Olympic training camp in Portugal before travelling to Rio on 6 August. It is not always easy to keep in touch with her Great Britain colleagues but there is a “great relationship” when they do get together and she values the sense of belonging from which she has benefited since 2010.
“In Anguilla, when it was just me and maybe one other person, I didn’t have that team to back me up,” she says. “But competing for Great Britain is such a welcoming feeling because I have a team rooting for me and I can root for the team too.”
Growing up in the Caribbean, Proctor was a keen footballer – “I was a right winger, my left side was useless, but I was quick and agile so I could move down the wing and get it to the strikers” – and liked the sport primarily because she could spend time with old schoolfriends. But the responsibility for the next few weeks will be an individual one, and there is cautious hope that last year’s success can at least be repeated.
“At the moment I’m feeling pretty optimistic, I’m in a good place,” she says. “I’m healthy and fit – I haven’t quite done the fine tuning yet but we’ll get there. For the most part I’m raring to go and very hopeful for big things in Rio.” She certainly feels at home this time around.
Tickets for the Müller Anniversary Games on 22 and 23 July are available from £20. Visit www.britishathletics.org.uk
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