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The Wanderer Returns
Scottish Olympian Shirley Webb is once again turning her attentions to a new challenge in a bid to make her Gladiators persona, Battleaxe, more battle-hardened...

In an age when athletes like Wayne Rooney, Andy Murray and Michael Phelps have published autobiographies before they reach their mid-twenties, it is high time somebody called up Shirley Webb and told her, ‘Write a book!’

In fairness to Messrs Rooney, Murray and Phelps, heroes though they are in their own sports, they can’t claim to have lived as rich, varied and colourful a life as the chameleonic Miss Webb.  At 27, practically middle-aged in sporting circles, she may be several years their senior, but having already carved out several careers, she has the life experiences that genuinely merit a personal tome.

A quick run-down of a few of Shirley Webb’s achievements:  She is professionally trained in dance – ballet, tap and modern; she is a former British champion in springboard diving; she turned down a place at Oxford, opting instead for Edinburgh, where she earned a BSc Mathematics; in her younger years she won regional honours in swimming, hockey and several track and field events.

And now for the biggies: in 2004 she represented Team GB at the Olympics in Athens and Scotland at two Commonwealth Games (2002 and 2006), throwing the hammer.  She holds the British record and is a British and European Cup champion in the same discipline; In 2008 she was snapped up by Sky One to play ‘Battleaxe’ in their revamped version of the sports entertainment show, Gladiators, catapulting her name and image into the wider public arena.

And now, to top it all off, she is facing perhaps one of her biggest sporting challenges to date.  This sporting wanderer has become, quite literally, a Wanderer with a capital W, or a Murrayfield Wanderer to be precise, having taken up women’s rugby as the latest challenge in her high-achieving career. 

At her competitive peak in athletics Shirley sported thighs just one inch thinner than the man-mountain that is Sir Chris Hoy, so she is no weeping willow.  But the tough world of women’s rugby, and in a club littered with Scottish internationalists, will pay no heed to Shirley’s prolific past.  And, as her black eye testifies when she meets with In The Winning Zone, reputation counts for nothing on a muddy pitch fighting over an oval pigskin.

“I’ve taken up the sport to help me be more physical for Gladiators,” explains Shirley.  “Despite having never been in a contact sport, I’m really enjoying it.”

In events like ‘Gauntlet’, where Battleaxe must stop contenders from bulldozing past her, and ‘Powerball’, which is basically rugby in all but name, the skills traditionally formed on the rugby field have suddenly become very relevant to Shirley.

“I try to leave no stone unturned in everything that I do.  During filming we are contracted to do whatever training we are told, but that is only for six weeks. Outside that we trusted to just go away and do whatever training is appropriate.  I am a big believer in chopping and changing things all the time to keep myself fresh and keep motivated.

So how has she been getting along in her new past-time?

“They are very strong club side. It’s great to be playing with all these girls and I am very grateful of their expertise and trying to help me, because having never played rugby until last October, I don’t know a lot of the rules!

“At the moment I can barely even look around the field to see what anyone else looks like, I am too busy trying to concentrate on where I should be. My awareness of the game isn’t that great at the minute. Obviously I have a lot of strength training in the bank which is very helpful. But there is a lot to learn – it is a very skilful sport.”

Of course, one of the key elements to rugby, and being a Gladiator, is being able to deal with heavy impact.  Despite the formidable strength required to throw a 4kg hammer in excess of 67 metres, having another large person running into you at top speed and stopping them in their tracks is another test altogether.

“The physical impact is tough,” Shirley admits.  “It is definitely something that I haven’t been used to and it is really the reason why I joined Murrayfield Wanderers, to get used to that contact stuff.  I think there was a little bit of fear inside me, I am not as aggressive as I should be.

“Quite often it will hurt and I will want to cry but you just have to get on with it!  At the moment my legs are absolutely black and blue, my thighs are just all bruises and scratches, and I have a black eye. It is quite a steep learning curve.”

Gladiators is obviously the major focus in Shirley’s life right now.  But, true to form, there is no doubt she will move on to something bigger and better in the future.  So, considering she will only be 30 by the time the next Olympics roll into town, what are her plans for the future?  Will Shirley Webb be the next Rebecca Romero, and appear in London on a bike or in a swimsuit?

“I have never, throughout my whole life, had a big vision that far ahead in the future,” she states unequivocally.  “For me, everything is about small goals and wanting to do as well as I can tomorrow, no further.

“I have obviously thought further ahead than tomorrow but not really in terms of years.  Even before I went to the Athens Olympics, it was only the September before that I thought maybe I should try for them.  You never really know what is around the corner, if you consider that last March I had no idea I was about to become a Gladiator.”

And how does being a Gladiator compare to life as a full-time athlete?

“My life is more varied now.  I don’t think that people really understand how big the sacrifices are in sport. But if I am going to do a competition then I want to do it properly and not half-heartedly.  You really have to sacrifice your whole life to do well.  I would maybe meet a friend once every three months for half an hour and I wouldn't see my family for ages.  It was just training for athletics the whole time.

“To be able to compete in the Olympics is everyone’s dream and I felt very privileged to be able to train full time and very grateful for the lottery funding that I had received. I absolutely loved it.  But I feel happy with the way that things are at the moment.  I have Gladiators and lots of other things going on at the same time which is fun.”

It says a lot to state that Shirley is an ambitious, motivated, driven woman.  It says even more that she has achieved so many of the goals she set herself.  Obviously not worrying too much about the future and focusing on the here and now is a mantra that has proven effective.  So, with this in mind, her musings on her career pinnacle are equally as thoughtful.

“Making the Olympic team was a great achievement for me but when I was in Athens I didn’t throw as well as I would have liked to, so I wouldn’t have said my performance there was the pinnacle of my career.  I won the European Cup in 2005 with 66.5 metres, which was a pretty good throw – it lead to Britain being promoted to the super league.

“But for me a pinnacle could be a training throw out the back of Meadowbank that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else, so it is difficult to try and pull out one point from a long career.”

The only question that remains is where will Shirley pop up to dazzle us next?

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