Family: The Sisters
What makes two sisters excel in the realm of running? Is it a matter of nature or nurture? We sit down with Hannah and Jodie Williams to delve into their exceptional athletic prowess and creative abilities
Hannah and Jodie Williams, two sisters renowned for their exceptional athletic prowess and creative brilliance, are the focus of our conversation. As we delve into their intertwined journey, we ponder the age-old question: How much of their remarkable abilities can be attributed to nature, and how much to nurture? In our discussion, we explore their upbringing and the significant role it played in shaping their careers. We examine the profound influence they have had on each other and how their mutual support has been instrumental in their achievements.
Glorious: So, was sport always a big part of your family?
Jodie: Yeah, I’d say we were a pretty sporty family. All three of us were very active, although our brother Ben was active as a kid but then decided to stop. I used to do gymnastics, then played netball and hockey at school. I also swam, but I was always naturally good at running. That’s probably where it started. I began at a young age, so when I started, Hannah was just a baby.
Glorious: So what’s the age difference between you two?
Jodie: It’s four and a half to five years. I started when I was 11, so Hannah was around six at the time. She grew up watching me and unfortunately, was dragged along to every competition I competed in from a young age. The same goes for my brother. Our family holidays often revolved around me competing. It was definitely a full family effort, especially when I started competing internationally at the age of 15.
Glorious: So your parents were supportive of your athletic pursuits? Were they involved in sports themselves?
Jodie: Yeah, both of them were definitely supportive. They ran as kids, but not at a serious level. I wouldn’t say that track and field runs in the family. However, our dad was really enthusiastic about us playing sports, I’ll let Hannah share her perspective on it, but he was really involved with my journey, and I guess it naturally influenced Hannah to follow suit since the groundwork was already there.
Hannah: I always enjoyed running, and I basically followed Jodie everywhere. I kept going to the athletics club to watch until my eighth birthday when I could finally join. I did it mainly because Jodie was doing it. I really enjoyed athletics when I started, but when I got to secondary school, my interest waned, and I stopped. Then I picked it up again later. But I also had a strong passion for dance.
Jodie: Well, Hannah was really talented in dancing. It was a sport she took very seriously from a young age. We watched her perform in many dance recitals, particularly ballet and contemporary, right?
Hannah: Yeah, I started ballet in nursery and wanted to attend a dance school after A-levels. I had my eyes on a dance school here or maybe even abroad. But then I realised that athletics and dance didn’t really align well, so I naturally drifted away from dance without consciously deciding to pursue athletics.
Glorious: You’re both clearly athletically gifted, but you’re also super creative. Do you think it’s more of a nature or nurture influence?
Hannah: I think it probably comes from our mum. She used to be an artist and was always involved in art-related activities. When we were younger, we had creative parties where we made things and explored artistic endeavours. However, I didn’t excel in traditional art skills like drawing and painting, which made me feel like I wasn’t good at art. It wasn’t until I was in sixth form that I discovered my passion for creativity. I started studying design technology and later pursued an Art and Design Foundation course. That’s when I realised that creativity encompasses much more than just drawing flowers. So, I believe my creativity stems from my mum.
Jodie: I had a similar experience to Hannah. As a kid, I was pigeonholed into being a sports person and didn’t have much permission to explore other creative avenues. Although I wasn’t great at traditional art at school, I did enjoy working with words. I had a knack for writing and even dabbled in music by creating little songs on a keyboard. So, I always had a sense of creativity, but I didn’t fully understand it at the time. It wasn’t until I was around 21 or 22 that I started branching out and discovering other creative interests. I delved into photography and realised that creativity extends beyond painting and drawing. Interestingly, my mum went to art school when I was around 15, and I remember going to see her exhibitions. I even attended an art camp with her during my school holidays, where I made a comic book. Looking back, I can see how creativity has always been a part of our lives, but it wasn’t until I allowed myself to explore different avenues that I fully embraced it. Our brother, Ben, is also incredibly creative. He has always been on a creative path, writing books and working in publishing. So, all three of us have that creative spark, expressed in our own unique ways.
Glorious: And what about sibling rivalry? Have you experienced any competitiveness between you when competing?
Hannah: Honestly, there has never been any rivalry between us. Jodie is five years older than me, so she was always way faster. I never felt a sense of competitiveness because I wasn’t fast enough to compete with her!
Jodie: From my perspective, I always felt bad that Hannah was being compared to me in any way. I know the sacrifices and challenges I had to endure to reach that level at her age, and I would never want her to go through the same experiences. It required an extreme level of dedication at such a young age, and looking back, I would do things differently.
For instance, I started training as a professional at the age of 11, and I was always on my own. It made it difficult for me to develop social skills. So, I was genuinely happy that Hannah didn’t have to follow that same path. I always disliked it when people would compare us. There are countless different paths one can take. Both Hannah and I have become Olympians and achieved success at an international level, but we took vastly different routes and found our own niches within the sport. Additionally, we have very different personalities. So, my advice would be to avoid comparing yourself to anyone, especially your own sibling. They are your support system, and it’s a special thing to pursue your dreams alongside someone you’re related to.
Glorious: How did you feel about competing together at the trials for the Tokyo Olympics?
Jodie: As I’ve said, Hannah and I have very different personalities. I’m naturally more aggressive and assertive, which translates into my approach to track. You’ll see me talking to myself and pacing back and forth before a race. Hannah, on the other hand, has a calmer personality. Before the race, I told her explicitly that we needed to make the team together. It wasn’t about competition between us. I knew I would win the race, but I needed her to be right there behind me.
Hannah: Yeah, I also think that because Jodie was in the race, I ran a one-second personal best. It somehow helped me. When she said we needed to make the team together, I realised I had to go fast. I’m not sure if it was subconscious or some kind of energy, but I ran really fast!
Jodie: For me, it was one of the greatest experiences. Usually, track is an individual sport, and I always want my competitors to do well. But having my younger sister in the race with me and both of us making the team together was extra special. We had always wanted to be on a team and run a relay together. It’s still one of my favourite races. It was the most emotional I’ve ever been during a race. Usually, I’m just happy with my performance and move on. But sharing that moment with someone else meant a lot to me.
Glorious: Hannah, as Jodie’s younger sister, did you learn from her career? Have you done things differently?
Hannah: When I first got into athletics aged around 13 years-old, I was a bit scared, as Jodie seemed really upset. That’s when I started exploring dancing more because people would compare my times to Jodie’s and say I wasn’t as good. My teachers at school would point out that I was a second off Jodie’s times at my age, so I felt discouraged. I turned to dance because no one was telling me I was falling short in that. But then I came back to athletics when Jodie started enjoying it more, her happiness with the sport influenced me. From Jodie’s career, I also learned the importance of exploring other interests. Unlike Jodie, I didn’t have a clear goal of becoming an Olympic champion. It wasn’t in my nature to be so focused on that. Seeing Jodie miss out on things made me sad, and I didn’t want to miss out on experiences. So I learned what to do and what not to do through her journey.
Jodie: From 2012 to around 2016, it wasn’t a great period for me. I was injured and had to drop out of school. I missed out on a lot during that time. It was challenging, but it forced me to explore and learn more about myself. I became more well-rounded and focused on enjoying the process rather than being obsessed with being the best.
During that period, I learned that I tended to prioritise track over everything else. I realised that I would distance myself and isolate when I felt down. I preferred figuring things out on my own and didn’t like asking for help or having others assist me. But coming out of that period, I became more well-rounded and recognised how much I had missed out on with my family, like seeing Hannah and Ben grow up. It made me understand the importance of spending more time with them and getting to know them as individuals because I had been away for so long. It’s easy to miss out without realising it. That period put things into perspective for me, and I made a conscious effort to spend quality time with my family, appreciate their support, and find ways to connect beyond sports. For me, connecting with my family in a creative capacity and outside of sports is most fulfilling.
Glorious: What was it like both being at the Olympics together?
Hannah: I did make it to the Olympics, but I didn’t get a chance to run in the relay team. If my sister wasn’t there, I would have been really, really sad and down. Having her there, especially sharing a room, helped me a lot and made a big difference. However, she had her own events to compete in, so it was tough because I was feeling sad and crying while she had to focus on her race the next day. It was probably challenging for her to balance supporting me and her own competition.
Jodie: The Olympics was a special experience because, as Hannah mentioned, it was amazing to share a room with her, go through the process together, and have someone who knows me so well witness it all. Usually, I’m alone during championships and don’t talk to many people, so having Hannah there was really nice. It allowed me to show her what it’s like to compete at that level, which I struggle to articulate through words.
I was also able to support Hannah because I understand the politics of the sport. Throughout my career, I’ve experienced it, and now I can speak up a bit more without facing as many consequences as when I was still trying to make teams. So, I was glad that I could be there to speak up when something wasn’t right and support her through it.
Glorious: Hannah, do you have any other advice?
Hannah: Yes, definitely. My main advice is to see your sibling as a support system rather than a competitor. There’s plenty of space for everyone to achieve their goals. In the world of sports, there are numerous championships and opportunities where you can succeed without being competitive with each other. It doesn’t really matter who is better. What matters is that you both enjoy and support each other. That’s the main thing.
Glorious: Being involved in sport as a family, tell me about the impact it has had on your lives, the places it’s taken you to, and has it brought you closer?
Jodie: Sport has played a significant role in our lives. There’s never been a time when it wasn’t a major factor for both me and Hannah. Sport has taken me to places I could never have imagined and I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it weren’t for sport. It has given me so much. But on the other hand, it has also demanded a lot from us. Navigating that balance has been a challenge. When we were younger, it may have been more divisive, but now I would say it brings us closer together.
Hannah: Yeah, when we were younger, I actually enjoyed watching Jodie compete. But I don’t think Ben felt the same way! Ha! Watching Jodie during school holidays was probably the worst thing Ben could have imagined! While Jodie was competing, we would be in a different hotel, and we would probably have dinner together only once during the entire trip. So, it wasn’t as “family” as one would think. However, as we’ve grown older, especially in recent years, sport has brought us closer together and it has definitely impacted our lives and career paths. The opportunities I’ve had in sport have shaped my career significantly. It gives you a real boost and sets you up for the rest of your life, opening doors to various opportunities.