Through the Women’s Sport Trust’s Unlocked programme, female athletes have excelled beyond their sporting arena to become advocates for change
By Kate Carter
Illustration by Esme Harvey-Otway
The concept behind Unlocked is so simple that, like all brilliant ideas, you wonder why on earth no one has done it before. Take a group of 35 talented athletes and sportswomen who want to make change beyond their sport, match them with mentors – or activators – to help them develop those passions, and see what happens. That was the idea behind the first Women’s Sport Trust Unlocked programme in 2020 – and now the programme is finishing its second year.
2021 has been more dynamic for so many in sport and Unlocked has been no different. “Last year much of the programme occurred in lockdown, so with sport up and running again, it’s been a different experience” says Tammy Parlour, co-founder and CEO of the Women’s Sport Trust. “It’s been an utter privilege to be part of this journey – and hearing firsthand about what they’ve been through to achieve success is utterly inspiring.” Reading their stories on the Glorious platform, it’s hard to disagree.
The Unlocked graduates are a hugely impressive cohort, and have clearly all learned from each other as well as their mentors, and their enthusiasm for the project really does shine through. And another thing they’ve all loved is being featured in the illustrations created for Glorious by Esme Harvey-Otway. “When creating this series of illustrations, I always started by getting a feel for who each athlete was and their personality by looking at the photographs. It was good to have a range of images that weren’t only of the athletes in action, but showed other facets of their personality. From there I would build up the layers and textures to create a background, picking out colours from their kit but always keeping it vibrant to reflect the athletes’ inspiring stories.”
That process has really resonated with the athletes themselves. “They were incredible,” says Nabila Tejpar. “They really captured the essence of empowering women and showing women in sport in such a great light.” Shaunagh Brown agrees. “They are unique and full of colour smash – taking ordinary photos, making them a lot more vibrant and a greater reflection of me.” All the athletes talk about how they truly reflect the joy and positivity in women’s sport – Lauren Rowles has even framed hers in her medal cabinet.
Kadeen Corbin – who thinks her illustration “really captured my personality: the bright colours are perfect for who I am” – is also the perfect example of an Unlocked athlete wanting to really drive change. Having suffered abuse on social media throughout her career, she wanted to be part of the conversation about how that can affect mental health, and try to support others going through the same thing. If that sounds negative, she is anything but. She’s turned her experiences round 360, and given it her own spin: “I’m all about positivity” she told Glorious at the start of the programme.
That positivity has been in full display this year. While her hugely impressive playing career continues – she’s looking forward to her first home match with Saracen Mavericks since the pandemic – with the help of her activator, Victoria Cotton, Executive Producer, live streaming at BBC Sport, she’s also learning more about how to spread her message. Recently, she took part in a diversity and inclusion panel at the Leaders in Sport conference, talking about her own experiences in sport – and has decided to join a speaking agency so that she can tell her own story to a wider audience. The Women’s Sport Trust is also helping to prepare for her life beyond sport – when that time eventually comes.
For Sarah Evans, that time has just arrived. When the Team GB hockey player joined Unlocked, she talked about figuring out who you are, in the game, and outside it. “When you’re no longer that athlete, what happens?” she asked. Thanks to Unlocked, it’s a question she’ll now be far better equipped to answer. She, too, is transforming words into action. While part of the Team GB squad at the Toyko Olympics in the summer, she teamed up with her activator, Dr Julie Humphreys, to get the hockey team captain, Hollie Pearne-Webb, a rainbow armband to show support for the LGBT+ community, in what turned out to be a complicated logistical nightmare. But it was the first time anyone was allowed to wear one at the Olympics – and she made it happen. Sometimes what you do off the pitch is bigger than what you do on it.
Sarah has also – like Kadeen Corbin – taken part in that diversity and inclusion panel at the Leaders in Sports conference, and worked with her fellow Unlocked athlete Nikita Parris to discuss the issues in other sports. Showing quite how connected the Unlocked athletes have become, she’s also now an ambassador for Kyniska Advocacy, founded by Mhairi Maclennan, working with them on their campaign for zero tolerance on abuse in sport.
Indeed, Mhairi Maclennan is another Unlocked athlete whose interests and passions are far wider than the sport she excels at. Sure, she’s put in some impressive 5 and 10k performances this year, but she’s also continued to advocate for better policies to protect women in all sports. In fact, she’s also recruited not just Sarah but many of the athletes on the programme as Kyniska ambassadors. And the Women’s Sport Trust is continuing to support her as she gets her teeth into the sharp end of policy making – and looks for opportunities to really influence decision makers. Her activator, Katie Sadlier, who was recently appointed as the new Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation, has thoroughly enjoyed the process too. “Mhairi has been a delight to work with” she says. “She’s got a huge career ahead of her and has already achieved some pretty big wins. The programme really brings together a mixture of talent and experience, which creates a unique formula to future proof and further unlock leadership potential.”
Shanaugh Brown has also had a fantastic year. On the pitch, she won the Premier 15s Final in May 2021 with Harlequins – and after the game, gave a passionate interview calling out anyone who said women’s rugby wasn’t good enough. “This is what rugby should be week in, week out, men or women’s. We are here and I challenge anyone who thinks women’s rugby isn’t good enough or women aren’t good enough, because we are.” Being part of Unlocked surely helped her build the confidence to put that message out there.
Just hours after that game, she was lugging a bag of rugby balls across a pitch in Tunbridge Wells, where she spent the day leading a group of 11 year old girls. When Brown says she wants to inspire girls, there is absolutely nothing empty about her talk. At the Women’s Sport Trust, she’s worked with her activator, Lisa Pearce, CEO of British Wheelchair Basketball, on how she can give back to the rugby community. “I’ve really enjoyed the process, being able to support Shaunagh to achieve her ambitions,” says Lisa. “Her motivation, drive and ability is incredible, she’s a woman who is already changing the face of women’s rugby. Watch this space, as the sky’s the limit for her!” Indeed, Shaunagh has recently been appointed as a Trustee to the Student Rugby Football Union, and been made a part of the Women’s Lions steering group. She’s soon going to need another page on her already impressive CV.
While 2021 has seen many of the women playing or competing out in front of crowds again after a quiet 2020, it’s been the opposite for Nabila Tejpar. The professional rally driver had an accident while racing back in the summer and has had to move to the slow lane for a while to fully recover. But, like her fellow alumni, she’s hardly one to put her feet up and binge on Netflix. She’s been using the time to look into how she can help create more diversity within motorsport. She recently took part in an Instagram Live interview with her activator, presenter and broadcaster Jennie Gow, where she talked about getting more girls involved in motorsport from an early age. And it’s clear Jennie Gow has enjoyed the process too. “I’ve really loved being an activator,” she says. “It’s such a shared learning experience. The sports and media industry co-habit in a very similar space and as you go through the journey it’s always good to have someone to bounce ideas off and learn from, and I hope I’ve been that person for Nabila.”
Aspirations are, of course, ten a penny – but the Unlocked athletes really do seem to excel in making them actually happen. Rower Lauren Rowles had an incredible Paralympic Games, winning her second gold medal in Toyko. For most people, that would be enough achievement for a lifetime, let alone a summer. But after the games, she’s taken some time off sport to follow some of her other passions. As a huge F1 fan, she’s worked with her activator, broadcaster and commentator, Jacqui Oatley and others. “My activator is Jacqui but I’ve also had involvement from radio and TV presenter Jennie Gow and sports consultant Chris Hurst, who have all been incredible so I’m really grateful for their time” Lauren says. Along with other members of the Women’s Sport Trust community, they’ve been able to arrange meetings with a couple of F1 teams to talk about future opportunities. She also attended a meeting with Facebook and was able to directly impact online athlete safety by feeding into Facebook’s Athlete Safety guide.
All in all it’s been another great year from an impressive group of women, from whom a lot more will clearly be heard. “This group has been particularly interested in social activism, topics such as the environment, diversity and inclusion within sport, sports policy, athlete commercial value, social media abuse, and mental health” reflects Tammy Parlour. “And they are already developing working groups to tackle some of these issues head on once the programme ends. Athletes are powerful advocates for change and I can’t wait to follow what they do next.