How many times have you heard the story of an athlete who never achieved what they wanted because someone or something held them back?
It’s a tale told far too often. But not when it comes to Laura Sugar or Marilyn Okoro.
They refuse to let anyone or anything stop them doing what they love. Instead they use the ‘Power of No’ as a tool to better themselves. A tool they hope will allow them both to reach Tokyo 2020.
Listen to the podcast episode below
A talented all-round athlete, Sugar started her career as an international hockey player – winning 16 caps for Wales – before transitioning into para-athletics, appearing in two finals at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
She then took up para-canoeing and became a European bronze and World silver medallist in 2019 after just a few months in the sport, securing GB a quota place in the KL3 race at Tokyo 2020 in the process.
However for many years Sugar – who was born with a club foot and as a result has no movement in her left ankle – didn’t even realise she was eligible for para-sports. It was only by pure chance that she suddenly became aware that she could compete at a Paralympic Games.
The 27-year-old recalled: “Hockey was my main sport. My father was Welsh and I played for them up until the age of 21. I thought this was me and this was my career.
“But unless you’re in the full GB set up you can’t be a full-time athlete, you have to pay to play so I became a PE teacher.
“I watched London 2012 while working at a kids camp – I was sat making clay models of alien athletes because it was space week. I was watching the discus and they always go quite close up on the feet in the circle and I realised ‘I’ve got that foot!’
“I knew I could never stand on one leg or things like that but I always found another way to get around it. I always had the attitude that it was never going to hold me back.
“Why should I shuffle around things when I can just give it a go anyway? However it is weird that since I’ve got into para-sport I’ve realised more things that I can’t do because I push myself more.”
“There were certain coaches who told me I couldn’t do this or that”
Unbeknownst to Sugar, when she was born her parents had been told by a doctor she would lead a healthy life as long as she didn’t do any sport.
But it was only when she took up athletics seriously – training as a sprinter having been inspired to give it a go thanks to London 2012 – that they told their daughter what had been said.
This is something she is glad about though as it acts as a major motivator, as does proving wrong others who suggested her condition would hold her back.
“It is a driver. All my life I’ve had very positive people driving me on,” the 100m and 200m T44 finalist at Rio 2016 explained.
“There were certain coaches who told me I couldn’t do this or that. There was one hockey coach who said she didn’t think I could make it because ‘you’re not fast enough’ and now I’m like ‘ha!’
“That really inspired me on. If people can’t do it then it makes you even more determined to show you can.”
“I used to hate the word no”
This is a very similar attitude to the one Okoro has employed throughout her athletics career.
While she is an Olympic and World medallist, the London-born athlete has also encountered more than her fair share of challenges including injuries, unpleasant public criticism from coaches and funding withdrawal.
And, though times have been tough, the 400m and 800m runner has kept going through it all and is now hoping to secure her place at Tokyo, 12 years after she first appeared at a Games.
Okoro also reflects on one incident in particular, from early in her life, that has played a major part in her decision to continue giving it her all when the odds are against her.
“I used to hate the word no; I had this weird reaction to it,” the 35-year-old recalled.
“Growing up the way I did there were a lot of them – no to this, no to that.
“The first no that I was defiant against was my Mum. I went to this incredible school, had this incredible opportunity and, coming from a Nigerian background, you’re going to be a lawyer or a doctor.
“I went home and said ‘Mummy, I won sports day!’ and she said ‘I didn’t send you to school to run, read your book!’
“But that’s the only no my mum has ever said to me.”
However the 2010 European silver medallist also knows that you cannot solely base your career on trying to prove people wrong.
She said: “Every no I’ve tried to turn into a yes and every negative situation I’ve tried to find a way around that mountain.
“There’s a balance though because every race can’t be fuelled by ‘I’m going to show that person’ because I’m quite emotional.
“As the stakes have got higher I’ve had to really remind myself of why I’m doing this. But definitely the ‘Power of No’ has been something I live by.
“The two f-words – fear and failure – need to be your best friends because the other side of that fear is the thing that you want most and failure is your greatest teacher.”
Having come this far already, the target of reaching the Tokyo 2020 Games is now within sight.
But this is just one of the goals both athletes want to achieve. They also want to make sure that they can enjoy their sports as much as they can and constantly remind themselves why they do what they do.
Sugar said: “If you put all the pressure on getting that one goal and it doesn’t happen, you’re left with nothing.
“Someone told me a quote which was ‘you’ve got to be happy without the medal to be happy with it’ and I’ve spoken to loads of gold medallists who have had mental health issues because it’s not been as good as they thought it was. You’ve got to enjoy the journey we have on the way.
“I’ll be enjoying my sports [her funding is now weighted towards canoeing but she could also represent GB in athletics too in Tokyo], getting better and hopefully those goals and targets will come along the way. Just trying my best to get better in both and see where that takes me.”
Okoro added: “It is a journey. All those cliches you have when you’re growing up, now I’m at an age where they’re actually real!
“But hopefully Tokyo is the next stop so I’m just enjoying that train ride and the journey along the way.
“Experience is a really powerful thing and I’m going to really need to draw upon that because there are some hungry youngsters coming through.
“But you’ve got to back yourself. I’ve done some incredible things in the sport so I’m looking forward to getting back out there and I’ve got a lot of people who want to see me out there so that helps.”
Interview and words: Will Moulton
A special thank you to The Mintridge Foundation for helping us secure this interview
All music in this episode is courtesy of Otis McDonald.