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Olivia Breen: From the lowest low to world champion

When asked what her biggest challenge has been in her career, Olivia Breen’s answer is almost like a reflex.

“Rio 2016, definitely,” she says.

Four years ago, Livvy was expected to do big things at the Paralympics in Brazil.

After appearing at London 2012 as a 16-year-old – and picking up a bronze medal as part of the T35-38 4x100m relay to boot – it felt like her time.

Her smile and uplifting personality has already made her one of the most popular athletes around but in Rio she had high expectations of herself.

Sadly, the results didn’t come but it was that utter disappointment that proved to be the launching pad for the success to come.

Now she can call herself a double World Champion – in the relay and also the long jump – and a Commonwealth Champion.

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“I was going into the Games and I can’t remember what I was ranked in the long jump – fifth, I think,” she explains.

“Anyway, complete disaster and I came 12th. Came seventh in the 100m – disaster.

“I was going into Rio saying, ‘I want to come top five in everything’.

“So, I came seventh in the 100m and I was like ‘ok, that’s not bad but I came fifth in the 100m in London 2012’.

“Anyway, I thought I’ve got the long jump to come – ‘let’s do this, we can get this going, positive mindset’.

“Then I came 12th – complete disaster! Got two no jumps, got one jump that was awful. Like embarrassed awful.

“Then I was like ‘ok I’ve got the relay to come’ and I got told an hour before that I wasn’t in the team.

“I was like ‘brilliant this is an utter disaster’ so my parents were like ‘Livvy we need to come up with a plan’.

“Obviously I was ok, but I was really gutted. I’d worked so hard for the last four years and I’d left home and moved my career to North London.

“I learned a lot about myself, so I thought right – my parents said they just want me to be happy and do what’s best for you – and I said ‘no I’m going to go up to Loughborough and I’m moving coaches’.

“I moved coaches, best thing ever, and less than 10 months later became World Champion and I was like ‘ok this is good!’”

“I knew if I was to become a better athlete, I had to change something”

That move to Loughborough and a switch of coach – to her current trainer Aston Moore – proved to be a masterstroke.

Livvy went on to achieve so much from that moment on, summed up perfectly by that long jump gold at the 2017 World Championships in London.

“I met my coach, who’s my coach now and who I moved to Loughborough for, I met him in Rio,” Livvy continues.

“We just got on. My coach before was great but I knew I just needed to move up to the next level and the next step.

“I knew if I was to become a better athlete, I had to change something.

“I just thought ‘this coach knows me a bit’ so let’s build a relationship, let’s see if he’ll have me and he took me on.

“It was the best thing ever and I’m so thankful to have him as a coach.”

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But as well as the coaching side of things there was another big difference with Livvy when you compare the athlete that turned out at the 2016 Paralympics to the athlete who won gold in London 10 months later.

“Confidence,” Livvy says. “I was definitely more confident, and more mature because I’d moved to Loughborough, and I was more independent as well.

“My coach had worked really well with me and it was just little things to tweak – the runway, the speed and just the technique for take-off as well.

“Looking back at my technique I was like ‘what is that!’ He improved me so much as an athlete and as a person.”

“With the masks it’s impossible for deaf people”

Remember, Livvy has only just turned 24 with so much yet to come in her career. Everything this year had been geared towards the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games – and then the pandemic arrived.

With Tokyo 2020 now Tokyo 2021 it’s brought a heap of challenges for so many athletes who have had to push the reset button all over again.

Livvy is no different as she moved back home with her family and is making use of the training facilities she has at her home.

But it’s also the everyday changes that the 24-year-old is having to adapt to in entirely new ways.

Face masks are the main example here. While all of us are growing accustomed to needing them they present a real challenge to people who are deaf – just like Livvy.

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“With the masks it’s impossible for deaf people,” she says.

“Obviously we lip read so much, and my reliance is on lip reading, so with the masks we can’t see their mouths and what they’re saying.

“If they’ve got the see-through bit that’s amazing because you can actually see what they’re saying.

“But, when they haven’t got it, it’s impossible so if you’re on public transport or in a shop you’re by yourself.

“If you get a person who is rude to you, and they don’t understand, that’s going to make me feel really uncomfortable and you could lose your confidence.

“It’s going to be really hard and life-changing, definitely. I just wanted to raise the awareness as much as possible.”

“People need to be more open-minded in”

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Of course, it’s not just face masks where there needs to be a greater level of understanding.

If the last few months have taught us anything it’s that we, and society, have a long way to go in order to become truly accepting.

“We’ve definitely got a long way to go but I’d say with Black Lives Matter it is definitely making people more aware of racism and also diversity and just trying to get the awareness out there, Livvy says.

“I think it has definitely improved but I still think we have a long way to go.

“People need to be more open-minded in general and be more accepting to disability, racism and everything really.

“London 2012 really helped disability. People really warmed up to the Paralympics in 2012 – obviously it was a home games as well – and I’ve definitely seen more of a difference since then and I think it could still improve a lot more.”

She continues: “But I don’t want people to forget about it. I want people to keep remembering that there are para-athletes, there are disabilities, there are other things out there.

“You just have to be more open-minded to accepting it.”

Some would also argue that one of the ways of encouraging those uncomfortable conversations is to protest.

It’s something we’ve seen across numerous sports, such as football, with all players taking a knee before kick-off.

Currently the Olympics and Paralympics ban protest but it’s something Livvy would like to see change.

“I would like to be able to say that other athletes would take a knee,” she adds.

“I think it would be really good like, for example, Lewis Hamilton and how he took the knee as well.

“It’s just good to get as many people to take the knee to understand why we’re doing it and to understand why we want to do it and to support Black Lives matter as well.”

“I couldn’t be more thankful for sport”

After being diagnosed with cerebral palsy at the age of two, Livvy has fought right from day one.

But there is absolutely no doubting just how vital her sport has been for her.

“It’s given me everything,” she says.

“It’s given me confidence, self-belief and a career I never saw myself going to.

“To compete in front of 80,000 people when I was 16 I was thinking ‘this is amazing!’

“It’s given me so much. It’s made me leave home, it’s given me income, it’s given me amazing people and independence as well. That’s a big thing.

“It’s given me a big life change and I couldn’t be more thankful for sport and I think if anyone wanted to try sport give it a try because you never know where it will take you.”

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Livvy adds: “When I was younger, I was really wobbly, and sport has helped my disability so much.

“It’s given me more stability, helped my everyday life and my concentration in school.

“That’s so weird because you wouldn’t say it helps your concentration, but it actually does.

“I love the lifestyle as well, the healthy lifestyle is really good for me.”

Interview: Alasdair Hooper

Words: Alasdair Hooper

Image credits: With thanks to Olivia Breen

All music in this episode is courtesy of Otis McDonald.

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