DENISE Lewis is at home in Buckinghamshire, but her head is in Japan, dreaming of the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony.
“I don’t know what it’s going to look like this time but, for me, it conjures up so much emotion. It’s the end of a four-year journey for the athletes, but it’s also the start of something that could change someone’s life forever,” she says.
“Every opening ceremony transports me back to being a child when I first watched the Olympics, then to the ones that I actually competed in.
"The start of that Olympic flame, that zoning in of emotion and the readiness to compete…”
It’s been 16 years since Denise competed professionally. She bowed out of athletics in 2005 at the age of 32, after succumbing to injuries that had plagued her since Sydney 2000 – the Games that made her a sporting hero as she won gold in the heptathlon.
A year later, she was made an OBE – having been awarded an MBE the year before.
But more than a decade on, Denise found herself relying on all the reserves that had got her through life in the top flight, when what she assumed to be the start of the perimenopause tuned out to be pregnancy symptoms.
Her fourth child, son Troy, now two and a half, was born in December 2018 and Denise and her husband Steve, 57, found themselves dealing with all the challenges a newborn brings.
“Obviously I was well out of practice. I was wondering how I’d cope, but because I was so overjoyed about having Troy, I decided: ‘This is what I chose and it’s not going to break me.’ It’s that coping strategy that I’ve adopted for myself.”
When Troy arrived, Steve – a property developer and pop manager who represents musicians including Liam Payne – was “shipped out” to the spare room while Denise went it alone with the night feeds.
“There was no point in us both being tired,” she explains. “Steve’s a few years older than me and needs his sleep and I know I’ve got a big engine.” Presumably Steve has since returned to the marital bed? “Yes!” she laughs. “And so has his snoring!”
Denise, who turns 50 next summer, knows she doesn’t look her age. Neither does she feel it: “I’m probably fitter than some 30 year olds,” she laughs.
In April, 51-year-old Naomi Campbell became a mother for the first time and two years ago Brigitte Nielsen gave birth at 54. Is there time for one more baby?
“Oh, please!” shrieks Denise. “Wash your mouth out! No. Troy was a godsend, he was a blessing, but this shop is shut!”
Since retiring, Denise has become a key member of BBC Sport’s athletics presenting team and during this summer’s Tokyo Games – postponed last year due to the pandemic – will commentate alongside Jessica Ennis-Hill and Michael Johnson from the Beeb’s Salford HQ.
While she respects the decision not to send a broadcasting team to Japan, where Covid rates are rising, there’s also disappointment.
“I would love to be in the stadium,” she says. “That’s where the energy and the heartbeat is for live sport. You can’t beat it.”
'THIS SHOP IS SHUT'
With just 10,000 fans allowed into Tokyo’s Olympic venues, how will the Games feel this time?
“Apparently there won’t be clapping, shouting or chanting – there will be polite applause at best,” says Denise. “It’s going to feel different for the athletes, I’m sure.”
Growing up in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands with her Jamaican-born single mum Joan (her father left before she was born), Denise had a tunnel-vision dream of becoming an athlete.
Unable to train at her local racing track until the age of nine and inspired by British female athletes including javelin thrower Tessa Sanderson and Birmingham sprinter Sonia Lannaman – “women who looked like me that were getting to the top” – Denise devised her own exercise regimes.
By 14, she was training four nights a week with a coach. After progressing from county to international level, by age 16 Denise had achieved her first junior international best.
Her story of grit and enthusiasm is all the more remarkable considering the number of girls participating in sport post-puberty drops off a cliff. What’s more, a recent survey by UK charity Women In Sport, found 62% of teenage girls are less active now than before the pandemic.
“When I was competing, you’d see a natural decline and that could be [because of] puberty, self-consciousness and body-consciousness,” recalls Denise, adding that two hours of PE a week in secondary school is “not enough” and “widening the options” of sports available would encourage greater participation.
During lockdown, Denise and Steve threw themselves into exercise with their other children together – Ryan, 15 and Kane, 12 – and Denise’s daughter Lauryn, 19, from her relationship with Belgian sprinter Patrick Stevens, doing a mix of running and garden gym sessions.
Denise also introduced four weekly workouts to her routine: an outside boot camp or Peloton bike blast and three Zoom fitness classes with other mums, which provided high-intensity training and what she calls a “prosecco stretch.” Come again?
“You get the prosecco ready for after the stretching. It’s a five o’clock class! Some people don’t bother with the stretch, they just go straight for the prosecco!”
During her track and field days, Denise trained twice a day, six days a week, so post-retirement she naturally gained weight.
“People think that because you’re an Olympian, albeit 20-odd years ago, your body remains and it’s not like that,” she says, adding that since lockdown she’s shrunk from a size 12 to a “comfortable” 10-12.
“I still had some of my baby body – and I was fine with that – but I’ve worked at it for the past year and I’m in good shape. I don’t follow a diet regime.
"I stick to healthy habits, which are a holdover from my athletics days, but I don’t drive myself insane counting calories. Life’s too short! I enjoy food and I work out hard and I feel good, but I do have to make sure I don’t go too crazy sometimes.”
The athlete, who now has her own range of activewear with Next, smiles. “I do get back into the: ‘I need to push myself and squeeze in that last burpee’ mentality!”
Denise is a sporting icon to millions but, as a mum, what example does she hope to set her own children?
“I tell my children: ‘People will remember your manners and kindness more than your accolades in life.’ I try to get them to think about those more wholesome values. Everything else is a bonus.”
This empathy has served Denise well. After a spell of feeling “lost” and going through “a grieving process” post-retirement, she threw herself into family life and new adventures.
She supported the Youth Sports Trust, travelled to Singapore with Lord Sebastian Coe as part of the London 2012 presentation team and in 2009 joined the BBC.
She’s also taken part in an array of non-sporting telly, including ITV reality show Don’t Rock The Boat and the BBC’s Matron, Medicine And Me, which saw her return to the Wolverhampton hospital where her grandmother worked after arriving from Jamaica in the ‘50s.
“I feel blessed with the opportunities I’ve been given,” says Denise, adding that the perks that come with her high-profile status – and being married to a pop industry bigwig – have resulted in serious pinch-me moments over the years, like invitations to the royal box at Wimbledon.
“The privilege is one I don’t take for granted. Serena Williams looked at me once and that made my day! I’ve loved meeting Roger Federer and later his mum and dad, who live near my aunt in Switzerland.”
In 2004, Denise finished runner-up in the second series of Strictly Come Dancing with Iain Waite as her professional partner. Is she still dancing?
“Only in my kitchen on a Sunday evening when I put the music on and do the mass tidy-up,” she says, before revealing a near-obsessive penchant for maintaining a spick-and-span home. “I’m not talking clinical tidiness, but one plate can’t be in the sink for too long,” she laughs.
Recently Denise has supported world champion heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson, 28, after she suffered an achilles injury.
Having experienced a similar injury herself, which forced her to withdraw from the World Championships in 2001, she’s been well placed to guide KJT through recovery. Has she now got the capacity to win in Tokyo?
“The injuries haven’t been great, but she just has to get the training under her belt and make sure she’s on that start line,” says Denise, who is also rooting for 800m star Keely Hodgkinson.
She adds: “Keely’s transitioned well into the senior team and has a very wise head on her shoulders.”
Katarina and Keely are fortunate. After the pandemic put a halt on competitions, women’s team sports were neglected as more profitable men’s games, including Premier League football, were prioritised.
By contrast, women’s football, netball and rugby all had their seasons cancelled, while cricket and hockey were postponed indefinitely. In June, Denise joined a campaign urging Boris Johnson to rectify the problem.
ROOTING FOR KEELY
“So many people were crying out: ‘Why is women’s sport the first to be dropped?’ It’s all been about finance – which sports are going to bring in the biggest revenue and that has tended to be men’s sport. It’s not right, but I get it.”
Denise has, however, been encouraged by the return of female competition to the sporting calendar.
She observes that there are “probably more women competing than men” at next year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and last month the BBC announced plans to show women’s T20 cricket internationals this summer.
Meanwhile, UEFA has signed a ground-breaking deal for the Women’s Champions League to stream free live coverage of the competition for the next four years.
“I can only see things improving, but we have to keep championing it and keep reminding sponsors and TV companies that visibility matters,” says Denise. “When you give women’s sport the opportunity, it excels, it rises.”
In this world where we’re talking about equality and using your voice and your platform, silencing individuals is not very progressive
The much-vaunted legacy of London 2012 – the first Olympics where women represented every country taking part – created more opportunities in sports, she says, as it became clear that “women’s events can keep bums on seats.”
Denise, now serving as the president of Commonwealth Games England, believes that long-lasting change is dependent on more women being recruited at senior level into governing bodies, broadcasters and sponsors.
“There aren’t enough women making decisions. If there was a better gender balance on boards, it wouldn’t be that difficult,” she adds.
Happily, she says she never experienced misogyny during her sporting ascent, but concedes that in athletics the gender balance is: “generally better than in other sports” where women can be “more marketable” than their male counterparts.
On the controversial news that New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, 43, is set to become the first transgender athlete to compete at an Olympics, Denise has questions.
'WHERE'S THE HUMANITY?'
Several athletes have spoken out about what they believe to be the unfairness of someone who was born male and went through a male puberty (Hubbard transitioned in 2013) competing against biological women.
“I’m no scientist, but I do ask whether, if the male body has been trained in any way, do you retain that extra advantage? As a former man, she will have retained some of that physicality, which I think gives an advantage. Having seen advances in women’s sports over the years, we have to be mindful of how we get the balance right.”
Denise also has strong feelings about the International Olympics Committee’s decision to ban athletes from making political statements, and references American hammer thrower and Black Lives Matter activist Gwen Berry, 32, who turned her back on the US flag and anthem at this month’s Olympic trials.
“There are quite high-profile people calling for her to be banned from the Olympics. I just find it crazy how people can be that insensitive and not compassionate to the cause.
"Where’s the humanity?” she asks. “In this world where we’re talking about equality and using your voice and your platform, silencing individuals is not very progressive.”
As she reflects on her own mentality as a young athlete, Denise’s sage wisdom seeps through. “I saw the opportunities were there in athletics and just thought: ‘Bring it on. I’m good at this. I’m just going to keep learning my trade.’”
Fortunately, it looks like that journey is showing no sign of ending.
- Shop the Denise Lewis Edit at Next.co.uk.
In the make-up chair with Denise
What are your skincare heroes?
L’Oréal ReVitalift Hydrating Cream, Elemis Pro-Collagen Night Cream and Pro-Collagen Rose Cleansing Balm.
Any make-up bag essentials?
Mac Chestnut Lip Liner, Nars Radiant Longwear Foundation and Chanel Ultra Le Teint Foundation.
What do you splurge on?
Chanel Hydra Beauty Nourishing Cream and Killian Good Girl Gone Bad perfume.
What’s your beauty bargain?
O’Keeffe’s For Healthy Feet Foot Cream.
Fave haircare products?
Shea Moisture Laydown Lacquer and The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Treatment.
Who’s your beauty icon?
Beyoncé – for so many reasons!
What’s your top beauty tip?
Wrap your head with a silk scarf at night or buy a silk pillowcase. As you get older, you need to look after that hairline!
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