The Commonwealth Games played a pivotal role in Kelly Sotherton’s life as an athlete.
Finishing seventh in Manchester in 2002 helped the former heptathlete decide to go all in on pursuing a sporting career rather than joining the police – a wise move, given that four years later, in Melbourne, she stood on the top spot of the podium.
The fact that gold medal was then stolen from her during a burglary at her house in 2015 and meant she got to make an appearance on Crimewatch, her favourite TV show, adds an extra dimension to the story.
Speaking with the three-time Olympic bronze medallist as we approach the 20-year anniversary of her first stepping into the Commonwealth arena, the Games remain at the centre of her professional life. This time, however, she isn’t preparing to compete.
Instead, as England’s Track and Field Team Leader for Birmingham 2022, the 45-year-old is working to ensure the way is paved for others to excel.
With every passing day, the job gets busier and wider in scope. It is, she says, all about “getting her ducks in a row” and setting a straight line to success for the support staff and athletes in her charge.
Keeping the keel even has not been easy, though. Covid first emerged just after she took the job in February 2020, throwing international sporting schedules into chaos and resulting in the groaning fixture list which means the athletics action gets underway in Birmingham, with the marathons, just six days after the conclusion of the World Championships in Eugene.
Uncertainty continues to loom large, too. “[Some] things normally are in place by now but because of the delays in certain processes we’re still waiting on certain clarifications,” says Sotherton. However, she adds: “But I’m all about lastminute.com and I think we all know the Games are going to great – it’s just a bit later in planning.
“I think if I can get if I can do a good job here in this crisis, it puts me in good stead for the next role, whatever that would be wherever it would be. I’ve never done anything like this before and at this scale, so you learn a lot about yourself and I suppose that’s quite similar to being an athlete, when you go into a competition and it’s tricky.”
There is no denying the proximity of the World Championships complicates matters. It’s a fast turnaround from a competition on the other side of the globe. Were she competing now, Sotherton herself admits her priority would be Oregon.
Yet Birmingham would come an extremely close second. Living in Sutton Coldfield and being a Birchfield Harrier who used to train at the Alexander Stadium, the venue which is currently being completely revamped to host the track and field events at the Games, she knows just what a special prospect lies in store for the home athletes.
“Because of what has happened, I think it’s even more special,” she says. “A home Games would always figure for me, because you don’t know when the next [outdoors] one is going to be. To perform at your best at a home championships in front of friends and family, that’s the ultimate and not many athletes get that opportunity.”
Injury denied Sotherton a shot at London 2012, so the aforementioned Games in Manchester proved to be the only major home outdoor championships of her career.
“It came at really the right time, because I was at a crossroads about whether or not to continue my athletics career,” she says. “I wanted to join the police.
“I didn’t really do that well – I came seventh and I was very disappointed – but it was a great experience and I had a really good time. It made me realise what I needed to do to make the next step.
“That was a point where I made the decision and obviously the rest is history. I was at the Olympics [and won bronze] two years later.”
Melbourne was (half) a world away from Manchester. Sotherton opted to focus on the Commonwealth challenge rather pursue a World Indoor title in Moscow which, in all probability, would have been there for the taking. Again, it proved to be right call – although it wasn’t without some downsides.
“Melbourne was a great experience, even though I injured myself quite badly,” she recalls. “It was the first time I noticed the fractures in my spine [back problems forced her retirement in 2012] and I tore my calf. I could hardly run before the 800m given that my back was so sore after the javelin.
“It was a very partisan crowd because it was at the Melbourne Cricket Ground and English people don’t predominantly win at the MCG, do they? To win there, you don’t realise the enormity [of what you’ve done] until you look back.
“It was an honour and it was actually the only gold I won at that level.”
And, if that medal could talk, it would have some tales to tell.
“It also has significance because it got stolen and appeared on Crimewatch,” she says. “That medal’s got a story. I got burgled and it ended up in a postbox down the road, but I got to appear on my favourite programme.”
Sotherton laughs at the memory but her message is a serious one. As someone who wants to field the strongest England team possible, she naturally wants to persuade all the athletes she can to put themselves in the selection picture. These Games are significant, especially given the major changes which lie ahead in the coming years.
The Commonwealth Games Federation announced at the end of last year that future hosts will be granted a greater freedom over which sports to include on their programme, with only athletics and swimming being compulsory after this edition.
“It has a lot of significance and that’s the message I would send to a lot of athletes,” says the three-time European Indoors silver medallist.
“The Commonwealth Games is probably going to be changing over the next couple of cycles. This could be the last Games like it is.”
Birmingham 2022 has further significance in that it brings the potential to make a big, positive impact on athletics in Great Britain. Sotherton knows all too well how badly that’s needed, given the lack of good news stories in the recent past.
She can see good progress already being made on the repair job, too, but insists that patience really will be a virtue in that process. “I think what people need to understand is that it won’t all change within six months,” she says. “About a year ago, we probably thought the sport couldn’t really get any worse and then, obviously, it has.
“I think we’ve got some very good people in our organisations – not just the national governing body, but all the other home country federations – who want this to work, and are now pulling together in the same direction and that’s what it needed.
“There has to be really good communication between everybody and that’s happening.
“It takes at least four to eight years to see real, true difference. It will be probably 2030 before we see the outcome of all the processes that are being put in place now.
“People just have to be patient.
“The important thing is that if we believe in what is happening we support that process and I think more people do that now than they have done before. If you’re passionate about athletics, you want it to be successful and I think 99 per cent of people do want that.”
Sotherton is one of those passionate people of which she speaks and wouldn’t rule out a role in athletics governance being part of her future.
But first there’s a job to be done this summer. Ever the competitor, Sotherton has an ambitious goal in mind. She would like to beat the medal tally of 32 from Manchester which represents the highest ever Commonwealth return from an English athletics team.
At 70, plus the addition of para athletes, there will be a smaller number of athletes with which to achieve that compared to 20 years ago.
How do you take such a challenge on? By making sure everyone has what they need.
“It’s making sure the team just has the ability to do their job really well,” says Sotherton. “I always believe a good leader has people even better than them underneath them. I, hopefully, will be giving them the power to do what they need to do.”