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Meet the 52 women breaking down coaching barriers at Paris Olympics

In January 52 phone numbers were added to a new WhatsApp group. It was called “Preparation for Paris” but may as well have been dubbed the Golden Group, assuming things go to plan this summer. Those phone numbers belonged to 52 leading coaches aiming for Paris 2024, hailing from 15 different countries and 19 sports. All of them are women.

It includes the two-times Olympic champion New Zealand shot-putter Valerie Adams, now a coach and chair of the World Athletics Athletes’ Commission. Simone Biles’s former coach Aimee Boorman is also there. So too is the Olympian Sara Symington, now head of Olympic and Paralympic programmes for British Cycling. The former American sprinter Mechelle Lewis Freeman is also involved, as coach for the USA women’s relay team, managing stars including Sha’Carri Richardson. Another is Jane Figueiredo, the longtime coach to British diver Tom Daley, set to compete at his fifth and final Olympics.

This network of women may be separated by thousands of miles but they have all beaten the odds to target the pinnacle of their sport. In Tokyo three years ago only 17% of the coaches were women. That number is expected to rise to 25% this year, but it remains a small minority – especially for a Games branding itself as the “#GenderEqualOlympics” owing to a 50-50 gender split among Olympic athletes for the first time.

“It’s quite a lonely place, coaching or leading certain programmes,” Symington says. “The fact a community of women has been created, even on a WhatsApp group, has been incredible. Women tend to have more impostor syndrome – I do – and it’s having that encouragement to have confidence in what you’re doing. I’ve just learned that you’re not in it alone.”

Noah Williams and Tom Daley pose for a photo with their coach Jane Figueiredo. Photograph: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

These women were brought together by the founder of the Female Coaching Network (FCN) Vicky Huyton, who launched the Preparation for Paris programme late last year. She saw it as a way of helping female coaches prioritise their wellbeing during the most intense months of their professional lives.

As well as the messaging group, the coaches have benefited from health monitoring and monthly workshops provided by FCN’s partner, Whoop. Webinar topics included circadian rhythms, how to avoid burnout and dealing with pressure.

Figueiredo, 60, is one of the most successful coaches on the Team GB roster, as head coach of the diving programme, and guided Daley to two bronze and one gold medal during their decade-long partnership. She credits the programme with lifting her out of a low point last year.

“I tore my achilles tendon, had surgery on my shoulder, I stopped taking care of myself and what I noticed was not a good feeling,” Figueiredo says. “I didn’t feel like coaching was the way I wanted to go any more. But having these women around me, like Vicky, it’s given me a lot of courage. It reminded me that there’s more to coaching than just the daily grind. This group is on the same journey as me. They understand me and I understand them.”

FCN has previously produced research highlighting the lack of female representation. In Huyton’s view there are “systemic” problems blocking women coaches from major competitions, including how team staff are selected for individual sports. Of the 52 coaches on the programme, at least 10 – in sports including athletics, climbing, rowing and swimming – were overlooked or not even considered by their federations for team staff positions in Paris, despite their athlete having already successfully qualified. One coach to a reigning Olympic gold medallist will not be permitted to attend the Games as an accredited coach.

“There’s huge issues with how federations hand out accreditation, because there isn’t a system,” Huyton says. “So we see the mostly male performance staff usually make their picks based on who they want to spend the month with. There are plenty of qualified women who deserve to take up those positions, but until you have a standardised selection policy, they won’t be part of the teams at the Games.”

All three coaches the Guardian spoke to also cited motherhood as a barrier for some women. Speaking from Frisco, Texas, Lewis Freeman, 43, says the dual responsibility of coaching and raising a family has been difficult. “Oh man, it’s a constant juggle. Trying to do it all, trying to pour into your family the same way you pour into your work. Everything is not going to be equal every day, and you have to have a supportive community that understands that.”

Symington, 54, has seen similar problems across the cycling world. While she thinks “the most powerful shift” in the past 15 years has been mothers continuing to compete after having children, more can be done to give coaches that opportunity too. “Globally, there just aren’t enough women.”

Sha’carri Richardson crosses the line to win world 100m gold in 2023. Photograph: Paweł Kopczyński/Reuters

The numbers need to improve, but for now these women can only focus on the all-consuming goals they have in Paris. The data-driven side to the programme, tracking things such as sleep, stress and strain, has reinforced high-performance tips they often preach to their athletes. “This is about coaching self care,” Figueiredo says. “I’m learning that instead of worrying about my athletes so much I need to worry about me and then I am a better version of myself for my athlete. It’s a rarity that coaches put themselves first.”

Huyton already has plans to deliver a similar programme in the NFL, NBA and WNBA, and Whoop will be publishing findings from Preparation for Paris in the autumn. Beyond the data, a sisterhood has been gained too. Though not all 52 will see their athletes qualify for Paris – and many will not be there regardless – those who do are keen to meet.

One challenge to being part of this community could be sharing a WhatsApp group with your direct rivals. Lewis Freeman is one of three sprint relay coaches in it: “You know what, it did come into my mind – of course it did, I’m a competitor! But, all jokes aside, that’s what this group’s best benefit has been for me too – connecting with someone who is just like you.”

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