Road to Tokyo | Holly Aitchison reveals ambition for rugby sevens gold

p1f1mqh4lf80769r16danmu16fd.jpg

As part of the Road to Tokyo series, GiveMeSport Women caught up with British rugby sevens player Holly Aitchison for an exclusive interview.

Zoom has become a staple of life during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was still a surprise to hear the video call platform has been a key component in preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

When Aitchison spoke to GiveMeSport Women she was returning home from a Team GB rugby sevens training camp, where she had finally been able to come together with her teammates. Before the camp, the squad had relied on the powers of Zoom.

“It’s been difficult because everything has been online,” Aitchison said. “We started six weeks ago, just doing Zoom calls with the girls and trying to get a feel for the way we wanted to play and stuff.

“That was very different to what we were used to, and kind of difficult with three squads coming together, it’s difficult to meet people and engage with them properly over a Zoom call.”

p1f1mqq4i413g61ai1l1d1jd6c7un.jpg

(Mike Lee - KLC fotos for World Rugby)

Despite the virtual nature of their encounters, Aitchison revealed the discussions within the team had been overwhelmingly constructive.

“It was difficult to start with, but we’ve spoken a lot as a squad about how people might see our team and our structure to have a lot of weaknesses, and how we will turn those into positives. We spoke a lot about how it’s three nations coming together, other people won’t have that kind of advantage.”

“We’re still finding our feet, but it’s been great to actually meet finally in real life and put everyone in a room together. It’s a really good tight-knit group of girls in sevens, the squad is really small, so getting to know everyone is really important.”

Aitchison is among 19 players selected for the initial squad for Tokyo 2020. This will be narrowed down in the coming months, but the 23-year-old has taken one step closer to appearing at her first Games.

The British women’s team finished fourth at Rio 2016, the first time rugby sevens appeared on the Olympic programme. Aitchison revealed she was “honoured” to be among some of the players who competed in the Brazilian city five years ago.

“It’s incredible to be put in the same category as people who went to Rio 2016 – Abbie [Brown], Amy [Wilson Hardy] and [Heather] Fisher."

“It’s just a massive deal, something you’ve worked your whole life to achieve, and it was just amazing to be given the nod and the opportunity to try and get there. The main feeling is just excitement at what is to come, and I’m honoured to be part of something so huge.”

Tokyo 2020 was originally scheduled for last year before it was pushed back due to the global health crisis. It was hoped the postponement would allow the Games to be held with some sense of normality, but this has turned out to not be the case.

Strict COVID-19 protocol will be in place during the Olympics instead, including a ban on international spectators. This was a blow to athletes hoping to fly out friends and family to the Japanese capital, but Aitchison had a pragmatic view on the situation.

“Obviously from an athletes perspective, it is disappointing, if you’re looking from a selfish point of view,” she said. “It’s difficult because you’ve worked so hard for this opportunity and loved ones wanted to come out and support us, and that would have been amazing, but there’s still going to be a crowd there so I don’t think we’ve taken a knock to morale or anything like that.”

“It will still be incredible. There will be a full crowd of Japanese fans, and that will be an experience in itself. We’ve just spoken about taking everything in our stride and trying to turn it all into a positive. We’ll be excited to play in front of so many people regardless.”

p1f1mrbj531gtujrq1cj88nnesdp.jpg

The conversation turned to equal pay in sport, something that has been making headlines this week after American footballer Megan Rapinoe appeared at the White House to discuss the issue.

Refreshingly, the British rugby sevens set-up, in partnership with the National Lottery, has introduced a banded pay structure which financially rewards both the men’s and women’s programme at the same level. Aitchison spoke of the importance of such a pay structure.

“It’s amazing that our values have aligned,” she enthused. “They speak a lot about equality, and equal pay in sport is something of a rarity. From my standpoint, I believe in equality and no company, industry or sport should be able to discriminate based on gender or anything otherwise.”

“It’s imperative that we do have equal pay and it’s awarded to all athletes, but it also gives us the same value, the same platform."

"It’s a spur on, we really appreciate that we are valued the same, because we do the same sport and we train the same hours, so why should that not be reflected in our pay. It is amazing and a great step forward for us.”

It will be exciting to see how Britain's women's rugby sevens team perform at Tokyo 2020 this summer. The nation booked their place in the Olympic contest after England won the European qualifying tournament back in July 2019. Expectations were exceeded as the team eased past top seeds France 31-7 in the final.

Aitchison was confident Britain can surpass expectations once again when they arrive in Japan.

“We’ve set our sights high because I genuinely do believe the talent in the room is capable of a gold medal. We’re not crazy, even though we might look like it, but we’ve got goals and we want to make everyone aware of that.” 

News Now - Sport News