Going For Gold with GB Sprinter Annie Tagoe

With the Olympics a TBC for the summer, GB athlete Annie Tagoe is finding success off the track and in front of the camera. In conversation with photographer Anastasia Orlando, Tagoe opens up about mental health, the Black Lives Matter movement and finding confidence in modelling.

HMUA Lucinda Worth

Annie Tagoe may be a sprinter, but she’s already paving the way for a marathon career. The 27-year-old athlete and future Olympian is fast becoming one of the UK’s leading Black voices in sport, having candidly shared her experiences with racism growing up that led her to use skin-lightening products as a teenager. Having wanted to be an actress from an early age, the multi-talent has now turned her hand to modelling. And, if these glorious shots by photographer Anastasia Orlando are anything to go by, we expect this venture will only add to her winning streak.

Today, Annie discusses her lockdown experience, witnessing the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer and her newfound penchant for modelling with Anastasia.

What has been the biggest challenge for you this last year, and what has been the biggest highlight?

The biggest personal challenge has been being healthy and the fittest I’ve ever felt and not being able to compete. After having surgeries on both knees a few years ago and extensive rehab, I finally felt so good in 2020. I was fit again – I was healthy, I had energy, I was ready to run, and then almost all the competitions got cancelled. But out of all of this, I’ve learnt how mentally strong I am. 

As for highlights, I’ve actually enjoyed lockdown! I got engaged! I don’t normally get to spend time with my family because I’m always travelling so this is the first year I’ve been here for a lot of their birthdays. Normally I’d be away training over Christmas, so it’s been nice to just be home with my family and really enjoy it.  

I’ve really enjoyed modelling, too. I’ve actually had time to meet new people and to engage with social media. We can’t use our phones when we’re training so you are very present which is good, but I’ve enjoyed connecting on Instagram and seeing a lot of creative’s work – everything that goes on outside of my world of training. My experience is different from my friends because I actually feel more connected in lockdown. I’ve had time to speak to friends, to just watch TV and enjoy Netflix. As crazy as it sounds, I just couldn’t do these things before!

What is training like in lockdown? 

I have mild acute arthritis so the winter is especially hard. Right now I’m supposed to be training in South Africa or Dubai, but this year is very different. I’m trying to train through the cold weather, and our coach sends a session over daily. We have to video the session in the park, then send it over for feedback. I train 3- 4 hrs per day usually. A few days a week I drive all the way to Kent to see my physio for my rehab sessions. It’s a lot and we work hard but I like that. I like to be busy and I’m so grateful for it. 

Can you give us some inside info on the Olympics? Do you think it’s going to happen?

In Early January, Japan called for a state of emergency because the country’s COVID-19 cases are so bad, so a lot of people don’t think the Olympics will happen. If it does, everyone will be vaccinated before they go, but there are so many unknowns and there won’t be any audiences so it’s not really in keeping with the spirit of the Olympics. A lot of people don’t really want it to happen because of this and because we haven’t really been able to train properly in lockdown. And then a lot of people do want it to happen because it’s the Olympics and it’s what we love! So opinions among athletes are split 50/50. For me, I see both sides. I’ll take it as it comes.

What has been the greatest challenge in your career? 

In 2014-15 I had the surgery on both knees and for about 3-4 years I couldn’t run. Watching my training partners going to compete while I was rehabilitating at home was so hard. I had serious bouts of depression. Being an athlete was the only thing I knew, so to not have this at all was so difficult. I was on crutches for 6 weeks for one surgery and 8 weeks for the other. I couldn’t even shower. I had to sit down in the bath with my leg elevated and I couldn’t reach parts of my body, so I was really reliant on my mum for help. I felt very vulnerable and hopeless. The crutches were so painful for my hands and arms. After a while, you don’t want to put yourself through that pain and be out and about anyway. It took a long time to rebuild my strength and my fitness. I’m still on that journey now.

It took a long time to rebuild my strength and my fitness. I’m still on that journey now.

I sought help for my mental health at the time as I was struggling so much. I didn’t have university to focus on as I was a full-time athlete at this point, so I really had to learn how to cope with no distractions. I found a brilliant psychologist in Birmingham who I was travelling to once a week until lockdown. Her techniques are brilliant – she uses Emotional Freedom Tapping for anxiety which felt strange at first but is so helpful. Then I saw a hypnotist in Harley St. I know there are so many sceptics of hypnotherapy but I’m very open to trying new things and it worked for me! It’s been so helpful for my anxiety. My coach was also a massive help, calling me every day just to keep me on track. And the support of my family was so needed and amazing. 

Have these tools been ongoing in helping you during the pandemic and what advice would you give anyone struggling with mental health during this time?

I’ve been lucky in finding the positives of lockdown. My mum is an NHS nurse so it helps put things in perspective. A lot of the doctors and nurses at her hospital are getting sick so the workload has really ramped up quite a lot for her. She inspires me because she is so positive. She doesn’t really speak about the numbers and the things she is seeing at the hospital because she wants to be in the present moment and enjoy relaxing with us when she’s home. Her hospital is really doing a good job of keeping things as safe as they can. They give all the staff a kit so we all get tested every week and then when she is at work there is very regular testing as well so she has peace of mind. 

You always need to pay attention to your emotional wellbeing and we can help each other.

It is so important that we pay attention to our mental health during this time. I know that I am mentally stronger because I went through the surgery in my early twenties and learnt a lot of tools with therapy but it’s still an ongoing process. I would say you always need to pay attention to your emotional wellbeing and we can help each other. If you feel low just reaching out to a friend helps and chances are, you’ll also be helping them – staying feeling connected is so important. 

I would say for anyone struggling, journaling and bringing your attention to the great things and people that you have in your life are both really helpful tools. With so many hardships people are going through I have just really relished this newfound time with my family and speaking to friends on the phone. The gratitude I feel for this really helps keep my mind in a positive space and the frustration I feel at not being able to compete kind of diminishes. Take each day as it comes. I speak with my psychologist via zoom, speak to my coach on a regular basis and try to keep to my usual routine and do everything that I would normally do without covid restrictions, but from the safety of my home. Keeping a routine is my best advice. If you don’t have a therapist there are lots of options including free therapy through the NHS and other organisations so reach out.

Was running your first love? 

Actually, I loved football. I thought I was going to be a footballer for sure. I even played for QPR girls when I was 12 for a year or so. Unfortunately, it had to stop because my mum was looking after 4 kids on her own and working full time and she just couldn’t keep taking me to all the way into London to train. I loved basketball, trampolining and netball but then I found running. When I was about 15 and my PE teacher spotted my talent. I was winning the 100m and 200m races with such a gap that she took me to the local sports centre and from then on I spent most of my time training there with so many amazing athletes. They were competing in such big events, going to the Olympics, I thought okay, this is what I’m doing now. I was inspired and hooked on it straight away, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

I also loved acting and went to drama school at 18 for 3 years. I guess it was a very middle-class environment with a lot of very wealthy kids. When I look back at some of the comments that were being made, people were very prejudiced. But at the time I didn’t really know what racism was, so it went over my head. All I knew was that something didn’t feel right and I didn’t feel like I belonged in that environment. It just felt off. 

At the time I didn’t really know what racism was, so it went over my head. All I knew was that something didn’t feel right and I didn’t feel like I belonged in that environment. It just felt off.

Is racism something you have experienced in the world of sport?

Thankfully never! I think as a Black person, and even as a Black woman, racism is sadly something you are going to come across in your life – but it’s not something that’s present in sport in my experience. I’m thankful that there is more awareness of the issue now – it’s just sad that it took what’s been happening in America for people to really see it. All of that going on in the media was tough for the Black community. These things are not new. But let’s hope change is happening. 

How do you find being a woman in sport in 2021?

It’s definitely easier being a woman in sport now than back in the day. But we still need a lot of work to be done. Men still get more promotion, they get more sponsors, higher pay, more exposure and fame than a lot of women do. In terms of getting into competitions and the appreciation and respect from fans, it’s pretty much equal now. So I do think it is changing, slowly but surely.

Men [in sport] still get more promotion, they get more sponsors, higher pay, more exposure and fame than a lot of women do.

What advice would you give to young athletes starting out? 

Always listen to your body! Your body is so important and knows when it’s had enough. Try to speak to as many senior athletes and professionals as you can to help mentor and guide you as they have gone through what you are about to experience. 

What are your plans for after lockdown?

I am going to travel! I’m planning to go to my country – to Ghana – and I’m so excited. I miss the gym, I miss training with my training partners as well – there are 13 of us so I’m looking forward to training with them. We have a zoom meeting once a week so I still see their faces but I miss actually being with them in real life!

I’m looking forward to competing when we can, looking forward to getting some more  modelling jobs – its fun, it feels like a hobby that I love so while I can’t compete it’s been really great. Athletics is always going to be a love of mine however I do see modelling in my horizon when my relationship with track and field ends.

And I’m getting married – when we can! We met the year that I had my surgery – I had treated myself to a trip to NYC. I was walking around Brooklyn and there he was sitting on a park bench. I sat down and we started speaking, he asked me where I was from and the conversation just went on… we were there chatting in the park till 3am! We met up every day from that point till I came home. I was there for just a week but it felt like it lasted ages because so much happened and it just felt like the most amazing trip ever. That was 5 years ago! So we are very excited about getting married when we can. If 2020 taught me anything it’s to enjoy and appreciate our loved ones.

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