Sheffield volleyball star Rachel Laybourne’s Olympic smile

Fully-fledged Olympian Rachel just can't stop smiling.
Fully-fledged Olympian Rachel just can't stop smiling.

Rachel Laybourne just can’t stop smiling ... and with good reason.

The Sheffield volleyball star’s battle against the odds is now, thankfully, a thing of the past and has been replaced by ‘membership’ to that Greatest Show on Earth club.

Rachel Laybourne, fourth from the right, and other Team GB volleyball members at the English Institute of Sport.

Rachel Laybourne, fourth from the right, and other Team GB volleyball members at the English Institute of Sport.

Rachel is now a fully-fledged Olympian - just 22 days and counting to the start of the London Games.

No wonder she’s smiling and what’s more, the former Meadowhead and All Saints student’s home city is smiling with her.

When the team’s funding was cut by UK Sport in 2010, a combination of help from Sheffield businesses plus individual and collective fund raising made sure the ‘adopted’ English Institute of Sport-based squad would still be able to compete in their home Olympics.

The added complications of a shoulder injury that required surgery last year provided another hurdle for the 30-year-old to overcome but nothing was ever going to halt her Olympic dream.

“I’d always hoped that it would end like this but there were days when I didn’t think it would,” she said.

“After I’d just had my surgery and the rest of the girls had gone out to Europe, I was sat at home in a sling, disheartened and so far away from this point.

“It’s amazing to actually realise that I’ve got here.”

Rachel still had to endure a nerve-racking one-on-one with coach Audrey Cooper before her place was confirmed and was then told to keep it under wraps until last Friday’s official announcement at the EIS.

“I can say that I have never been as nervous. She (Cooper) went through a structured criteria so that every person got the same line so it didn’t look like she was favouring one person.

“It wasn’t until she got to the end that she said ‘I’m delighted to tell you that..’ I was like, ‘wow!’

“There was tears on the phone to my mum afterwards. Tears of elation, joy and excitement. Everything rolled into one.

“I’ve found myself at the most random parts of the day just smiling and thinking ... I’m going to be an Olympian.

“It’s been a tough journey but we’ve grown and it means so much more to us because we’ve fought that battle. It’s not necessarily more satisfying but we’ve learned lessons.

“At this point it’s incredibly rewarding although I think about what if we had been funded fully all the way through the past five years.

“I think we’ve got the advantage of working exceptionally hard for something that seemed to be impossible. It gives you the grit and determination.

“I don’t feel different yet. When I was doing some community work at a school last week, someone asked if I was famous. I said ‘not yet.’

“I want people to be proud of my achievements not just that I have made the team.

The ‘mini goal’ has been achieved but the ‘big goal’ awaits ... performing well in the Olympics. Rachel and Co. will be facing the top five and top 10 teams in the world as their group clearly shows with Russia, Italy and Japan in the frame alongside the must-win opposition of Algeria and the Dominican Republic.

The aim is at least a fourth-place finish and a place in the quarter-finals.

“We’ve played these teams before but not in a tournament format,” she added. “We’ve had thorough preparation for it. We’ve mimicked the games; we’ve mimicked the game times but we’re not kidding ourselves, this will be the hardest thing we’ve faced yet.

“That’s not to say we’re not going to win matches. We’ve scouted and we’ve all got homework; we know them inside out; we’re prepared.”

Team GB face a three-match warm up against Korea, who are in the other pool, before their opening match against Russia on Saturday, July 28 (3pm) followed by a 10pm showdown against Algeria on the Tuesday.

It’s been an incredible journey for Rachel and her team-mates and hopefully it won’t end after London.

“There’s plans for Rio 2016 and we’re hoping that funding is put back into the sport to allow a legacy to carry on so that we’re at a higher level than we left off at.”

Here’s to the present ... and the future.