They won the hearts of the nation while amassing ten Olympic golds between them – and falling in love along the way. The newlyweds reveal all
Unbeknown to the rest of us, five weeks after the Olympics in Rio, every member of British Cycling was on the dancefloor of a hotel “boogie room” celebrating Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s secret wedding.
Aside from the fit bodies (Olympians look hot when they glam up), if the hosts and guests had worn their Olympic medals – Trott, Kenny (ten between them), Chris Hoy, Callum Skinner, Katie Archibald, etc – there’d have been more gold jangling that night than if they had been a crew of rappers.
“It was all about being us,” Laura Trott (now Kenny) explains. “We could have been paid to put it in a magazine, but we didn’t want it to be.”
It’s been four years since the romance between Trott, then just 20, and Kenny, then 24, was “outed” in the press, after they were snapped canoodling while watching beach volleyball at the London Olympics. They were slightly drunk, Trott remembers, and giggly about sitting beside Prince Harry, whom Trott, to her mortification now, referred to in earshot as “the old prince”. Trott was in a new wave of poster girls for British Olympic success, young and innocent and fresh from winning two golds, for the omnium and the team pursuit. Kenny had added another two to his first gold win, in Bejing in 2008.
Their romance provided more fuel for 2012 Olympic mania. That it endured – their engagement was announced on Christmas Day in 2014 – meant that by the time they won five more golds in Rio this year (Kenny three, Trott two), the public could also enjoy their mutual (televised) delight in each other’s success. Kenny, with six golds in total, is now the joint holder of the highest number of Olympic golds for a British athlete. Trott, with her four, is GB’s most successful female competitor in any sport.
However much their relationship appeared to be “public”, they managed to keep a crucial part private. In every interview between 2014 and the end of Rio, they insisted no marriage date had been set. In fact, Trott now admits, it had been fixed for two years and she had ordered her blush pink lace wedding dress immediately. Even with such secrecy, they had, a month ago, a contingency plan for escaping from the church for private photographs.
“I phoned my dad on the morning of the wedding and he said, ‘No paparazzi are here yet.’ We couldn’t believe we’d done it.”
You can’t breathe. You come off the track and think your head is going to explode
The need for privacy at the nuptials (where there were 60 guests, they reveal now, with 130 for dancing at the Hilltop Country House in Prestbury, eight miles from their home) tells its own story of a modern phenomenon, one in which we laud our Olympians as we do actors and rock stars. It has its downsides, the most fundamental one being the weight of public expectation felt by the athletes, particularly the very young ones. Trott felt this acutely in the run-up to Rio, during which, she says, she lost all confidence in her body and her ability to win gold again.
“Pre-Rio I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. I was failing at the gym. I couldn’t physically do any more than I was doing and yet my times hadn’t been what they were.
“I crashed twice in the lead-up to Rio – once in training, once in a race – and I was stressed a lot of the time. It’s hard on your head and you have the whole country thinking, ‘Why aren’t you winning any more?’ I started sending crisis emails to my coaches and my background team, because I’d totally lost confidence.”
Needless to say, Kenny steadied her – “He learnt he could only make a joke about something I was worrying about two weeks after it had happened” – and she got her two further golds at Rio. “Everything had led up to that,” she says. “An 18-month plan leading up to that race. But you never see that at the time.”
Today, Trott and Kenny, or Kenny and Kenny (“We are going to have to change the banner we hold from ‘Go Trotty go’ to ‘Go go Kenny Kenny’,” Jason Kenny’s mum, Lorraine, tells me) are just back to their cottage outside Knutsford in Cheshire from a four-week honeymoon in Europe (south of France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and … Hastings), part campervan trip, part swanky French Riviera villa (a nice metaphor for their lives). They took their bikes but barely rode them (only to the shops to get provisions).
Post-Rio, this month the pair are bringing out a book, The Inside Track, which tells the story of their Olympic successes and their relationship in their own words. “It’s a much nicer feeling,” Kenny says of the process of producing the book, rather than the Olympic media circus, “because you have control.” And, of course, he is doing it with his wife. When their romance was first made public, for example, stories circulated of him having been married with a child – it was utter rubbish, “but the papers just had to get something out and grabbed hold of anything”. The image of him supposedly hugging his child after winning (thus casting him as a cad) was in fact an Australian cyclist and offspring.
I’ve been in pain my entire career. It’s something female cyclists don’t speak about
Trott is tanned, honed and tiny, with waist-length, thick, Rapunzel-like golden hair, which we usually see tightly secured in the plaits she needs to fit it under her cycling helmet. It is the only aspect of her appearance that is non-negotiable. “A coach once wanted me to cut it off, because it’s a problem with the helmet, but I’ll never do it.”
Her body has changed considerably, she says, since 2012. Bigger, stronger legs, tighter abs. “Nothing I did back in 2012 made my body bigger,” she says. “Perhaps it is age and the fact they changed my diet.”
She tells horrific stories of intense, vomit-inducing training sessions on barely anything but a protein gel (“Just vile”), followed by marshmallows for the sugar, just a steak for supper and not being allowed to eat carbs except in a two-hour allocated slot at lunch, “By which point you feel sick from the training and then you feel even sicker having to eat a plate of carbs. I lasted three days on that particular diet.”
Kenny is tall and broad and almost entirely silent. Where Trott is garrulous and outgoing, Kenny is watchful, an aspect of his character that initially put off Trott. “I didn’t fancy him at all,” she says. (They met after she moved to Fallowfield in Manchester, aged 18, to begin training for London 2012 and was living in the same set of British Cycling flats that Kenny had lived in.) Trott, with a natural, open charm, is about putting people at their ease; Kenny is about withdrawing and waiting for a connection to develop. In the book, Trott reveals that she can always tell when Kenny is uncomfortable or bored by strangers and journalists. He begins to do a very slow blink and she immediately thinks, “Uh oh.”
“I always say I’m a rubbish superstar,” he says (no slow blink yet). “I don’t enjoy being the centre of attention. I’m not very good with people and I’m nowhere near as sociable as Laura.” Kenny is much happier fiddling with his bikes than he is at a party (the idea of that horrifies him). He would quite possibly be the last person you would see mingling with C-list celebs at the opening of an envelope. “I’ve got no patience for someone I don’t like,” he says. “It’s written all over my face.”
Trott and Kenny are, they insist, entirely normal save for their extraordinary sporting talent, no more equipped for the red carpet or intrusive lenses than the rest of us. They live with their two dogs, Pringle (named after Trott’s love of crisps) and Sprolo, and the dogs accompanied them on the honeymoon.
We could have been paid to put the wedding in a magazine, but we didn’t want that
The couple train twice a day leading up to races. “We like Sundays at home having a roast, walking the two dogs.” Of the public’s post-Olympic obsession with them, Trott says, “There is no way of people warning you that it is going to happen. You are just thrown into this completely different world.”
In fact, it turns out Kenny got down on one knee and proposed while Trott was watching EastEnders. You don’t get more prosaic than that. “I never expected him to propose. It’s just not Jason. He’s so laid-back. I thought it would be six years down the line.”
“I’m not good at sitting on things,” says Kenny. “I didn’t even plan to buy the ring.”
It’s amazing, seeing how temperamentally different the newlyweds are from one another, that they got together in the first place. But their chief differences are superficial, they say. Both are driven, both are competitive, born from when they were children, of wanting to keep up with and then beat their sporty older siblings. (Trott grew up in Hertfordshire with a sister, who until 2014 was also a professional cyclist. Kenny, from Bolton, has a brother.) And, of course, both understand the rigours and demands of the Olympic life. “It makes you very selfish a lot of the time,” says Trott.
They do, however, have diverging approaches to stress.
Like Trott, Kenny also thought he was under-performing in the run-up to Rio as he had before London 2012, “but I wasn’t really worried about it. By that time you have done 99 per cent of the work. If it hasn’t worked, it’s not going to change. There’s nothing you can do at that point to win the race; all you can do is lose it by messing it up.”
“It takes a lot to make him really angry,” Trott explains.
“He’s calmed her down,” says Lorraine, Kenny’s mother, as we watch them pose on a bike dressed to the nines. Kenny is having powder applied to his nose and his eyebrows brushed with coloured gel, while wearing knee-length socks and stylish suit shorts.
“And she’s made him consider things that he would never have done before. She’s such a girlie girl and, honestly, I can say that when I saw her walk down the aisle I was as proud of her as if she’d been my own daughter.” Lorraine’s eyes fill with tears.
One anecdote in The Inside Track tells of the first time Trott visited Kenny’s parents and put her feet up on the sofa, an early indication to Lorraine that it might be serious.
Another tells of when Trott had a full-on hissy fit on Kenny’s birthday when she couldn’t find a pair of tights to match her outfit. She sent him out to get her a new pair and even then she wailed, “I want my tights.” It reads as quite diva-ish (and very human) behaviour. “I did feel really bad about that,” says Trott, laughing. “I don’t know what comes over me, but it happens every now and again. I’ll be absolutely fine and then the next minute I’m irrational.” (Trott has a rather distinctive accent, which sounds a little bit Brummie and part cockney. Kenny’s is pure northern.)
It was after the 2014 World Championships, in which she had not been at her best in her solo events. “I’ll take it out on the people who are closest to me,” Trott says. “It probably wasn’t even about the tights.”
That year presented Trott with another heartbreak. Her beloved sister, Emma, two years her elder, her cycling mate from childhood – “She knows that I couldn’t have done it without her” – announced she was leaving the sport and moving to New Zealand to live with the woman who is now her wife, another professional cyclist. “It was horrendous,” Trott says. “I didn’t want her to go. When I was growing up, I only carried on with cycling because Emma did it. When she came over for the wedding, it was the best ten days of my life. I spent every minute of every day with her. But she has a new life out there, a business as a personal trainer, and they’ve built their own house.”
Still, there is a real sense with Trott that marriage to Kenny provides her with her “team” now. It’s why, Trott says, it felt so natural to get married so early. “I said to my coach, ‘Am I bad to marry so young?’ And he said, ‘You’ve done everything in your life young. You had a collapsed lung and got over that, you were a junior champion, then an Olympian. You do everything early.’ ”
The collapsed lung was at birth. Trott was premature and in intensive care. She then went on to develop bad asthma. She was a sickly child, with continued chest infections. It was this early poor health that contributed to her enthusiasm for sport – trampolining (scuppered by unexplained blackouts), swimming, hockey. “It started with swimming,” she says, “which the doctors said would regulate my breathing. Then my mum took up cycling to lose weight and I joined her. I never looked back.”
Being married to Trott has, in many ways, forced Kenny further into the limelight. (“He is so modest,” says Lorraine. “All he says of his achievements is, ‘I ride a bike.’ ”)
I crashed twice in the lead-up to Rio. I’d totally lost my confidence
If there is one aspect of their lives, however, that looms large in almost every chapter of the book it is the daily, hourly presence of physical pain. “You come off the track and think your head is going to explode,” Kenny writes. “Your helmet feels like it’s stopping you breathing. Your skinsuit feels as if it is crushing you from the outside in. You rip off that armour and suddenly, left vulnerable, human once again, your body responds. Except it’s not like throwing up after drinking, or with a stomach virus. When you throw up from physical exhaustion it’s like someone’s flicked a switch … as if all your demons have come out in your vomit.”
Perhaps even more alarming is the honesty with which Trott talks, for the first time, about how hours in the saddle every day impacts on female genitalia, which can become bruised and lacerated by the impact of the saddle and the velocity, making an act as simple as having a shower impossible.
For Trott, it was only finally sorted out at the beginning of this year: “I have been in pain my entire career,” she says. “I didn’t even realise anything could be done. It’s a known thing among the women. We’d be so bruised and cut by the saddle, it was horrendous. Because of the G-force of the track, it’s like a friction burn. There would be days when we simply couldn’t train.”
British Cycling’s head physiotherapist, Phil Burt, developed an app for the female riders so they could log in when they were too sore to train. He then put together a panel of experts, including a friction specialist, reconstructive surgeons and a consultant in vulval health. As Trott puts it, he “got everyone talking. I really opened up … The chamois we were using was failing us. It had gone unchanged since Jason had won his first Olympic medal almost eight years before.
“The pain was all the time and we just didn’t speak about it,” she remembers. “I’d finish every omnium in absolute agony and you’re also spending six hours in a skinsuit.”
Trott’s particular problem was that she was, physiologically, too small for the standard-issue suit, with protected inserted chamois, to offer her any defence. Every time she got off the saddle, her padding slipped so that when she remounted, she was exposed to the pain of G-force. She and another rider were given 12 pairs of sample shorts to try, each with different forms of protection. After selecting the best, this new protection was sewn into a custom-made suit. “I said to the doctor who came in to help us, ‘You have literally changed my cycling career. After all these years, I don’t have to think about it any more.’ In the six months before Rio, not a single rider had a saddle sore. All that extra training, all that physical comfort instead of distress. I had gone through my whole career to that point not realising that you didn’t have to be in pain when you raced your bike.”
For Trott, being a role model for other girls also means talking about how female athletes deal with such issues as their periods (she went on the Pill to avoid menstruating during important races). For much of her career, girls had to deal with the consequences imposed by their menstrual cycles by themselves.
It’s a known thing among the women. We’d be bruised and cut by the saddle
She is passionate, too, about addressing the impact of adolescence on promising young female athletes. Girls must hang on to the sport they love, she says. It’s why she enjoyed being part of Always brand’s Like a Girl campaign. Statistics demonstrate that 64 per cent of girls drop sport around puberty. Trott almost gave up herself.
“At 14 or 15 I wanted to give it up. I can remember cycling past the cool kids who hung out at a row of shops and I was with my dad and wearing my helmet, and they’d shout stuff at me. Cycling just wasn’t cool at that age and I really thought, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ ”
It all changed when she started winning and got a place on the Olympic Development Programme when she was still at school. (Even then, an unenlightened teacher told her, “That job doesn’t even exist,” when Trott said she wanted to be a professional cyclist.) She became cool because of her success. “When they suddenly thought I might be an Olympian, it was like, ‘Oh, they’ve accepted it now and I can [ride] again.’ ”
British cycling has enjoyed something of a golden era over the past two Olympic Games – “We didn’t have those kinds of figureheads when I was young,” says Trott – but has also seen the controversial use of TUEs (therapeutic use exemptions), which allow athletes to take banned drugs on medical grounds. Trott, along with Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome (as well as other Olympians) had their TUEs leaked by the Fancy Bears hackers. For Trott, the TUE was for her asthma, issued back in 2009. It expired in 2013. “I hadn’t even used an inhaler in God knows how long. I was a bit gutted that had come out. But the fact is, I was a kid who couldn’t breathe. I found it harsh that people said that what I was doing was wrong, because I needed it. I really don’t want people with asthma to be put off the sport.”
The controversy centred mainly on Wiggins, who took the powerful anti-inflammatory drug triamcinolone before the Tour de France in 2011 and 2012, winning the latter. While it has been established that there has been no wrongdoing, the ethical debate continues – particularly for British Cycling. “As part of the inquiry into doping, the select committee wants to look at the ethics of the use of TUEs and the way this is policed by British Cycling,” Damian Collins, chair of the culture, media and sport select committee, has told The Times.
It’s a difficult subject for both Kenny and Trott (there’s no mention of it in the book). “Fortunately I’ve never needed a TUE,” says Kenny. “It’s difficult. You don’t want people not doing a sport through something that can genuinely be treated. We need a ban list. It’s the darker side of the sport. It’s something that we do because we want to compete in a clean sport, and we accept all the extra paperwork.
“To be honest, you have to put faith in the system and faith in the people at the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale – signatory of the World Anti-Doping Code]. We have to have faith in people to keep us protected and keep the sport clean.”
Both Kennys are hoping to compete in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, after which, Trott hints, she’d be ready to retire and start a family. “And then I won’t touch a bike,” she says. “I might use it to go to the shop, but I think it will take me a long time to think, ‘I’ll go out for fun,’ because it’s never really been fun.”
And then, for them, one cycling and one not? Now, they can’t even ride bikes together because it often ends in a row about speed. Maybe that would change?
“It just becomes a new life. It will just evolve. I don’t think it will be that different,” says Trott. “We’ll just talk about our day, but there’ll be a new group of people.
“It’s happening already with a couple of my new friends – Lucy, who does my nails, and Jen, who did my wedding hair. For the first time for years, they are friends who are nothing to do with cycling. They really don’t care about cycling at all. “They care about Laura the person, not Laura the cyclist, and it’s nice for me – really refreshing.”
In the last pages of The Inside Track, there is a story Trott tells of how she and Kenny would dance around their kitchen using wooden spoons as microphones, singing Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart to one another. It was the song they used at the wedding for their first dance. “You can take a line each, even when neither of you can sing very well.” It’s a far cry from the Olympic podium but, as she says, marriage means being “finally alone, finally truly together”.