Famous Fathers

Olympic Champion Greg Rutherford Talks Kids, Tech and ‘Hands-On’ Fatherhood

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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

Greg Rutherford is the reigning Olympic, Commonwealth and European Long Jump Champion, but his new challenge requires an even greater leap.

Fuelled by his own passion, Greg has regularly been outspoken on ways to get kids more involved in sport, not to mention making athletics more accessible and bringing it into the modern era through street exhibitions. He is also an ambassador for the LeapBand – the wearable fitness tracker created by educational toy company LeapFrog – which monitors a child’s physical movement and offers 50 different activities and challenges to encourage healthy play and habits.

Greg will soon have first-hand experience, as he and long-term partner Susie Verrill welcomed a baby boy into the world at the end of October and the Milton Keynes-born star has made no efforts to hide his joy at becoming a dad – something he professes to have wanted for a very long time.

Sam Skelding caught up with the Olympian ahead of the birth to talk about getting kids more active, sport’s complex image and his vision for ‘hands-on’ fatherhood.

Tell us a bit about the LeapBand and why you wanted to be an ambassador?

Absolutely, well it’s the latest conception of the newest interactive technology, which obviously works very well with staying active and keeping fit. I think we are in an era where people – kids in particular – aren’t really prepared to get out and stay fit, but they all love technology. The LeapBand is a creation that doesn’t force them to get active, but puts them in a position where they want to do things and interact properly to get the most out of it. With 50 challenges, there’s plenty to keep them active! So from the point of view of trying to keep kids fit and healthy, it’s a fantastic new product.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles to getting kids active?

Well I guess I’m going to find out soon as my first baby’s due and within a couple of years I’ll be figuring out how exactly to do it myself. It’s a strange one because when I go back to my parents’ house – the house I grew up in – and pass all the places I used to play, being outside, kicking a football and climbing trees and those places are now devoid of children. Technology has massively taken over and it’s become cheaper, easier and more accessible for people. When I was younger, I think we had a computer in the house when I was 14 or 15 and that was more for my Mum writing up my Dad’s estimates for work than us playing on it. You’re always challenged by that now, so trying to keep kids fit and entertained when it comes to being active seems extra tough. I’m quite lucky in that where I now live backs onto fields and a woodland area, so with my little one, I’ll be very much encouraging being outside a lot.

Anything else?

I think the media also hasn’t helped to a certain degree. A lot of people are worried about letting their children go and play, because it seems you never know who’s about. You’re always reading these terrible stories and I think, speaking to some parents, they don’t like letting their children out of their sight because of the risk. What the answer is, I’m not entirely sure, but something like the LeapBand – you can just be in your garden or front room and be that bit more active.

You use wearable tech as part of the elite field, so how does the LeapBand stand up?

To be honest, it really stands on its own. Looking around, I don’t think I’ve really seen anything that can interact with a child in that way, so from that point of view it’s definitely beating the market. From my perspective, I’m used to using things like the Nike Fuelband and watches that record where you are and heart rate, those things are always useful for elite sports. Introducing children to sport from a young age can only be good thing and if you can have fun and play games, then that’s taking it to the next level – which is exactly how it has to be done.

You mentioned having fun, do you think people have lost sight of how easy getting active can be?

I think so. Ultimately, I look back at my childhood – which wasn’t that long ago – and things that entertained me were kicking a ball with my mates, climbing trees or just being out on bikes and that seemed to really entertain us which doesn’t seem to happen now. People have slightly lost touch with the fact you can go out there and just have fun, if you’ve got a bit of imagination as well, it’s very easy to do. I mean, the world is pretty big place and there are an awful lot of places you can go and climb around. There is definitely a responsibility on adults, if you are a parent, you have to be prepared to take the time and go outside and show the children that it’s fun, interesting and there are things to do.

I can imagine you being an active kid, but did your parents play a role in setting you on your current sporting path?

My parents were great actually. They weren’t the pushy type of parents and didn’t end up making it boring for me, because I think the most important thing with any form of sporting activity is that is has to be fun. I think once you start pushing children to do something where they’re not quite as enthused as their parents – you see it at football games – I did when I was a kid and some parents would be screaming, shouting and going absolutely mental, while others would be more relaxed; for those kids who had their parents jumping down their throats, it didn’t last as long. I was lucky because my parents encouraged rather than forced and because of that, I developed the skills I needed to take track and field on to a high level. So, if anything, the fact that they supported me and pushed me in a good way, gave me the opportunity to decide for myself if I didn’t want to do it anymore.

You will soon be a new dad, how do you feel?

I am just incredibly excited because I’ve always wanted children. I was very lucky that when I met Susie, we were both on the same page and wanted to start a family. I can’t wait, I mean it’s obviously going to be a massive learning curve but I’m fortunate enough that I’ve taken about ten weeks off after the birth to be there and help. I want to be the type of dad who is hands-on, I want to be changing nappies and doing whatever I can to help Susie. I reckon most dads will tell me that once the baby’s here and I’m lacking sleep and everything else, that the emotions will change slightly but I really can’t wait; it’s going to be an incredible time and one that I will remember forever. It really is going to be the greatest moment of my life, I remember saying at the Olympics, that it wasn’t the greatest day of my life because that will be when I have children, and this will eclipse it.

You have a refreshing outlook on fatherhood – one we champion – but are dads of your generation still given a raw deal?

I think so. Some people I speak to say “are you going to make Susie do all the work?”, but I reply with absolutely not. I’m very keen to be involved and there are definitely some people who are surprised by that. But in general – people who are my age who want or have had children – they are hands-on or want to be. It’s a massive experience and long gone are the Victorian views of mums doing everything while dads go off to work, it’s such an archaic way of looking at things. I do think there are still blokes out there who think that’s how it should be and they need to be shook to be quite honest, because it should be a joint partnership of developing and learning. It’s something that I massively welcome and in no way is it a burden, I have to and want to be doing it! You read about dads who have never changed a nappy, which is a real shame. I’m going to be hands-on and I’ll say to anyone who is expecting, you should be to – it’s a great time to bond and have a bit of fun.

You’re clearly looking forward to fatherhood, but how will it affect your career?

I’ve spoken to a few people about this, some of whom are athletes with kids. Andy Turner – who is one of my best mates and recently retired – he has three girls and he’s been telling me for years that it’s a great thing. Because so much has changed, you don’t really stress about the small things and if you have a bad day at the track, it doesn’t stay bad because you have something else to worry about and that’s really healthy. If people stress about what they’re doing constantly, well in my job it leads to bad performances and burn out, so I’m very keen on having other things to do and worry about. When the baby comes along, I have the perfect excuse to focus my energy on something else. In sport, you have to be selfish but when the baby arrives, I can’t be selfish anymore. I’m sure once I’ve recovered from the sleep-deprivation, it’ll be perfect!

Well you seem like a bundle of energy on track, is that the precursor to your parenting style?

Yes! I do like to think I have a lot of energy and I definitely want to take that forward into parenting. I think the key is I don’t see becoming a dad as anything other than great – I’ve been excited from the day I found out. I can’t wait to have a lot of fun and hopefully only ever see the positives – that’s certainly how I’ll be channeling my approach to fatherhood.

Has learning about parenting been like discovering a new world?

Exactly like that! What has interested me is the sheer amount of things you need, there are just ‘things’ and it’s odd. You’re trying to organise your house, the car, the pushchair and there are just so many things that have to found, sorted and sourced. It’s amazing – I think the baby is going to have more things than I do and they’re not here yet. It’s one of those interesting situations where I am learning on the job. I think once the baby is here, it’ll become an exciting time of crash-course. I think we are prepared, which is good, so now it’s just a sit and wait game.

Finally, you are currently Olympic, Commonwealth and European champion – does it get any better than this?

It will get better if I win the World Championships next year, which means I’ve won everything I can in track and field – that would be very special. The perfect season would obviously be not losing a single event and everything running smoothly, but the likelihood of that happening is slim to none. Winning the Olympics is the crowning glory of your life and career – but this has easily been one of the best seasons of my life. I can’t rest on my laurels and hopefully next year I can capitalise on what I’ve learnt this year and make it another good one.