Dame Laura Kenny: People forget we are humans – there have been some incredibly hard times

Laura Kenny - Dame Laura Kenny: People forget we are humans – there have been some incredibly hard times
Dame Laura Kenny is still the same bubbly, wide-eyed girl from Cheshunt - The Telegraph/Rii Schroer

Dame Laura Kenny’s dad Adrian arrives first, laden with nappy bags and pushing a baby buggy. He looks a little frazzled, truth be told. You can hardly blame him. It has been a long day, starting at 6am when his daughter, Britain’s most successful female Olympian of all time, announced via social media that she was retiring from competitive cycling with immediate effect, ruling out a tilt at the Paris Games this summer and prompting an outpouring of love and affection for one of this country’s genuine greats.

Everyone wanted a bit of Laura. When we meet up, she and her dad have just caught the train from Manchester to London, having done BBC Breakfast first thing, followed by various radio programmes. After a quick pitstop at Kenny’s publicist’s offices just off Oxford Street, they will head next to ITV. On Tuesday it will be Sky Sports’ turn.

Not that you would know it. When Kenny arrives, baby Monty strapped to her chest, she does not look at all sleep-deprived or like she is being pulled from pillar to post. She smiles and giggles, as she always has, and apologises, saying she needs to feed Monty quickly before our interview. She is still breastfeeding, hence why he needed to accompany her. “Dad will take him to the hotel after this.”

Dame Laura Kenny on retirement: Everyone paints a pretty picture but we are not robots
Kenny has, throughout her career, had an ebullient outlook - The Telegraph/Rii Schroer

She is still buzzing about the fact that David Beckham has posted about her retirement on his Instagram feed to his 87 million followers. “It’s mad!” she says, cackling. “So many people have been in touch. It’s been a bit overwhelming.”

The great thing about Kenny is that, even after six Olympic medals, and countless world titles and world records, she is still the same bubbly, wide-eyed girl from Cheshunt. The same pocket rocket with whom the nation fell in love when at the age of 20 when she won her first two gold medals at London 2012 before being pictured kissing then boyfriend Jason at the beach volleyball behind, yes, Beckham.

British cyclists Laura Trott and Jason Kenny kissing at London 2012
British cyclists Laura Trott and Jason Kenny kissing at London 2012 - Getty Images/Pascal Le Segretain

It is a relief that she still is, because for a while a couple of years ago things got very dark for Kenny. After a miscarriage in late 2021, just a few months after she picked up what would turn out to be the last of her Olympic haul at those delayed Tokyo Games, followed by an ectopic pregnancy in January 2022 that resulted in emergency surgery, Kenny was in a very bad way.

“It’s funny,” she says of all the adulation being heaped upon her now; the girl-next-door who became a winning machine, the Supermum who came back from the birth of her first son Albie in six months. “Everyone paints such a pretty picture. But I think people forget, underneath it all we are human beings. We’re not robots. As much as you see us at the Olympics, and it may look like we are, especially under our helmets and visors, it is so so tough. There have been some incredibly tough times. My career certainly hasn’t been this smooth upward trajectory that people project.”

Kenny, 31, recalls a period during 2022 when she could hardly function at all. With team-mate Katie Archibald suffering from her own well-publicised mental health battles following the tragic death of her partner Rab Wardell, Kenny still grieving the loss of her unborn child, the furore over Emily Bridges and British Cycling’s transgender policy, she broke down completely at that year’s Commonwealth Games.

Archibald’s decision to pull out of that competition, and their planned assault on the world Madison title later that year, left her feeling completely unmoored. “I literally felt like my arm had been ripped off when Katie told me she was pulling out,” she says. “I broke down in tears. I think I was just exhausted from feeling like I couldn’t have another child basically. And the desire so badly to have another child. And it was so out of my control. Yet I was still trying to keep up this face of, ‘I’m okay. Everything’s okay. I’m going to the Commonwealth Games. It’ll all be fine’. For Katie to then say, ‘I’m not in the right frame of mind for this’…I felt like my heart had been ripped out.

“I remember I got on the start line in the points race. And I was just like, ‘I can’t do this’. My head was all over the shop. Honestly, I felt like I didn’t know how to ride a points race. I had no clue where I should be, or what was happening. I think I scored maybe one point.”

Kenny had a “heart-to-heart” with her mum, Glenda, that evening. “I remember it was the day the Lionnesses won the women’s Euros,” she recalls. “I just broke down. I was like, ‘I literally cannot do this any more’. I mean, I was so exhausted. She said: ‘Well just go out there tomorrow in the Scratch race and race it like it’s your last race. What have you got to lose?’”

Of course, Kenny won gold the following day. It proved to be the final medal of her glittering career. And, quite possibly, the one of which she is most proud. “Honestly,” she insists. “When people say, ‘What was your career highlight?’ Obviously London 2012 was the most amazing period and the highlight of my career. It changed my life. But that Commonwealth Scratch race is kind of up there just because of everything that was going on at the time. I  feel like from the outside, nobody appreciates… well, people don’t see what’s going on in your personal life do they?”

Laura Kenny wins Commonwealth Scratch gold
Kenny's Commonwealth scratch gold is one of her greatest achievements - Getty Images/Justin Setterfield

It is partly the pain she went through back then, the sacrifices involved in being both a mother and an elite athlete, that convinced her to retire rather than try to chase the Paris dream, though she is honest enough to admit that Paris was probably out of the question anyway.

“I think this is what people forget as well,” she says. “I think they look at you and think, ‘She’s won before. So she’ll get selected’. But that is one thing that British Cycling is so so good at, the quality of riders that come through the system is just insane. That pursuit team won the World Championships [in Glasgow last year]. So it wasn’t even a case of, ‘I would have to be at my very best’. I would be trying to convince Cam [Meyer, the women’s track endurance coach] that he has to remove a world champion from the lineup. I would have to have been even better than I was before, 100 per cent.”

Kenny says she was training “up until 10 days ago” and the numbers she is posting “aren’t terrible”. But she adds it was taking her a lot longer to come back from the birth of Monty last year than it did for her to come back from the birth of her first son, Albie, in the summer of 2017.

“I’d say it’s taken me eight months to get to where I was six months after Albie’s birth,” she says. “And I wasn’t anywhere near my best shape when I came back then.”

She pauses. “I think in my head I knew I wasn’t going to make it to Paris. But I never wanted to rule it out. It’s only because time has finally run out, the final qualifier is coming up and people keep asking. It got to the point where I had to decide whether to pull out of Paris and focus just on the World Championships later this year, or just stop altogether.”

Kenny chose the latter option and it was no doubt a wise decision. She says the “relief” she has felt since taking it has been tangible. She is looking forward to spending more time with her two boys, giggling when asked about the reference in yesterday’s Instagram post to her “growing family”. “Jason said this morning, ‘I bet everyone thinks you’re pregnant!’ I’m not. Sorry, I could have given you the exclusive there. Haha.”

Albie and Monty Kenny
Laura and Jason have two boys, Albie and Monty - Instagram

British Cycling’s loss is likely to be the BBC’s gain. Kenny says she would “love to be involved” in the Games coverage this summer, adding that she is looking forward to watching her erstwhile teammates in action. Although she has not actually stepped foot inside the velodrome in Manchester since before the birth of Monty last summer, doing all her meetings via Zoom, and training remotely over the winter, she is “fully plugged in” thanks to her husband, Sir Jason, who now coaches the men’s sprint team.

“I don’t think it will be weird,” she says, when asked what it will feel like to stand on the other side of the track centre barrier. “I’ve actually been away from it for a while now and I’ve got used to the idea. I’ve actually really enjoyed doing the media side. I’ll be cheering the girls on.”

She will be doubly relying on her husband for intel until then because she has just removed herself from the last two WhatsApp groups at British Cycling of which she has been an ever-present member.

“It’s funny actually, because I was the last survivor from London 2012 and I have been there throughout,” she notes. “Like, every time someone’s obviously moved on, I’ve been there in the group the whole time. It’s kind of scary. That really brought it home actually. It’s like, ‘Ok, that’s done!’”

Kenny says she would also like to work with young riders in some capacity, although “definitely not as a coach”. “I’ve got loads of ideas,” she says. “Maybe clinics or workshops, that kind of thing. Maybe with Jason, if his British Cycling contract allows. Or my sister Emma [who also raced professionally]. Obviously, the funding is not as high as it was back when I first started out. I feel like the talent pathway that was key to so many of us is not as strongly supported as before. There’s maybe something missing there. I’d like to work with that younger generation, the 13-14 year olds. I remember what it was like when I was that age.”

Maybe her own children? With a combined 15 Olympic medals (12 of them gold) spread between their parents, they certainly have the genes? Kenny giggles. “Albie hates cycling, sadly,” she says cheerfully. “Tennis is his thing at the minute, although I’m not sure he’s got the competitive genes. I swear, he doesn’t even try when it comes to the competition! Like when things didn’t go Jason and my way, you try harder, you know, because that’s what you want. And he sort of goes ‘Oh well!’ But I can’t be a pushy parent. Mine were never like that. They were hands off, gently encouraging. I hate the parents who stand on the sidelines shouting at their kids. I’m like, ‘You do realise they’re six or seven year olds?’ They’re shouting at them telling them, ‘You’ve let them down’!! Yeah, that’s not for me.”

I am reminded of something Adrian Trott once told me about his daughter in the build up to Tokyo 2020. “She’s a good person,” he said. “And if it all falls apart over the next few days, we’ll still be exceptionally proud of her. And no amount of Olympic medals or world titles will change that. What makes us [Adrian and wife Glenda] feel warm and fuzzy is when people say, ‘Oh, isn’t she nice? Isn’t she normal?’ Because we feel we did something right.”

They did indeed. Yes, there was Sir Bradley Wiggins, and Mark Cavendish, and Sir Chris Hoy, and Victoria Pendleton, and all those guys. But as much as any of them, it was the bubbly, girl-next-door warrior whose talents, whose steely competitiveness and ability to deliver under pressure were completely at odds with her down-to-earth personality, who fuelled the cycling revolution in this country. British sport is going to miss Laura Kenny.