Olympic medallist Campbell swaps barbell for flagpole at Games' opening ceremony

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Emily Campbell at Tokyo 2020 REUTERS/Edgard Garrido (REUTERS)
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Emily Campbell carries the heavy burden of being a sporting trailblazer like the Olympic medallist weightlifter she is writes James Toney.

Now she's carrying the flag too as she prepares to lead hosts Team England into Thursday's opening ceremony at the XXII Commonwealth Games.

It's nearly a year since Campbell, from Bulwell, won a first Olympic medal for British women's weightlifting, meaning she arrives in Birmingham as the hot favourite for the Commonwealth title.

But you sense Campbell has a higher purpose than just the 'bling', as she refers to her medal quest.

She's the third weightlifter to lead England into the Games, following in the footsteps of Louis Martin in 1966 and the legendary Precious McKenzie eight years later.

McKenzie, who once hoisted Muhammad Ali over his head, won four Commonwealth titles and legend has it that the Queen was such a fan of the 4ft 11in 'Pocket Rocket', that she was late for an official engagement to watch him win gold at the 1974 Games in Christchurch.

"I met Precious for the first time a month ago and he's a legend of our sport, following him and Louis, both people of colour, that means so much to me," added Campbell, who is one of more than 1,100 elite athletes on UK Sport’s National Lottery-funded World Class Programme, allowing them to train full time, have access to the world’s best coaches and benefit from pioneering technology, science and medical support.

"It's even more special to carry this flag because of him, he's 86 and still a phenomenon. Him and Louis both achieved things that people didn't think were possible and now it's my turn."

Campbell, who will carry the flag with diver Jack Laugher, likes picking battles and winning them, while thriving on defying odds and expectations. In between training she tirelessly advocates on a range of issues, from women in sport to body positivity.

"It's a surreal moment, you see people carry the flag and it's such an honour to lead these athletes who are ready to represent their country," she adds.

"I've been so excited about these Games ever since Tokyo, this is so close to home for me and I can't wait to get out there.

"My first love was athletics and I used to compete at the Alexander Stadium (venue for Thursday night's opening ceremony). It used to be a pretty gritty place and I remembe how the stands used to fall apart, now it's shiny and brand new.

"Representation is everything to me, people believe in what they can see. For young black girls to watch people who look like them on the television doing amazing things, that’s what this is all about. I know there are girls getting into the gym because of what I'm doing. I want to be a role model they can relate to."

This summer, Team England, supported by funding raised by National Lottery players, will comprise of over 400 athletes, and having secured her place on the squad, Campbell is looking to capitalise on the once in a lifetime opportunity for medal success in h home country.

But while some missions are more important than medals, don't think Campbell isn't dreaming big here - and there's a strong trend for those selected to carry the flag winning gold to further heap on the pressure.

"My self-confidence has really lifted since Tokyo, I know believe I'm one of the best athletes in the world," she adds.

"I need to back that up here and take this opportunity. It's no secret, I've put in the training and hard work and I'm in this to win. Hopefully I can get some rewarded with some bling."

In the meantime, Campbell - who dyed her hair red and blue in Tokyo - insists something special planned for her big night, though won't be drawn on details.

"I've had the nails and lashes done, I'm not giving anything away about the hair - it's a surprise," she adds.

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