Donna Fraser is one of the UK’s most successful 400m runners who competed at 4 consecutive Olympic Games and is now the Vice President to the sports governing body, UK Athletics.
Whilst during Donna’s career she achieved a host of medals and titles, she is possibly best remembered for being part of one of the Olympic Games most incredible 400m finals. ?If you don’t know the story of Cathy Freeman competing at her home Olympics in Sydney 2000 CLICK HERE. . In front of the?112,500 capacity screaming crowd with her Nations hopes on her shoulders, Cathy won Olympic gold as Donna came in a close 4th in Lane 2.
As Cathy sat on the floor in shock of her achievement, Donna (who was at the time Cathy’s training partner) walked over to hug and congratulate the Champion to create one of the Olympics most memorable images..
Retiring from her running career in 2009 whilst battling Breast Cancer, Donna recovered to give qualifying for her home Olympic Games at London 2012 a go, but alas it was not to be. Since then, she has held a number of leadership and administration positions in sport and in support of the BAME community.
Prior to her current role as UK Athletics Vice President, she held the position of President of the South of England Athletics Association and from 2013-2015 she was Chair of the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Network at EDF Energy.
Donna’s latest project is to celebrate?Black and Asian Coaches within British Athletics as she hosts the ‘COACH‘ event on Wednesday 25th October 2017. As part of Black History Month in the UK, (an annual celebration in the United Kingdom, Canada and the USA though celebrated in differing months based on location),UK Athletics, in collaboration with Photographer Ernest Simons and Project Manager David Gorgeous ? plans to deliver a black and white photographic exhibition with the aim to continue inspiring the next generation for years to come.
Recognising the contribution of past and present Black and Asian athletics coaches in the UK from grass roots to elite level, COACH particularly focuses on those who were athletes themselves and are passionate about sharing their experiences and expertise with the emerging athletics stars in the UK.
To find out more about Donna’s event, how she remembers that incredible 400m race and her plans for the future, read our interview below!
I’ve got to start by asking how you felt last week celebrating the 17th anniversary of possibly the best 400m race in Olympic history, what are your memories from that race and how does it feel looking back on it?
I feel old! Haha. It doesn’t feel like 17 years ago at all! It feels more like it was last year although I know I wouldn’t be able to run a 400m that quick now! My biggest memories of that will always be the start of that race because to me in my head, it felt like complete silence. When that gun went, all I saw was the flashing lights in the crowd, and when I watch it on TV now I can?t believe the noise that was in that stadium. I didn’t hear that at all, I was so far into the zone I think I went beyond it, I was so out of it (reality) that I wasn’t even aware I was in an Olympic final! Hence why I was dead last with 150 to go, haha. I don’t know if I thought I was just out on a daily stroll or if it was a training run, but my head was not in the right space for an Olympic final. I think I was overwhelmed.
So that was one of the biggest memories, but I also remember the end of the race, because that picture is shown all over the World of me crouched down with Cathy Freeman. She was my training partner that year and I was honoured to train with a World Champion and then Olympic Champion as well. She was just amazing and I was happy for her but devastated for me at the same time.
It is hard to get your head round the fact that you were in one of the greatest races in Olympic history, but just missed out on a medal?
Yeah, I take it for granted sometimes. 50% of me still thinks like an athlete in the fact that you’re never happy until you get that medal and get on the podium, so for me I still feel I failed, I failed my coach, I failed my country…but then the other 50% reminds me that I was 4th in World, I ran the fastest time I had ever run. I do appreciate it and I do look at it and remind myself that I was part of the greatest 400m race in history, so I am of course honoured to be part of that history, but there is a part of me that still thinks if only I had run that first 250m better! Haha, but it is one of those things that happens and in athletics if you don’t seize that moment, its such a small window and I missed it, but hey ho, you live and learn!
Since retiring in 2009 you have been heavily involved in the governance of athletics?was it always an ambition of yours to stay in athletics once retired?
I think my initial thoughts when I retired was I just wanted to be normal! Eat what I liked, do what I liked, not having to get up and go running in the cold! I did enjoy that normality, but it was all very short lived because I started to miss it.
I felt like I had to give something back because of my journey in athletics, but also through my breast cancer journey. So I went on the speaking circuit talking about my story. I wanted to inspire youngsters to be body aware and also to be confident in their abilities…which I don’t feel I was in that Olympic final! So that was my quest, I wanted to inspire anyone of any age, any gender etc to be the best they can be.
I was elected to be Vice President of UK Athletics which gave me a voice to help, as well as still being in touch with a lot of the athletes…and then a few years down the line and after 19 years at EDF Energy an opportunity to work in athletics came up so I left. This new opportunity came up to be Equality, Diversity & Engagement Lead for UKA. So it all seemed like my destiny, I needed to come back! It doesn’t feel like a new job, this is home for me, so I know I am in the right place. This is where my calling is.
Can you tell us a little more about your role as Equality, Diversity and Engagement Lead with UKA?
Equality and diversity seems to be the hot topic in any organisation at the moment and I did a little bit in this area in my previous role at EDF Energy as BAME network Chair. My aim there was to support BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] employees in terms of leadership, development, progression etc. I want to bring some if this into UKA, because we aren’t just an organisation aimed at the participation in the sport, there are other roles that are available too, whether that’s in finance, procurement etc..so for my role it?s about retaining and attracting anyone from any walk of life and experience. It’s also about instilling how we behave as an organisation so that everyone feels included irrespective of their gender, race, sexual orientation etc..
Athletics is the most diverse sport, but is it reflected within the organisation. Not as well as it should be, so that is my aim to achieve that; it’s important for us to reflect our sport as an organisation and as a diverse National Governing Body. I will be creating those pathways for progression for existing employees, but also attracting new people whether they have a disability, BAME backgrounds, LGBT etc, all of those protected characteristic groups because everyone has skills and we need to appreciate the diversity and how we can improve as an organisation.
And to highlight your aims within your role, you have an event coming up that celebrates black and Asian coaches in your sport, can you tell us about this?
This event was something that stemmed from a conversation with a coach about the lack of recognition for coaches overall but for particularly coaches from a BAME background. I spoke to a lot of coaches that I knew and they all told me that they are of course doing what they do for the love of their sport, but it would just be nice to get a thank you sometimes – they do after all produce the champions we all celebrate. So with Black History month this month [October], I thought we could do something around that. I had some connections with a photographer who was really keen to get involved and after pulling together a proposal, we decided to do a photographic exhibition.
There are a couple of objectives I want to achieve from this project which includes promoting positive black and Asian role models but also highlighting the lack of female BAME coaches (and female coaches overall!). I wanted to showcase these fabulous individuals and bridge the gap of engagement of national governing bodies and coaches from a BAME backgrounds. I hope this will inspire people to get involved with athletics, not just as a coach but as an official, or an athlete, a volunteer etc. Black history month was the perfect opportunity to do it.
Moving on from that I don’t know where this will take us and I am having conversations with you [the FCN] so that we can build on this. It’s not just about BAME, it’s about coaching overall and respecting, celebrating and recognising the time and effort coaches put in. Coaches are not just people who do the training programmes for their sport, it goes way beyond that. They are the mothers, the fathers, the psychologists, the doctors…they are everything to these athletes. These are the skills which need to be respected, nurtured and valued. So I do want this project to go further than it is at this stage and hopefully it will roll on.
It’s interesting that you are doing an event around images and photographs, one phrase I keep coming up against with the FCN is if I can’t see it, I can’t be it. So from you point of view, how important do you think it is that we have these images of coaches doing their thing and all the background work they do behind the scenes of a performance?
That’s the brief that I gave the photographer, I want the pictures to tell a story that the general public don’t usual see. Everyone see’s the athlete coming out and competing, but they don’t see what goes on prior to that, they don’t see the conversations, the emotions, the journey to competition that happens. It is so important for people to understand what goes on, because without that people just assume you just turn up at the track and run, jump or throw – no! It is so much further than that, its about the conversations, the relationships and the trust and this is what I really want to bring out in these images. ?Ernest Simons the photographer has done extremely well, because it also shows the diverse groups of athletes that these coaches have. Black coaches don’t just coach black athletes, it goes beyond that. It doesn’t matter who you are coaching, you just want the athlete to excel and that’s the coaches main focus. For this particular project, we are also looking for coaches who were athletes themselves highlighting their expertise that they are passing on to the next generation is so important.
Everyone is different and we have to respect that.
Why do you think there is such a lack of female coaches and leaders at the top levels of track and field?
I have been asked this question before, I do think that women sometimes (not all the time) lack the confidence. I have heard stats around job applications for example; if a job was advertised with a number of skill sets, many women wouldn’t apply because they don’t match every single one, whereas a man would think what the hell and apply anyway. I don’t know why, but many of us do have self-doubt rather than just going for it. ?It goes back to your point of if you can’t see it, you can’t be it, so it takes some really strong minded women to take the lead; and there are many! There are so many empowered women out there, but we need to lead the way and pave the way for other women. ?This is one of the reasons why I have gone forward to do so many things. I just think if I can do it as a 400m runner who didn’t go to University, then so can anyone else. So I really want to lead the way for many other athletes, women particularity, to support them the best I can.
In my role with UKA, I need to develop a Diversity Action Plan as part of the Sport Governance Code. In that there is a requirement by all NGB’s to have a target of at least 30% gender diversity on boards. I want to look at the barriers for women and allow them to be able to progress in their careers. I want to address the work-life balance for female coaches, so that if there are any issues or struggles in this we can help and put provisions in place. For example, having a family and wanting to coach shouldn’t be an issue for anyone, but people do think that it is. We need to support our women the best we can, so tell us and we will look to help.
Next year is a super busy year for British Athletes as we have the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast and the European Championships in Berlin; you were heavily involved with the World Championships this year in London, so will you have any roles in these major Champs coming up?
Not yet, but I am sure things will crop up! I was Accessibility Manager for the World Para-athletics in London this year which was a brilliant experience and I absolutely loved it! It put me in good stead for what I could deliver moving forward in the disability space. I was able to look at our sport and discover if we are actually accessible, and there are so many areas which we are not! For next year, I am sure things will crop up before I know it, I struggle to say no!
What are your own ambitions for the future of your career? Will you be staying involved with Athletics?
That is such a good question because if you had asked me that question 10 years ago I would have said I wanted to be in a leadership role. I just knew I wanted to be in a position that I could lead the way, I am definitely a leader. I like to have a good team around me and to try and empower them as well. In terms of the next 10 years, I don’t know because I am having so much fun right now! And that’s one of the reasons I left EDF Energy because I had reached the point where I couldn’t see how to move forward and this opportunity has allowed me to do that. Until I get to the point where I think I’m not moving, then it’s time to move on and seek other opportunities. At the moment I don’t know maybe on a veranda in the Caribbean drinking cocktails! haha.