Teenagers setting off on road to Rio

Jess Leyden, with her silver and bronze medals for rowing from the junior Olympics.
Jess Leyden, with her silver and bronze medals for rowing from the junior Olympics.

With London 2012 behind us and thoughts turning towards Rio in 2016, two teenagers have their sights set on competing at the next Olympics.

Wheelchair table tennis player Megan Shackleton is tipped by coaches to be one of the stars of the Games in Brazil.

And following in the footsteps of London 2012 postergirl Jess Ennis, another Jess is aiming to make a splash on the water in South America.

Rower Jess Leyden, of Todmorden, has recently returned from the Australian Youth Olympic Festival, where she picked up two medals.

And competing at the Sydney International Regatta Centre - the venue for rowing at the 2000 Olympics - has left her hungry for more. “It was great to represent Team GB with the Olympic rings on my kit,” she said.

“I just want to do it again and again.”

She helped Britain’s women’s quadruple scull crew to silver and then picked up a bronze medal in the eight.

“I’ve got a lot to improve on,” she said.

“I know what went wrong and I’ll put it right next time.”

Watching the Olympic rowing at Eton Dorney last summer was an inspirational experience.

“The atmosphere was great, especially the ‘Dorney roar’,” she said.

The 17-year-old has a busy schedule in 2013.

She will be competing in the singles at the National Schools Championships, plans to enter the women’s Head of the River Race on the River Thames and is aiming to take part in the women’s Henley Royal Regatta.

In addition, she will also be entering the trials for the World Junior Rowing Championships.

Jess says she likes competing in all the disciplines, whether it is on her own or as part of a team.

“I like being in a crew,” she said.

“It’s fun because you have to compete against everyone one day and then you have to work together in the crews another.

“You become really good friends with them.”

Her rowing exploits have seen Jess competing in many different countries over the last few years.

“It’s very exciting travelling the world,” she said.

“It was amazing to compete in Sydney, seeing the lights on the bridge.”

Trying to combine her training and school studies has been a challenge, but she feels she has now got the balance right.

“I found it quite difficult last year so I’m having to re-sit a year. But it’s a lot better now,” she said.

The Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School student used to be a pupil at Todmorden High School.

Staff still stay in touch, especially PE teacher Gemma Cooper, who comes to watch Jess compete.

Jess started rowing aged 13 after trying out during sessions at Hollingworth Lake in Littleborough and has not looked back since.

“Becoming an Olympic rower is always the dream,” she said.

The Olympic dream could soon become a reality for Megan, as the talented 13-year-old is being tipped as one to watch at the Rio Paralympics.

“I really want to go to 2016,” she said.

“My coach is hoping that if I was to go to Rio in 2016, that would be my practice because 2020 would be my best chance.”

While competing at the UK School Games in London last summer, she met Paralympics GB star Will Bayley.

“I talk to him on Twitter,” she said. “He gives me advice.

“I was really inspired by the Paralympics.

“I’ll be putting in the training and competition practice and I hope it works.”

The Todmorden High School student has been playing for 18 months, during which time she has impressed at several competitions.

She won the wheelchair category at the Yorkshire regional championships and was runner-up at the Merseyside Open.

One of her main focuses in 2013 is the UK School Games in Sheffield in September, where she will be competing in the U17 category.

“It will be my second one,” she said. “I’m hoping I will do a lot better.

“Last time I won a couple of matches but I’d only been playing six months.

“I should be a lot better this time.”

Megan’s coaches visit her at school to lead training sessions.

She also goes to the English Institute for Sport in Sheffield for one-to-one coaching.

“It’s quite hard balancing the training and school work,” she said. “I have to catch up on stuff but my teachers are all being really supportive.

“It’s a good confidence boost to have people say they believe in me.”

Shaun Alvey, English Table Tennis Association regional disability coach who is working with Megan, said he has never met somebody so determined to succeed.

“I think she’s got it in her to go all the way and I hope she remembers where she has come from when she’s on the podium holding a medal,” he said.