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Olympian Desiree Henry on her own London 2012 legacy

It’s still a pinch me moment whenever I think about it – I really did it! Those dreams, late nights and hours of work were all for something and I’m beyond proud to call myself a World, European and Olympic Medalist. These achievements were not a story of overnight success, so let me break down the impact of London 2012 and how its legacy is something that should never be doubted.

At the time of the London 2012 Olympics, I was just a 15-year-old from North London who went to an all-girls school and had found athletics to be the first thing that made my life feel as though it had a purpose.

I was a newly crowned World Youth Champion, which for my first time representing Great Britain, I thought nothing could top. The Games were a matter of weeks away and I was really just excited at the thought that all my favorite athletes would soon be here competing in my home city.

I was invited to an event and my mum had informed me that the organizers wanted things to be kept extremely private as it was all top secret. And so, one morning, we were picked up by a black car covered in the 2012 Olympics logo with the words ‘inspire a generation’ below it. There were so many questions running through my mind from ‘are they going to ask me to compete?’ to ‘have I done something wrong?’!

If you’ve been in the car and approached east London from the north, you get to a point where you can see both the aquatics centre and the athletics stadium as clear as day in the middle of what felt like nowhere, and it was at this moment where I thought, oh my goodness, could we be going inside the newly built stadium?

This might sound dramatic to some, but for me it was honestly like being invited into the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory. I was very aware of its existence and who would soon be competing in there, but you never imagine yourself suddenly being inside the place, especially when the games hadn’t even begun! I thought the closest I’d get to the Olympics was watch it on TV.

After arriving at the stadium and meeting six other young people – who were equally as confused as to why we were all brought here – Danny Boyle the movie director arrived, huddled us all into a circle and told us that it was us that he wanted to light the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony. 27th July 2012 therefore became the night I went from having a vague idea that I could possibly go to the Olympics one day, to believing that it’s my calling to be a world class athlete and Olympian.

Have you ever smiled so much that your cheeks start to hurt, and your lips are quivering? I believe on that night that it was the combination of adrenaline, excitement and the anxiousness of trying to contain this array of emotions whilst understanding that at this moment, the world was truly watching. From our Queen and the Royal Family, to heads of nations and so many of the athletes that I look up to, either in this stadium with me, or watching from the athletes village TV screens. There was a moment where we had to run past the athletes situated in the centre of the stadium to prepare for the official lighting of the cauldron. As I ran past, I just kept thinking to myself, I’m going to be like you guys one day: an Olympian.

The chosen few that have battled and competed to represent their home nations. Finding myself in a sea of those whose fate was to be Olympic Champions, World Record Holders and Champions of a Nation, well if there was ever a sign, ever a moment of right place at the right time, this was it for me. Even to this day it’s hard to believe that I share this moment of being one of the few to light an Olympic cauldron with the likes of Muhammed Ali.

By the time the 2016 Olympics in Rio came around I was in the best shape of my life. My confidence was high. Over that four-year period I believe that that was the hardest I’d ever worked in my life, as my only goal was to ensure that I was at the next Olympics representing my country. And I did. I not only represented Great Britain at my first Olympics in Rio, but at the age of 21 I came back with an Olympic Bronze medal, the first in over 32 years in the 4x100m women’s event.

Olympic legacy is not just something that’s created at one point in history only to be remembered every four years, it represents what happens when someone stays so focused and dares to not just dream but put in work to make their dream a reality – and bet on themselves to achieve great things.

Legacy is not what’s just left behind in the host cities infrastructure, but what has been ignited in the minds and memories. Legacy is understanding and studying what others have done before, and incorporating the lessons learned, the testimonies, the lows as well as highs, and combining it all with something great and powerful to guide you in your own future.

Legacy has the power to change lives, and to change our mentality. It has the power to change one from thinking ‘what if ?’ to ‘I CAN’. That’s what I believe London 2012 did for me. It took away the kind of doubt that usually holds us back, and through seeing hundreds of people from all around the world, from all different walks of life, competing at the highest level here in East London, I realised I could be just as special too.

Desiree is the third fastest woman in British history in the 100m. She won Bronze in the Rio 2016 Olympics for 4x100m relay, and then silver at the 2017 World Championships in London. She teaches fitness for all ages and is a regular on TV and radio. Find out more about her.

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