The Olympic hopeful dodged the murky elements of the estate where she grew up by focusing on sport. Here she tells Shelley Carter how she’s urging other youngsters to do the same
Tannika Burgess is getting as accustomed to winning awards off the track as on it. As well as training hard for Rio 2016, the sprinter turned long jumper turned triple jumper who incidentally throws pretty well too, finds time to coach and mentor youngsters. It’s no surprise that the all-rounder is excelling at that too. Voted ‘Regional Volunteer of the Year’ for her inspirational work with Sandwell’s youngsters, Tannika is now up for the ‘National Volunteer of the Year’ award, which she’s “thrilled” about. Tannika is also involved in the ‘Co-operative Street Games initiative’, a nationwide sports programme for disadvantaged youngsters. “It’s not about finding the next athletics star. It’s about giving the kids a focus, discipline and encouraging them to participate in something. It’s great to see the change in people,” says Tannika. She was presented with an award for ‘Best Youth Led Activity’ by the scheme’s organisers earlier this year. The project struck a chord with Tannika who had an upbringing that could easily have taken her down an altogether murkier path.
Tales of Tannika’s upbringing are shocking with her immediate surroundings littered with gangs, curfews and crime. “It is bad. There was a rape literally 200 metres from my front door, lots of gangs. That sort of thing. Going down that path was a real possibility for me had I not found an outlet,” says Tannika. Now aged 20, she has dodged the worst of it and got through her teenage years unscathed, but Tannika still lives in the same neighbourhood. Her situation highlights how skewed the funding system for athletes can be. “Until you reach the top one or two in your sport, funding isn’t available, but getting to the top without financial support is difficult. Lots of talented athletes who cannot afford to keep training fall by the wayside. A pair of spikes costs over £100. You need kit for all types of weather, hotels, travel. It adds up,” she says. Not that she’s grumbling. Despite her underprivileged background Tannika is super positive and focused. Now in her second year at Wolverhampton University studying PE, she has her head firmly screwed on.
As a child Tannika was a fast runner and stood out so much her PE teacher started putting her forward for sports hall competitions aged eleven. The following year, Tannika was the fastest twelve-year-old in the country with a time of 12.7 seconds over 100 metres. However, she became plagued by injury, Tannika dislocated her hip at one point and was also diagnosed with something called compartment syndrome, which meant she kept cramping up. But then she discovered this didn’t happen with the long jump, so began jumping instead of running. She’s now dabbling with the triple jump too. Tannika has had the same coach since she began her athletics career. Howard Court and his Olympian wife Clova provide the inspiration and training at Wolverhampton and Bilston Athletics Club. Training is intense and it’s hard to see how Tannika packs in volunteering, studying and friends as well. She says, “unusually for somebody my age I don’t go out drinking with my friends. I don’t want to do that. I like catching up with friends at their houses. It’s important to find time for yourself, so I try to catch up with my friends a couple of times a month.”
Unbelievably, Tannika had to go through the same lottery system as the rest of us for London 2012 tickets and was unsuccessful. Her supportive mum took two weeks off work and they were ‘glued to the TV’ at home in Brum. “London was amazing. I absolutely loved it although I haven’t seen any evidence of this great Olympic legacy yet”. Of her own Olympic dreams Tannika says, “to be at Rio in 2016 would be awesome.”