Britain seeking sporting giants

ALISON KORN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:28 AM ET

As a sporty, 6-foot-1 woman, Britain appears a rather welcoming place for me to be right now. In terms of athletic potential, that is.

As we wrap up Vancouver 2010 and start thinking of London 2012, get ready to meet some "Sporting Giants." That's the name of a successful British program aimed at uncovering tall people with untapped athletic talent.

People such as Victoria Thornley, 22, a 6-foot-4 former show jumper and aspiring model whose hopes for the catwalk were dashed upon being told she was too tall. After rowing selectors tested her in 2007, Thornley embarked on serious training and was selected for the British women's eight for the 2009 world under-23 championship last July. They won gold.

"Having had my first taste of international success has made all the hard work and sacrifice worth it," said Thornley, a receptionist from Wales. "Words cannot describe that feeling. I still find it unbelievable that it happened. My goal now is to make the senior GB squad in 2010, then take part in the senior world championships in 2011, and of course my ultimate ambition is reaching the London Olympics in 2012."

In the first appeal of its kind three years ago, UK Sport asked potential athletes to come forward, providing they fulfilled the basic criteria of being tall (a minimum of 6-foot-3 for men and 5-foot-11 for women), young (16 to 25) and with some sort of athletic background.

The incentive was the chance for the most talented to become part of the high performance programs in the sports of rowing, handball or volleyball.

The response was staggering and when the registration period closed, they had around 4,800 applications to sift through -- with just fewer than 4,000 applications meeting all the basic criteria.

The chances of most Sporting Giants applicants becoming Olympians in time for London 2012 are slight, but more than 50 recruited athletes have successfully joined Olympic development programs.

"Although training is hard and requires huge commitment, I feel like I am taking a step closer to getting to the Olympics every day," said Thornley, who has become a poster girl for the program.

Sporting Giants was just the beginning. In 2009, a new program called Talent 2016 started recruiting tall athletes for basketball and rowing, offered rugby and soccer players who didn't make the pros a chance to try new sports, and tested high-level martial artists seeking a spot in Britain's elite taekwondo academy. Athletes with a disability have also been identified and the "Girls4Gold" program recruits highly competitive female athletes with the potential to become Olympic champions in targeted sports like cycling, skeleton and canoeing.

But as flattering as it is to be identified, years of hard work and no guarantees are ahead for those who commit.

"It's impossible to completely predict who will be successful and who will cope mentally and physically with the training regime that elite performance demands," noted Katherine Grainger, an Olympic rowing medallist and ambassador for Tall and Talented. "My role has been to go along to the testing days and have a chat to the athletes about what sport is like at the top level and share a little of the excitement and magic that aiming for things like the Olympic Games can bring."

I know what you're thinking. If a person can pick up a new sport in just a couple of years, it must be easy. Well, that's exactly the point. It is easy -- if you're perfectly suited for it.

Wish we'd had something like this -- thank goodness I found rowing anyway -- by chance.

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