Road To Rio: Ten North-Easterners with their sights on the 2016 Games

ROAD TO RIO: The North-East's prospective Olympians are now more than halfway through the four-year cycle of the Games

ROAD TO RIO: The North-East's prospective Olympians are now more than halfway through the four-year cycle of the Games

First published in Sport The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

This month marks the start of the two-year countdown to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. With the current Olympic cycle now past the halfway stage, the Road To Rio column assesses the progress of ten of our leading hopes for the Games

Kat Copeland (Stokesley, Rowing)

The Northern Echo: MEDAL CEREMONY: Kat Copeland, left, and fellow rower Sophie Hosking

The North-East’s only gold medallist from 2012 briefly thought about giving up rowing in the wake of the London Games, but her decision to continue has already been vindicated with a string of successes this year.

A bronze medal at the European Championships in partnership with new lightweight double sculls team-mate Imogen Walsh was followed by victories at the final two World Cups of the summer.

Copeland, who is now based close to British Rowing’s high-performance base at Caversham, is currently in Amsterdam competing in the World Championships and confirmed her status as a potential gold medallist when she and Walsh won their heat in convincing fashion to qualify for Thursday’s semi-finals.

Paul Drinkhall (Loftus, Table Tennis)

The Northern Echo:

Having enjoyed a hugely successful Commonwealth Games, winning gold in the mixed doubles and silver in the team competition, things are about to get much tougher for Drinkhall as he attempts to secure a place at the 2016 Olympics.

Britain’s host-nation status meant he was granted a wildcard slot at the 2012 Games, but he will have to qualify for Rio via his world ranking, which is currently at a career high of 74.

This year’s victory in the Spanish Open, which was the first by a Briton in a World Tour event for 18 years, confirmed the progress he has made in the last couple of years, with his club contract in the Belgian league exposing him to regular top-class competition.

Richard Kilty (Stockton, Athletics)

The Northern Echo: Richard Kilty won gold in Sopot (AP)

When Kilty won the World Indoor 100m title this spring, he looked set to make a huge impression on the sprinting scene. That hasn’t quite happened, even though he left both the Commonwealth Games and European Championships with a medal from the 4x100m relay.

Kilty’s form in the individual 100m has not lived up to his promise to break the ten-second barrier, with his comments in the wake of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow revealing a tension over his training programme which is likely to result in him returning to the North-East this winter.

Making the British team for the individual 100m in Rio could be a big ask, but Kilty’s strong performances in the relay have made him a key member of the squad and major changes to the make-up of the team in the next two years are unlikely.

Jack Laugher (Ripon, Diving)

The Northern Echo:

This has been a breakthrough season for Laugher, whose nerves got the better of him in London as he failed to qualify from the preliminary round of the 3m springboard competition.

The 19-year-old won his first senior World Cup medal in Shanghai as he proved he could mix it with the very best Asian divers, and has risen into the top ten in the world rankings.

The Commonwealth Games proved an even bigger success story as he won gold in both the 1m springboard and 3m synchro, and while Tom Daley continues to be the poster boy for British diving, Laugher could well prove the stronger medal prospect in Rio.

Savannah Marshall (Hartlepool, Boxing)

The Northern Echo:

Marshall could be forgiven for wanting to forget all about the Olympics after London 2012 proved too much for her as she suffered an uncharacteristic first-round defeat in the middleweight competition.

However, having pledged to bounce back in 2016, the Hartlepool fighter has successfully rebuild her career and re-established herself as one of the leading female boxers in the country.

A gold at the World Combat Games underlined her continued ability, and another success at this summer’s Commonwealth Games finally drew a line under London 2012. Marshall will defend her World Championship title in the autumn and should be one of Team GB’s leading lights in Rio.

Katy McLean (South Shields, Rugby Sevens)

The Northern Echo:

Rugby sevens makes its Olympic debut in Rio, and Britain’s women’s team is expected to feature a number of the players who helped England claim the World Cup crown earlier this month.

That means there is a strong chance of McLean being involved in Rio along with fellow Darlington Mowden Sharks team-mate Tamara Taylor, with the former having skippered England to success in the 15-woman code in France.

It is anticipated that the home unions will combine to select a sevens training squad soon, and McLean will hope to be involved, having previously represented England in the shortened form of the game.

Nathaniel Reilly-O’Donnell (Durham, Rowing)

The Northern Echo:

Kat Copeland is unlikely to be the only North-Easterner in the British rowing squad for Rio, with Reilly-O’Donnell joining the likes of Jess Eddie, Tina Stiller, Jamie Kirkwood and Will Fletcher in the battle to be involved in the next Olympics.

A silver medallist at the 2011 World Championships, Durham-born Reilly-O’Donnell was an unused spare at the 2012 Olympics, but has subsequently emerged as a key member of the British squad in both the four and eight.

He is currently part of the men’s eight at the World Championships in Amsterdam, with yesterday’s second-placed finish behind Germany meaning the British crew must compete in a repechage in order to try to claim a place in the final.

Laura Weightman (Alnwick, Athletics)

The Northern Echo:

It was something of a surprise when Weightman made the 1,500m final at the 2012 Olympics, but it would now be even more of a shock if the Morpeth Harrier did not at least repeat the feat in Rio in two years time.

This has been a stellar season for the 23-year-old, culminating a magnificent run in the Commonwealth final in Glasgow which earned a silver medal and an equally impressive display in the final of the Europeans in Zurich to claim bronze.

It is always going to be a tall order to outrun the leading Africans in a middle-distance final, but Weightman is on a par with the world’s best and can expect to progress further in the next 24 months.

Aimee Willmott (Middlesbrough, Swimming)

The Northern Echo:

Willmott is another performer to have made giant strides in the two years since the London Olympics, having narrowly failed to qualify for the 400m Individual Medley final in 2012.

Her performances this summer have been out of the very top drawer, with her two silver medals at the Commonwealth Games (400m IM and 200m butterfly) being followed by a silver and bronze at the European Championships in the two IM events.

Her versatility means she could realistically hope to compete in four or five different events in Rio, and her decision to switch training bases from Middlesbrough to London underlines her determination to make the very most of her talent in two years time.

Nicola Wilson (Morton-on-Swale, Equestrian)

The Northern Echo: Nicola Wilson praised Greenwich Park

Having claimed a silver medal as part of the three-day event team in 2012, Wilson’s hopes of staging a repeat in Rio suffered a blow when she was forced to retire her main eventing partner, Opposition Buzz, from top-class competition.

However, she has subsequently forge a successful new partnership with Annie Clover and was selected to represent Britain at this month’s World Equestrian Games (WEG), an event generally regarded as a key stepping stone to the Olympics.

The dressage at the WEG takes place on Thursday and Friday, with the cross-country and show-jumping being staged over the weekend, and Wilson’s performances on the relatively youthful Annie Clover could go a long way towards determining her Olympic chances.

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