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Eilish McColgan on body confidence and keeping girls in sport - 'I'll never look like Kim Kardashian, who cares - I'm proud of my body'

In the first of a four-part series on 'Inspiring Inclusion', Commonwealth Games champion Eilish McColgan opens up on body confidence issues, helping girls access athletics and overcoming barriers to entry; long-distance runner is preparing for her fourth Olympics in Paris this summer

Eilish McColgan says athletics allowed her to build confidence and belief in what her body could achieve
Image: Eilish McColgan says athletics allowed her to build confidence and belief in what her body could achieve

A positive force for good on and off the track, Eilish McColgan has never felt more comfortable and confident in her skin.

But it hasn't always been that way.

It is only now in her maturing years that the 2022 Commonwealth Games 10,000m champion can reflect on her teenage years where she struggled with body confidence to the point she doubted she would ever get a boyfriend because she "wasn't attractive like the other girls" and contemplate why she allowed herself to have such low self-esteem.

McColgan speaks with refreshing honesty about self-perception and the social media abuse she has encountered over the last 20 years - all because of the way she looks.

"If I had social media when I was 13 or 14-years-old, it would have destroyed me," McColgan, who is preparing for her fourth Olympics Games this summer in Paris, told Sky Sports.

"Reading some of the comments that people write to me now, I look at it and find it comical, it's just stupid. They know nothing about me, nothing about how I fuel my body. It's pure nastiness.

"I've always been so skinny. I've dealt with that my whole life. At school when all the girls were getting boobs and bums, the boys were attracted to these girls. I never felt attractive at school. I never felt like I would look like those other girls. I would play football with the boys and be seen as one of the boys, never felt girly in that sense and certainly never felt attractive.

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"I actually thought that no one would ever want to be my boyfriend when I was 15 or 16-years-old which is so crazy when I look back. Because now I think 'this is me' you either accept it or you don't. When I look back I think it's so stupid that I was hiding behind baggy clothes, big baggy jeans and hoodies because I didn't look like everyone else."

Joining her local running club in Dundee allowed McColgan to meet like-minded individuals and provided her with a welcoming social environment. She refers to it as her 'second family'.

"I saw other girls at the club who looked similar. We didn't care what we looked like, our hair would be sweaty and all over our faces which were bright red and the boys were used to seeing us like that," the 33-year-old said.

"You don't care what you look like because you're there to just perform. There was no pressure to look a certain way, weight was never discussed at the club and that's where I probably started building confidence in myself.

"My body is a bit different but it's allowed me to do X, Y and Z. Even now I'm incredibly proud of my body even more so being an adult, my gran and my mum have passed me down this body. If these are my genetics and this is what I've been given, why shouldn't I be proud of it? I'm never going to look like Kim Kardashian, but who cares? I'm happy being me."

Her genetics, however, are pretty special. Her mum, Liz McColgan, a former world champion and Olympic silver medallist has seen a few of her own personal bests and records surpassed and shattered by Eilish who now holds the British 5km record [14m45secs], European 10k record [30m19] and British half-marathon record [smashing Paula Radcliffe's 21-year-old British record, with an impressive time of 1hr 06].

What's more impressive is how Eilish has notched up record after record in her 30s in one fantastic season in 2022 having made the decision to ease back on training and athletics while at university in her late teens and enjoy a 'normal' student life.

"When I see young athletes come on to the scene and they're winning medals at 21/22 years of age, I think they've got the next 10 years to get better and that maybe I left it too late. I'm now 33. Maybe I could've peaked 10 years earlier but everyone's paths are different," McColgan said.

"I feel like I've lived a normal life, say right up until the last couple of years where training has been a real priority and things have ramped up. I don't feel like I've missed out on anything - certainly at university I did not miss out. I lived a normal student life.

"Now I'm so far removed from that. The thought of someone playing loud music and drinking alcohol until 3 or 4am in is my absolute worst nightmare. I don't drink at all. I haven't drank for about seven or eight years now."

Eilish McColgan’s fastest times

5km – 14m 45 secs (Malaga 2022) National record

10km – 30 m 19secs (Manchester 2022) European record

10 miles – 50m 43secs (Portsmouth 2021) European best

Half marathon – 1:05:43 (Berlin 2023) National record

Not content with realising her own goals and ambitions, McColgan wants to give back to athletics to help those less fortunate than herself get into the sport.

By setting up 'Giving Back to Track' with partner, coach and former Olympian himself Michael Rimmer nearly two years ago, they set out to inspire children from all backgrounds to access and enjoy athletics.

Bursaries and after-school running clubs in Dundee and Glasgow set up by the pair have allowed more youngsters in Scotland the opportunity to try the sport and eliminate some of those barriers to entry.

Eilish McColgan says athletics allowed her to build confidence and belief in what her body could achieve
Image: Eilish McColgan is hoping to compete at her fourth Olympics this summer

Puberty, periods and lack of performance are three areas that McColgan says can be factors to seeing girls drop out of the sport.

"I remember being about 17 and I wasn't running any faster than I was at 13 and couldn't work it out. It's quite deflating," she said.

"You go from big success as a 12/13-year-old, you're winning medals, running fast and all of a sudden it comes to a halt and it's not as much fun anymore if you're getting beat by people you didn't used to. Mentally it starts to affect young women. But it's down to puberty and stresses of going through exams at school and finding yourself.

"Going through puberty you lose a lot of energy, you're expending energy elsewhere and you don't know where the energy's going but you're still trying to train hard. You realise your body is developing and your body is using a lot of that energy to become a woman and having periods every month and then you have another factor of trying to manage your periods."

McColgan revealed that she would "spend all day in bed with severe cramps, sweating profusely" due to experiencing heavy periods and admitted she would dread it if was to fall on a race day.

Now she uses her experience to support those younger athletes, putting those girls on the bursaries in touch with specialists who can help with female-specific health issues.

The opportunity to give back to sport gives McColgan just as much fulfilment than picking up her medals and records on the track and a focus during her injury setbacks over the last few years.

McColgan had hoped to run the London Marathon last year but was forced to pull out due to a knee injury and then missed the World Athletics Championships in Budapest last August with the same issue. She later revealed that same month she had spent five "distressing" days in hospital last week to address a "fluid leak" in her spine.

Injuries have curtailed her career, as they can do for many long-distance runners but they have also made her stronger.

As she continues her battle to regain top fitness and stay injury-free, getting to Paris fit and firing to compete in the 10km is the first goal.

"I'm really proud of making three Olympics, but to make four would be something really special," she said.

"My mum has been to three, my partner and coach Michael has been to three Games as well, so for me to go to four, it would be unique.

"There haven't been a huge amount of female athletes that have done that within athletics. Jo Pavey has gone to five, which is an incredible achievement. I'd love to be able to match that one day."

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