The British Olympic star following in her mum's footsteps

·5-min read

This interview is part of an exclusive Yahoo series called 'How To Raise An Olympian', in which we speak to Olympic stars and their parents to get a unique insight into what it takes to raise an elite athlete. Watch the full interview above - and for more see the links at the bottom of the page.

As a family accustomed to only watching videos together, the Wilsons had to think of a novel way for their children to be able to watch the Olympics growing up.

“We just wanted them to be outside and enjoying life,” says Penny Wilson (born Way), a two-time Olympic windsurfer. “We didn't want them addicted to anything on the TV. Then, all of a sudden, we had to come up with an explanation of how we could watch the Olympics. So we told them you could buy an Olympic TV licence.”

For daughter Emma and brother, Dan, it was a first entrée into sport's showpiece extravaganza. “I remember watching Kelly Holmes and didn't have a clue who she was,” recalls Emma, 22, who will aim to win Britain’s first women's windsurfing Olympic medal since 2008 when she competes in Tokyo.

“But she had longer shorts than everyone else. And I was like, ‘I want to be like her with the longer shorts.’ I'm still a bit like that now. I mean, just watching someone win, and then how happy she was. It still makes me feel tingly even now. And I hope I can be like that to another little kid on their Olympic licence watching the TV.”

Emma Wilson and brother Dan were
Emma Wilson and brother Dan were "just like little water babies" according to mum Penny, a two-time Olympian

Emma, a multiple world youth and European medallist, now has license for speed on the water and will follow her mother’s footsteps in Tokyo as an Olympian when she competes in the RS:X windsurfing class as the youngest member of the Team GB sailing team.

Growing up in Nottingham, the family moved to Dorset where Christchurch Harbour soon became a natural playground for the family as Emma and Dan were first put in a rubber dinghy, tied on with a piece of rope to the back of Penny’s windsurfer.

“They were in life jackets, arm bands, screaming, laughing and just like little water babies,” recalls Penny.

It wasn’t long before Emma upgraded for her first solo taste. “I'd go and get ice cream on the beach, and then I saw my brother was going really fast,” says Emma. “And then I was just always trying to get faster than my brother. I used to be a bit scared when it was windy but I just love throwing myself in the water. So it's probably all down to my brother. It's his fault I'm doing this.”

Christchurch Harbour was a natural playground for young Emma Wilson
Christchurch Harbour was a natural playground for young Emma Wilson
Emma Wilson immediately took to the water at Christchurch Harbour under the watchful eye of mum Penny. (Photo: Supplied by the Wilsons)
Emma Wilson immediately took to the water at Christchurch Harbour under the watchful eye of mum Penny. (Photo: Supplied by the Wilsons)

Aged 12, Penny remembers saying to Emma she should enter one particular race category due to the uneven playing field. “She was like, ‘No. I'll do what I want to do, thanks Mum.’ She listens to us, but she's definitely her own person. And I think that's what people underestimate.”

At 15, Emma then competed at her first senior world championships as the youngest competitor. “There's no way I would get to where I am without Mum or Dad. For the worlds, Mum didn't have any accreditations, so we would sneak her under the barrier because I didn't want to go in on my own. But it’s stuff like that, racing against those women and seeing where I needed to get to which was so important.”

Despite Penny’s own credentials - she also has a road named after her in Christchurch - she has never encroached on her daughter’s coaching or competition results. Wilson 2.0 is coached by Barrie Edgington, Penny’s team-mate in 1992 and coach in 1996 for her two Olympic campaigns. And while she always travels with Emma to every event, she never watches her races.

“I want to be a mother, to be that person when she comes through the door,” says Penny, who also acts as her daughter’s physio. “It's just what's natural to me, that I can talk to her about what I've been doing during the day, not about what she's been doing.

MIAMI, USA - JANUARY 27: Emma Wilson from the British Sailing Team sails her RSX during the ISAF Sailing World Cup Miami on January 27, 2016 in Miami, USA. (Photo by Richard Langdon/Getty Images)
Emma Wilson competes at the ISAF Sailing World Cup in Miami in 2016. (Photo by Richard Langdon/Getty Images)

“I think it probably keeps Emma quite fresh and means that you don't really get as worn out as other athletes would be. Being away from home for seven months is actually like being at home for seven months, but in a different country.”

Penny won the world title three times, but finished outside of the medals in her two Olympic experiences. “What I always say to Emma is just make sure you enjoy it. For Barcelona [1992], I went in as probably favourite and I don't think I enjoyed it. I think you just have got to really embrace the Olympics, see what happens and have a lot of fun doing it.

“I don't think I ever trained as hard as they have to train now. The women have got to the stage where they're all so good and the competition in the women looks to be almost closer than the men. They've all got to the stage where they're just pushing everything so hard.

“And for Emma, well, she just has this absolute determination and she has always said to me that it feels that this is what she is meant to be doing.”

And as the Tokyo Games loom, Emma’s medal mindset is also one seemingly free from the pressures that her mother once endured as a professional athlete. “It’s about crossing the start line at the right time and to make fewer mistakes than anyone else,” she says succinctly. “That's the way to win a medal but it's much easier said than done.

“To race against the best girls in the world, and on the biggest stage, I just want to enjoy it, and embrace it. Yeah, and have fun.”

“And to be yourself,” adds Penny.

Read more 'How To Raise An Olympian"

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Joseph Schooling: The boy who beat his Olympic idol Michael Phelps

Janne Müller-Wieland: Devastated Olympic athlete axed weeks before the start of the Games

Annia Hatch: The extraordinary gymnast who defied a president to achieve Olympic glory

Elodie Clouvel: Olympic star hopes her 17-year journey will end in gold

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