The Olympics have been an undeniable injection of positivity for a city famous for its self-deprecating and cynical inhabitants. I don’t think any of us really knew what to do with the smiles, the medal tally, the #TeamGB, Trevor Nelson’s commentary, the coming together; the general success of it all.
There are the obvious TeamGB successes from the cycling, the rowing, that ginger beefcake in the gymnastics (in fact tallying up the ginger count with my red bearded friend Kevin at the closing ceremony I was surprised to learn how much our culture has been defined by these soulless humans; Halliwell, Bowie, Elton, Kaiser Chief, Ed Sheeran and now long jumpers and pommel horsers alike: Bravo!) But I wanted to catch up with a lesser celebrated talent; British medallist of London Twenty-Twelve; Jan Whitaker, 45 year old PA from a private equity firm near Bond Street. Jan has just beaten 6 million competitors to become London Commuting gold medallist Twenty Twelve.
“It’s something I trained for ever since Becks and Will bagged us the games. It is not something I have taken lightly in the slightest. I have had to be quite ruthless, especially of late.” Jan stands at 4’9 and I can see her build has been an obvious advantage on her Victoria line challenges.
“I can squeeze in. With my strict diet [of Gregg’s pork pies and lemon Fanta] I have become to look anywhere between 12 and 20 weeks pregnant. If my competitors catch my eye, they’ve have to be pretty spineless creatures if they don’t allow me crucial sitting down points. Of course any refusal of seat and they will incur a tutting penalty and deduction of points”. Jan and her trainer have worked hard to tally points at every opportunity of her 2 week Olympic commute from Brixton Station to Bond Street, from seat acquiring to escalator bounding but, as she tells me, it hasn’t been an easy ride.
“My original trainer back in 2006 was Sir Alan Sugar. He started commuting at Billingsgate Market. He’d been there, done that, been through the muck and ruthlessly come through the other side of it. He trained me for nearly 3 years. He was strict. He fired me on average 3 days out of 5”. But in 2009 Whitaker had to cut her losses and fire her renowned trainer. That made his eyebrows raise and his cheeks flap.
“At the end of the day Sir Alan was just out of touch with what it was like to really commute. He hadn’t been in those tunnels since the 80s and he had no idea how competitive the field had gotten. He used to meet me at Brixton Station at 7.45am set the timer and set off in his Bentley. When I would get out at Bond Street, I’d get a debrief through a half opened tinted window. Sometimes he just chucked the timer at me, other times when I tapped on the Bentley window Margaret would be there to tell me I was fired and that Alan was in fact on holiday. It was harrowing, especially on a Monday.”
Her commitment was not being matched by her support team. “In the end I approached a orange-clad gentleman called Richard who worked at Green Park underground. He was there daily at the most important part of my challenge, the Victoria Jubilee interchange”. Richard gladly agreed to train Whitaker for the next 3 years and they have formed a bond so tight, that now she high fives him twice daily.
“He wasn’t easy on me,” says Jan. “He knew where I could get point and use my stature and we focussed on that. Sometimes I’d get to the Jubilee platform and he’d block me at the door. That walkie-talkie is a scary thing – if I fouled at any point he’d call it in and I’d be removed from the game. It was a crucial learning period from a man who knew the field inside out. I recent months I have had voices in my head telling me this might not be possible.” I mention that self doubt is a crippling thing, but also flawlessly British. “No no, not me,” says Jan bluntly, “Boris bloody Johnson; constantly warning me away from London and the competition. Many amateurs fell at this hurdle which in turn made my challenge all the more achievable.” BJ and his team got some of the other competitors and alas Jan’s hard work and determination has reaped dividends. “Look at me now,” beams Jan, “it’s all paid off.”
I approached Sir Alan for a quote on Whitaker’s success but I only got one word from him: “Who?”
My findings from this exclusive interview have allowed me to cross “long term commuter” off my list. Hat’s off to Jan and those that can.