You’d be forgiven for forgetting about Elena Allen. Her unassuming demeanor means that she’s seldom involved with marketing campaigns like her squadmate and friend Amber Hill, and she doesn’t boast the kind of sponsorship deals that see her coaching businessmen around the world like fellow Olympian Tim Kneale – though she does get support from Laporte, Mid Wales Shooting Centre, Titan Incubators, CENS and Dryfire. Yet Elena remains a threat to upset the apple cart at Rio de Janeiro for Skeet hotshots like world number one Sutiya Jiewchaloemmit, perennial Olympian Kim Rhode, and, yes, even her young British rival Amber.
However, just eight months ago at the unveiling of Britain’s shooting team in Brazil, Elena stood out. It wasn’t her fault, but while dragging a bulky cast and boot on one foot, limping around on crutches, you will attract a few more eyeballs than you normally would – especially if you’re an athlete heading to the biggest international sporting competition in the world where you’re expected to be in prime physical condition.
“I was doing too much skipping,” she chuckled, just days before heading out to the European Championship. “I love skipping for exercise, but haven’t done it for years and I went from zero to 21 minutes too quickly. I used to enjoy running, but not on the road, and my running machine was not at home then, so after a lot of thinking I decided to start skipping again, but I should have got advice from someone professional because the bones need to rebuild in the first six weeks of doing it, and I just did too much too soon.”
After having the boot removed, Elena started regaining confidence in her physical conditioning, and she also picked up her gun again, which wasn’t doing her any favours. Years after joining the Renato Gamba team,it was becoming clear that Elena needed a new stock built. “I had a new stock made in November as I needed a slightly different fit. I tried to do some training in the spring months to see what it felt like but my first serious training was in April after I went to Cyprus for the World Cup in March. I would normally go out in March before the Grand Prix but I couldn’t do it all, so I had to delay the new-stock training for a month.”
With so many adjustments so close to her biggest competition since London 2012, many had concerns about how Elena would cope in Rio 2016, especially after some of her early World Cup results this year. A score of 63 at an Olympic test event in the Rio de Janeiro World Cup meant she finished 23rd out of 29, and she matched this score at the following event in San Marino. So onlookers were watching on wondering about Elena’s hopes heading into the big competitions – or rather, they were, until just weeks before the Olympics, when the community’s attention turned to the home of Olympic disciplines in Europe: Lonato, for the European Championship. There, the doubters would witness Elena nearly equalling the world record, thanks to the culmination of months of training and sheer focus – missing just one clay throughout the qualification period in her final round of 25 to qualify for the top six, banishing any low-scoring demons she had developed in 2016.
Understandably, with such great success, Elena isn’t keen to explain how she manages to focus and perfect her technique for the big moments. She said: “Whatever works for me, doesn’t work for everybody. Other people have different ways of preparing and I do my own things. My preparation starts months ahead, and I don’t want to go into detail, but it’s clear when you’ve got a good technique sorted. Everyone at this level will have strong technique. It’s all about having a strong mind. And you need it at the Olympics, because the atmosphere is great but you have to realise that it’s an individual sport and everyone concentrates at these events in their own way. I don’t care about anyone else, because if I did, I would take away from the focus of what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve got my job to do and they’ve got theirs.”
This is a familiar response to the question ‘What is the secret to success at the highest level?’ Some top shooters give vague, side-stepping answers, while others openly decline the request to impart their mental preparation techniques. And it’s not surprising that someone like Elena, who has been shooting at the top, or damn near it, for quite some time, might want to keep these things to herself.
She started competing on the ISSF circuit in 1998, after the introduction of Ladies Double Trap at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, USA. The ISSF also gained approval to break down the gender boundaries in Skeet and Trap when the Games headed to Sydney, Australia, in 2000. “When I was 28 they introduced Women’s Skeet in the Olympics, but before that, I never thought I would ever get there. It was a men-only sport when I grew up and in 1992 they allowed mixed events. Then, they introduced Women’s Double Trap and people told me to shoot that, but I didn’t like the discipline so I didn’t want to do it just for the Olympics. I’d given up hope of women shooting Skeet at the Olympics so it was never my dream to be a shooter – it’s difficult to realise now, but I never thought it would happen. When you grow up you have certain dreams, but I never had that option when I was younger. Men did, and it’s great we’re now allowed that chance.”
This will be Elena’s third Olympics, after debuting at Beijing in 2008 and joining the London 2012 team. “I remember watching the Moscow Games, seeing teams arrive in the stadium, and I thought ‘Wow, those people are all so special.’ It’s different watching and actually being there, because when you watch someone on telly it feels more mysterious, but Beijing was very special. I didn’t go to the opening ceremony in London because we were shooting the next day but you could hear everything, so that was quite hard because you couldn’t get any sleep so you may as well have just gone, but instead you’re laying in bed.
“The team was a lot bigger in 2012, but Beijing will always be the most special – I don’t think any of them could overtake it. Going to China was brilliant but I am looking forward to Rio. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the shooting ground. Because of all the horror stories and the country’s difficulty in financing these things we were concerned, but the shooting facilities are pretty good.”
So with her foot healed, her Renato Gamba stock corrected, her technique and mental focus back where it should be, plus an appreciation of the location, people are starting to think Elena is where she needs to be to perform well in Rio.
She was the first British athlete to win a quota place, and was the second highest scorer at the last major international competition before the Olympics. And while her ranking points might have taken a hit over the past year, the Russian-born shooter might just be a dark-horse medal hope for Great Britain. “Everyone going has had to jump through hurdles to get there, and they are all capable of winning – but I don’t want to go and just take part.”