When it comes to Mackem heroes, olympian Aly Dixon is one of the proudest there is. She loves Sunderland and here’s why…
An olympian and recording breaking marathon runner, Aly Dixon is undoubtedly one of Sunderland’s most accomplished athletes. She’s won countless races, smashed course records, broke a world record in 2019 and represented Team GB at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Aly has achieved so many things in her career that have made her standout from the pack. But, arguably the rarest of those achievements isn’t really race related at all. In our opinion, what really makes Aly stand out from other athletes isn’t just her ability to blaze around a course, it’s the fact she’s stayed loyal to her home city.
A huge number of British athletes, aside from those from the capital, up sticks and leave their hometowns and cities as soon as they find some success in their careers. Whether it’s to find better coaches and facilities, or just to chase money and potential sponsorships, you don’t often hear of athletes in any field that stick around in the place they first called home.
But that’s exactly what Aly did virtually her entire career. She got her start in Sunderland and never saw any reason to move away from the city she loved.
“Because my dad was a marathon runner I was brought up around the sport as a child,” said Aly.
“I eventually joined my local club, the Sunderland Harriers, when I was 11. Not because my dad wanted me to, but because they were going on a trip to Flamingo Land!
“I knew I had some skill but I didn’t really take running seriously until after I left university, as a kid I was doing a lot of different sports and didn’t really prioritise one over the other. But I knew I loved athletics the most.”
Aly studied Sport and Exercise Development at the University of Sunderland. It was during her time at university that she won her first race and truly discovered her on-track talent.
“I’d won the British University Championship on the track at 10km and then I started working with a group at Gateshead Stadium,” Aly explained.
“I was still a member of Sunderland Harriers, but I was training with one of the leading coaches, Lindsay Dunn, who’s sadly passed away now.
“Lindsay realised then, I must have been about 24 at this point, that I had a talent. So, we linked up and he started coaching me.
“It wasn’t until I was 29 that I got my first England vest. Then it was just after my 31st birthday I got my first Great Britain vest. So, my career wasn’t an instant success. I just stuck with it, trained a little bit harder and every year that went by I just got a little bit better and then eventually made it into Team GB.”
Aly eventually achieved her dream of becoming an Olympian at 37 years old, when she was called up to Team GB again for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
However, the road was far from easy and the prospect of becoming an Olympian often seemed like a dream that was just out of reach for Aly. It’s no easy ride training to become an Olympic athlete – both physically and financially.
“You’re literally living hand to mouth. I got no funding,” said Aly.
“So, a lot of your top athletes will get National Lottery funding, where they give them around about £23k a year to live on, as well as medical support and all that kind of stuff.
“I got none of that. I was lucky that the London Marathon Charity Trust paid for my altitude training, so that did save me about £2k. But, I was never on any external funding.
“I was a professional athlete with Nike but that was all performance bonus based. I wasn’t on a salary from them – I did get incredible amounts of kit though! I’ve got a bedroom full of kit that I haven’t even opened.
“You need to achieve certain positions or run at certain target times in order to get paid those performance bonuses. If you didn’t run as fast as you should have then you wouldn’t get paid. It is very tough. It’s quite stressful.
“People look and think it’s glamorous being a professional athlete, but the actual set up is that you’re not guaranteed any income and you’ve still got a mortgage and bills to pay, food to put on the table. It is quite stressful and you put a lot of pressure on yourself to be able to hit those times and positions, so that you are getting money in.”
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Despite these hardships, Aly stuck to her guns and to her Mackem roots. Never giving in to the allure of big city sponsorship deals, Aly’s career path was wholeheartedly and unashamedly carved in Sunderland.
“I was always very independent, I was my own coach after Lindsay, I never had anyone holding my hand and telling me to do this or that. I just had a good set up here in the North East,” explained Aly.
“Honestly, I just love everything about Sunderland. It gets a lot of negative press and constantly compared with Newcastle, but we’ve got a fantastic coastline, some brilliant countryside and amazing people. I just love it, it’s my home. I’m proud to be a Mackem and I shout it from the rooftops.
“Like I said, the people are fantastic. Coming back from the Commonwealth Games I had people stopping me in the street saying well done and that they’re proud of me; total strangers that have taken an interest in my journey.They’ve kind of taken me in as one of their local heroes!
“Even at the football club, they presented us with shirts in the middle of the pitch when we came back from Rio 2016 and the crowd at halftime were singing ‘she’s one of our own’. It’s just little things like that. They take pride in their own. We’re a unique city, with a fantastic heritage and I think we deserve more plaudits really.”
After retiring from international running in September 2021, Aly started a new role at the Foundation of Light. She’s currently the project coordinator for the Foundation’s Coals to Goals project, a role that sees Aly teaching youngsters about Sunderland’s rich history in an effort to inspire a new generation to be proud of where they come from.
“Some of the wards in Sunderland are in the top three for deprivation in England,” Aly continued.
“So, some of the kids are quite deprived and kind of downtrodden and it’s just about giving them some pride and saying that you have got hope. That was the past but we can create something bright in the future.”
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