Chef de Mission in focus: Nicola Phillips, Team Wales

Written by Dan Palmer from insidethegames.biz

Birmingham 2022 will not be a home Commonwealth Games for Wales, but it won't be far off.

The host city is around 60 miles from the Welsh border, and if you put your foot down you can make it across in just over an hour.

For Nicola Phillips, the Wales Chef de Mission, this brings both positives and negatives.

"This is about as close to a home Games as we can get, just over the border," she tells insidethegames.

"It does come with its advantages, certainly with the operational aspect of things and the support we're able to put in place. 

"We don't have to factor in flights and expensive accommodation. We can bring additional staff in on day passes, and we can do that much more easily. 

"Travel is easy, and we can exchange accreditations for support staff to really maximise the support we can give each sport, for the period of time that they might be in the Village. In that way it's an advantage to be closer."

The downside is that the pressures and distractions of home are also just down the road, a far cry from Gold Coast 2018 when the team was cocooned thousands of miles away.

"More people want to come and see the sports, which can be distracting for the athletes and the support staff," Phillips said. 

"They are managing home and managing other things, because home is so much closer. 

"There's more interest from local media, so it's managing that so we allow the athletes to have that exposure, and to put their sport in the frontline when perhaps they don't get the spotlight at other times. 

"But at the same time managing it so this doesn't become a distraction to the athletes. There are different challenges I would say."

Wales enjoyed their record Commonwealth Games performance in Gold Coast, when Phillips was also Chef de Mission.

Like other big teams, the country is hoping its major stars will choose to compete in Birmingham amid a packed 2022 sporting calendar.

Geraint Thomas won the Glasgow 2014 road race just days after the end of the Tour de France

Boxer Lauren Price won middleweight gold at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and featured in London at the launch of the Queen's Baton Relay.

But with the Gold Coast title and World Championship gold also on her CV, there is talk of the 27-year-old turning professional.

Matt Richards and Calum Jarvis made history in the pool in Tokyo, becoming the first Welsh swimmers to win Olympic gold in more than a century after featuring in Britain's winning 4x200 metres freestyle relay team. Richards, aged just 18, became the youngest Welsh Olympic champion.

Track cyclist Elinor Barker won team pursuit silver in Tokyo, adding to her Rio 2016 gold and points race title from Gold Coast, while on the road it will be interesting to see if 2018 Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas will race in Birmingham.

Wales will hope that the rare chance of representing the country at a multi-sport event will persuade athletes to wear their colours, and the squad will certainly be a proud one.

Thomas, a double Olympic champion, demonstrated this perfectly when he won road race gold at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, just seven days after that year's Tour de France had finished.

"I think the ones [top athletes] that are able, and are fit and training, we really hope that they would [compete at Birmingham]," said Phillips.

"We don't know exactly yet. Some of that will depend on schedules and what happens between now and then. 

"What we do know is that consistently we get the country's top athletes, as they love competing for Wales. They are also really proud to compete for Team GB. But if they are able, they always seem to want to also compete for Team Wales.

"Geraint Thomas was a great example of that in Glasgow. He came straight off the Tour and won a gold medal in the road race. 

"That was just days after the Tour but he wanted to do that. And we see the same with the other athletes. We really hope that somebody like Lauren Price would want to compete for us as well. I think the motivation is there, it's usually around the practicalities, whether they can or not.

"Some of the endurance events, the schedule is going to change the availability of those athletes. But we will work around that and I'm sure the athletes, if they are available, then they'll want to compete for Wales.

"It is about putting on that Welsh vest. There's just something nice about doing that for your home nation. I think Wales has that sort of reputation." 

Wales sent 213 athletes to Gold Coast, winning 10 golds in a total haul of 36 medals.

Team Wales Chef de Mission Nicola Phillips

Phillips, a Professor at Cardiff University and an internationally renowned physiotherapist, said they are expecting a similar team size in Birmingham, across most of the sports on the programme.

There will be no specific targets for the Welsh performance, however.

"We didn't set a formal medal target for Gold Coast," Phillips said. "What we said to everybody was 'go in there and do your personal best'. 

"And if they do that, and we have some excellent athletes, some very capable athletes, if they all go in and perform to their capacity, then some of those medals will fall into place. And that's certainly what happened in Gold Coast. 

"COVID changes everything completely as there are so many unknowns now. There have been fewer competitions so our ability to predict who is doing what just isn't there in the same way." 

Wales has launched a campaign called "Summit of our Aspirations", complete with a poem called Rise by Eurig Salisbury, to build excitement for Birmingham.

Like in other countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted preparations with many meetings and gatherings taking place virtually.

"We have to be creative as one of the important parts is keeping a 'one team' approach," said Phillips, a Board member of Commonwealth Games Wales who was head of Britain's preparation camp for Tokyo 2020.

"And you can't beat face-to-face for that. It's how we combine that ability to train in a modified environment, and how we make sure we get everybody trying to interact with each other before they end up in Birmingham.

"Athletes are incredibly resilient, they will find a way, they are motivated to do the best they can. 

"Some of the solutions that some of the individuals and sports have come up with have been great."

Birmingham 2022 has also needed to adapt to COVID challenges, with the Athletes' Village now due to be split up across three different sites as a cost cutting measure.

"There's a really good feel from the Organising Committee and their communications with us," Phillips said. 

"They have been incredibly creative in how they've come up with solutions for the difficulties they've hit, in what they've been allowed to do. 

"In that way I think it will be really interesting."

In October, the Commonwealth Games Federation announced that their event would become more flexible, with athletics and swimming the only compulsory sports.

There is also the possibility of spreading the Games around in different cities and countries, with the changes designed to counteract the current situation which sees no 2026 host in place.

"The different structure provides some different challenges, such as the Villages being split up," said Phillips. "The positives from that is that it could change the way the Games work in the future, which could actually allow more countries to put bids in. 

"It makes it perhaps more feasible for some of the smaller countries that have been put off previously.

"I think the Commonwealth will be watching to see how that works. Birmingham has got this tradition of welcoming a diversity of people, and that is certainly shining through at the moment. 

"We're really looking forward to going up there. I think it will be a good Games, celebrating being back together as a Commonwealth again."

Could the new rules see the Games return to Wales for the first time since Cardiff in 1958?

"I think it would be lovely, wouldn't it?" Phillips said. "Who knows? 

"With the structure changing, that may well open the doors for a country of our size to be able to do that. 

"We'll have to wait and see, but wouldn't it be wonderful? There are lots of different opportunities, the difference in the choice of sports could be useful and we've got some world-class facilities in Wales.

"Let's see what happens in the future. I suspect I may well have retired by then, but I will still be an avid supporter if it did come to Wales."