Neil  Shefferd

Many athletes will aspire to compete in their chosen sport at the highest level. For some, this dream will become a reality.

Every athlete has their own journey to the start line, and their own story to tell.

So when I found out that members of England’s ladies tug-of-war team were holding a fundraising bake sale in my home village to raise money to compete at this year’s World Championships, my eye for a story (and keenness for food) made me go and find out more.

The team qualified to represent England at this year’s World Championships in Switzerland after winning all four ladies weight categories at the United Kingdom’s National Tug of War Championships last month, while competing for the Bedford Ladies tug-of-war club, which started in 1988.

The team has previous experience at the highest level - placing fourth at the World Games in Birmingham last year as Britain, and fourth at last year’s World Championships, competing as England.

Their venture into tug-of-war started through Young Farmers, a series of clubs across the UK where young people aged between 10 and 28 can make friends, learn new skills, do positive things within their community and travel the world.

"Tug-of-war is quite a big sport for Young Farmer clubs and the pinnacle is National Championships," explained Charlotte Thornton, one of the team’s members.

A tug-of-war team consists of eight pullers, including an anchor.

"The positions are very different in terms of how you pull and there is skill and technique to each position," Charlotte explained.

"The back of the rope is a lot lower compared to the front where you need the height to keep it more stable."

The Bedford Ladies tug-of-war team have qualified to represent England at this year's World Championships in Switzerland ©Bedford Ladies
The Bedford Ladies tug-of-war team have qualified to represent England at this year's World Championships in Switzerland ©Bedford Ladies

Tug-of-war featured at five editions of the Olympic Games from 1900 through to 1920, with Britain winning five medals across three editions in 1908, 1912 and 1920.

Countries were able to enter multiple teams leading to the United States winning gold, silver and bronze in 1904 and Britain repeating the feat of a clean sweep of the medals four years later.

Following the 1920 edition, tug-of-war, alongside 33 other sports, was removed from the Olympic programme, as the International Olympic Committee looked to reduce the amount of sports that featured.

The Tug-of-War Association believes the sport warrants reintroduction to the Olympics, claiming the rules are easy to understand and the sport is spectator friendly.

On whether the sport could return to the Olympics Charlotte said: "I think as the sport has grown, particularly on the women’s side, the popularity is growing.

"It is a really fascinating, interesting sport that is so accessible as well. I think it would be fantastic to see it back in the Olympics.

"Everyone who is part of the sport would love to see it happen. We just need that last push to try and get it back in the Games."

The Bedford team have been fortunate to have the chance to compete on a multi-sport stage, when they featured in the women’s outdoor 540 kilograms category, representing England at last year’s World Games in Birmingham, Alabama.

They were narrowly beaten 2-1 by Switzerland in the bronze-medal match, but Charlotte described it as "an incredible experience."

The Bedford Ladies tug-of-war team raised £700 from a fundraising bake sale in Stewkley ©Neil Shefferd
The Bedford Ladies tug-of-war team raised £700 from a fundraising bake sale in Stewkley ©Neil Shefferd

"To go to a big international competition where you have other sports competing at their pinnacle as well was something else," she reflected.

"We were able to enjoy the atmosphere, take in the experience of watching other sports at their highest level, so it was an incredible experience all round - both the competing element and seeing the atmosphere.

"It is kind of our Olympics.

"We qualified in sixth place at the previous World Championships, so we went in with nothing to lose, so to finish fourth with a really young team, we were really happy about that.

"Obviously you have if only moments and hindsight is wonderful, but we know we went out there and gave our best."

The team also placed fourth at the 2022 World Championships in Holten in the Netherlands last year, which Charlotte reflected on as one that got away.

"The World Championships was a difficult one to swallow, we made it through the group in second and then we dropped two ends (one pull) against Chinese Taipei, and I think a bit of inexperience and emotion got in the way of the final two pulls," she said.

"We know what we need to work on, we have been working hard this year, we know we are capable of getting on the podium, but it is just about getting experience, being confident in ourselves and building the team."

As with all athletes, either full or part-time and in whichever sport they are pursuing, a huge amount of training and dedication is required.

The Bedford Ladies team trains between two and four times a week on average, with all the team members also holding full-time jobs.

It is set to cost the Bedford Ladies club £10,000 to send the team to this year's Tug-of-War World Outdoor Championships ©Bedford Ladies
It is set to cost the Bedford Ladies club £10,000 to send the team to this year's Tug-of-War World Outdoor Championships ©Bedford Ladies

Some of the team, including Charlotte, travel for two hours to get to training.

"We make a huge amount of commitment and sacrifice to training, to the girls," she acknowledges.

This year’s Tug-of-War World Outdoor Championships is due to take place in Sursee, Switzerland, from August 31 to September 3.

It is costing the Bedford Ladies club £10,000 ($12,850/€11,550) to send the team to Switzerland, with the team members attempting to fund as much of it as they can themselves.

"It pays for flights, accommodation, buying our own kit, kit maintenance and training maintenance," Charlotte explains.

The team is confident of reaching its fundraising target to enable it to support members to travel to and be competitive in Switzerland.

Yesterday’s bake sale raised £700 ($900/€808) with all contributions helping towards the team’s continued fundraising efforts.

A wide range of cakes were available to purchase, alongside homemade preserves, while hot bacon rolls were served for those wanting a late breakfast.

Despite the wet weather, the event was well supported and helped to raise awareness of the team's story.

The team has recently launched a JustGiving fundraising page, which is aiming to raise £1,000 ($1,285/€1,150) towards their efforts of competing at this year’s World Championships in Switzerland, as well as this year’s British and Irish Championships, due to take place in Scotland next month.

Every athlete has their own journey, and for this tug-of-war team, after catching the bug for the sport at a Young Farmers club, they are now preparing to embark on their next chapter competing on the sport's biggest stages.