Sunderland star's rise to Olympic peak
Aly Dixon is just weeks away from sport's greatest show on earth.
Not bad for a lass who once only made reserve for her school cross country team.
More than two decades on, Aly heads off to the Olympic Games having come a long, long way – and not just because her event is the marathon, all 26 miles, 385 yards of it.
The 37-year-old is a Sunderland hero and, truth be told, has been for a few years, but now is seriously big news.
Dixon hit the headlines when she was the first British woman home at the Virgin London Marathon in April, her superbly-engineered race and gritty finale up the Mall beating old North East neighbour Sonia Samuels and all her other British rivals.
Having already run the Olympic qualifying time in the Berlin Marathon, the slightly-built Mackem was off to Rio as year after year and mile after mile on the track and road came to fruition.
To say Aly is an accidental hero would be a wee bit of an exaggeration but the Sunderland Stroller’s road to success goes back to the days when she was “dragged” to various athletics events with dad.
David Dixon was a marathon man himself, racing to a high and fast standard – though his daughter says boredam more than inspiration got her to put her running shoes on.
“We’d get dragged to a local track league and watch him running in circles or to a local road race or sit around for two and a half hours while he ran a marathon,” she said.
“No matter how much you like the sport, sitting around for that length of time as a six-year-old is pretty boring.
“There was always a fun run at the road races. I remember the Sunderland-Silksworth fun run one year for stopping to look at a dead hedgehog and I was more interested in that!
“Running kept me out of trouble and obviously it did ignite that flame and passion for the sport.
“As a kid, I’d do fun runs, anything from half a mile to a mile or three miles.”
For all Dixon Jnr could run, she didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of dad.
“Eventually I joined the club but I wanted to be a long jumper or hurdler,” she explained. “That was quickly put to bed when I fell over the hurdles and I was too short for a long jumper!
“They knew my dad as a runner so I got pushed towards the middle distances, 800s, 1500s and as I got older I got moved up the distances, 3k, 5k, 10k and then I won my first GB vest for the half-marathon in 2009.
“It was then I said ‘let’s have a go at the marathon, I think I can be good’. I made my debut in 2010, totally messed it up, I was far too cocky. I got to the 16-mile mark and I was crying for my mam!
“But it just made me determined to go out and do another one. I went to New York that November and absolutely loved it, and I fell in love with the distance.”
And doing it very, very well it has to be said.
She has taken part in the World half-marathon championships in 2009, 14, and 16 and the World Marathon event in 2011.
Dixon represented England at the 2014 Commonwealths, but it has been this season when she has hit her peak.
She clocked the required Olympic time in Berlin, but her finest hour came in our capital – or more accurately her finest two hours, 31 minutes, 52 seconds.
“It was bizarre,” she said of her battle around the streets of London with Samuels, Freya Ross and Susan Partridge.
“If the other girls were going to run fast, I was ready to run fast, but they seemed to play into my hands by slowing it down.
“They threw their chances away at making the qualifying time by doing that, it panned out pretty much to my game-plan of getting to 20 miles and then putting in a hard three miles in to try to break them and that kind of worked.
“The last two to three miles it was about soaking up the massive crowds along the Embankment and Birdcage Walk.
“I don’t remember much coming down the Mall. I saw my dad and nephew Charlie in the grandstand with 50 metres to go.
“But after that I don’t remember much – I had to watch BBC to find out what happened!”
Down-to-earth, a warm personality and highly-articulate, Dixon was talking at the Everyone Active Silksworth Community Pool, Tennis & Wellness Centre, just a short jog from her home.
Speaking to this non-athlete completed a busy day of commitments to a local-girl-made-good still coming to terms with stardom.
Being open and accessible to not only athletes but her community is important to her.
“I love going into schools and trying to inspire the kids,” said Aly, who had just been to Thornhill School for a visit and to present one of her international vests.
“They just have to look at me to see what they can do – I’m exactly the same as them, same area, same school, same upbringing.
“If I can achieve then so can they, whether it’s sport, rocket scientist or whatever.”
It also gave her the chance to rib her old PE teacher about that moment when Aly did not make the athletics team.
“I did remind Mrs Richadson she only picked me as reserve for the cross country team in Year Eight. I gave her a bit of stick for that,” she laughed. “I do forgive her.”