Denise Lewis praises strong women in her life as she collects damehood
The 50-year-old Olympic champion said her work-hard ethic springs from her mother and Windrush-generation roots.
Denise Lewis said she felt “very humble” as she collected her damehood and paid tribute to the strong and loving women in her life – her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.
The 2000 Olympic heptathlon champion said the honour is particularly special because it is for her achievements away from track and field and means “everything” that her mother Joan got to see it.
West Bromwich-born Dame Denise, 50, who was honoured for her work as president of Commonwealth Games England and her service to sport, said her work-hard ethic springs from her mother and Windrush generation roots.
After collecting her award from the Princess Royal at a ceremony at Windsor Castle on Wednesday, she said: “It is everything that my mum is here.
“It is everything for the years when she thought she hadn’t done well or she wasn’t a success or thought she was a failure or an under-achiever.
“She raised one child in this world and she has become a dame.
“If my grandmother (Edna) and my great-grandmother (Drusilla) could have witnessed this – rest their souls – it would be even more amazing. They wouldn’t believe it.”
Dame Denise praised her mother’s drive and tenacity because “it wasn’t easy back in the ’70s.”
She described herself as someone whose “heritage is Caribbean but obviously I am a child of Britain”.
Through her mother, she saw a work ethic that included “wanting to succeed when lots of chips are stacked against you”.
She said: “My mum raised me single-handedly and there was her selflessness and tenacity to keep pushing forward, to work hard, not settle and to want a better life.”
After the ceremony and sporting a beaming smile, Joan Lewis said she is an “extremely proud mother”.
She said: “Denise has worked really hard. It is just amazing.”
Dame Denise’s uncle Jack Cole travelled especially from his home in Hanover, Jamaica, after she told him he could not miss her special day.
He said: “It has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am so proud of her.”
Dame Denise was born in West Bromwich and first came to prominence at the Birchfield Harriers club.
Her first major international breakthrough came at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, where she claimed a gold medal.
She was the only British woman to win a track and field medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, when she claimed a bronze in what was a disappointing performance overall for Team GB and one that prompted a root-and-branch reform of the system.
It ultimately led to the National Lottery funding system that remains in place today.
Silver medals followed at the World Championships in Athens and Seville in 1997 and 1999 respectively, but her hopes of going one better in Sydney were diminished by injury.
She remains a familiar face in track and field long after her retirement as part of the BBC’s presenting team at major events.
Dame Denise said: “The journey has been immense and it hasn’t been easy.
“I think that receiving this honour at this particular stage of my life, after 50 years and after my MBE in 1999 followed in 2001 for the OBE, this feels like so much more because I know it’s not about my on-track endeavour.
“It’s about what I have been able to give back to sport since retiring.
“It is not something you are looking for but once you have moved on (from competing) you have so much to share and to impart, so much knowledge to share with others and up-and-coming athletes.
“Everything culminated with the Commonwealth Games last year in Birmingham and the West Midlands.
“It all felt like full circle for me.
“It was my home track, where I learned more about myself and my dreams.
“It was very special to see how it all came together and so now to top it off with this wonderful damehood makes me feel very humble.”
Dame Denise, who retired from competition in 2005, added: “Most athletes feel like that is the end of one journey and a chapter closes but I think it is about the choices you make going forward.
“It is about what you can give back, what you can impart and share.
“I think it is so important for any young woman from the West Midlands, from Wolverhampton or Birmingham… I was born in West Bromwich and claimed by the whole region.
“People almost tell you not to dream to be that big and not to aim high.
“But I think those values were instilled in me by my mother and my grandmother who, as first and second-generation Windrush, that work ethic is everything.
“So you put it all back in whatever your profession is – and mine just happened to be sport.”