7 November 2016Jess Varnish was vilified for the Shane Sutton sexism claims to Sportsmail that rocked British Cycling... Now, she says 'I stand by everything'
Jess Varnish holds yapping sausage dog Hugo on her lap in the kitchen of her Cheshire home and discusses for the first time the decision to speak out about what has now been confirmed as sexism within British Cycling.
Her whistleblowing seemingly freed others to reveal their own experiences, leading to the resignation of Shane Sutton as technical director and two investigations into both her specific allegations and the wider culture of the organisation.
But even last month, after the first of those inquiries confirmed Sutton had used 'inappropriate and discriminatory' language towards her, Varnish was being vilified on social media.
Sutton's wife Abbie tweeted: 'Two words spring to mind when the word liar is used… Jess Varnish.' The tweet was deleted but Varnish insists she is not allowing the abuse to affect her.
'To call me a liar? They're allowed their opinion but the investigation has answered that,' she says. 'Shane's wife was very upset and that's why she wanted to call me a liar. I've had lots of things said on social media but I don't really find it that hurtful.
'Obviously I know the truth, everyone around me knows the truth and in this investigation the truth has come out and that speaks for itself. Before the investigation it was harder, but now I've been backed up by that it's just an absolute relief.'
Last April, Varnish alleged in Sportsmail that Australian Sutton had told her to 'move on and go and have a baby' and that her 'ass' was too big to ride certain roles on the team.
She also said she had a list as long as her arm of comments made about her figure during her decade with British Cycling. 'There are things that are going on in British Cycling that are wrong,' she said at the time.
Varnish does not want to go into detail about those things, hoping they will be unearthed by a second independent investigation ordered by UK Sport and due to report later this month.
For the internal British Cycling investigation, she spoke to the organisation on numerous occasions over six months.
'I was 100 per cent compliant and answered every question I was asked on more than one occasion,' she says. 'I kept quiet whereas other parties didn't. It was hard for me to see him saying he was going to get his job back because I wondered if he knew something I didn't.'
One thing she is adamant about is that her story is the same now as it was then. 'Absolutely,' she says in a heartbeat.
'I stick by everything I said. Obviously the comments made to me by Shane, they are sexist, you wouldn't say it to a guy, to go have a family, to have a baby. I don't want to throw words around but it is what it is.
'This isn't just me versus Shane,' she adds. 'Everyone at British Cycling was given the opportunity to speak and give their evidence.
'I took the first step and it wasn't easy standing on my own but now it's not just me. I've got the backing of many people who went forward to that investigation.'
A year ago Varnish was part of the organisation's elite programme and bound for the Rio Olympics. A Commonwealth medallist and former world-record holder, she claims she was given no indication that her place on the programme was at risk.
But nine days after publicly criticising selection decisions at the world track championships in February, she was told over the phone that her contract would not be renewed.
She believes she was dropped for challenging the status quo but does not regret speaking up then, and about what she views as a corrosive culture at British Cycling.
'I used to be terrible,' she says. 'I'd come home from school and say to my mum, "So-and-so is getting bullied, what can I do about it to help tomorrow?" My mum was like, "She should be thinking about what's for tea". But that's just me. People might think, "Why is she bothering", but it just gives people that feeling that they can make a change rather than sitting in the background thinking. "I can't do anything".
'You have to be a strong person,' she adds. 'You have to stand up for what's right. My dad used to say to me, 'Bad things happen when good people don't do anything', and I'll always remember that.'
Varnish still looks very much the elite athlete, slim but muscular with the residue of a tan from a three-week holiday on the west coast of the USA. Her boyfriend Liam Phillips, an Olympic BMX rider, busies himself in the background making coffee but does not join in the interview.
'We take coffee very seriously,' says Varnish, who is in the process of opening a coffee shop in Altrincham with Phillips, the Olympic swimmer Fran Halsall and Fran's boyfriend, rugby league player Jon Wilkin.
During the Rio Games, Varnish's mum Helen came up from Bromsgrove to stay with her in their smart terraced house in Altrincham, an area many Manchester footballers call home.
'We weren't here to dwell on things,' she says. 'It was never, ever sit on the sofa and cry. It was, "Let's find your A-Level results from however many years ago and get you a place at university, and you need to get a personal training qualification". My mum was helping me organise my life and hopefully I'm coming out of the other side of it.'
She is studying sport and exercise nutrition at Manchester Metropolitan University and does training sessions for clients in person and online, with some as far away as Mexico.
But she does not rule out a return to elite competition and maybe even British Cycling.
'I first cycled when I was two because my dad was a really keen cyclist and still is,' she says. 'Cycling is part of me and part of my life. The first thing I did after my contract was terminated was get a bike, because I knew that I wasn't going to be able to function without one.
'I've been back on the track with my university team, which was really fun. I love to go to the gym, I've been an athlete all my life and couldn't be unfit.'
Varnish admits it was difficult to watch as the British Cycling team raced to 12 medals in Rio, topping the table, but insists she was pleased for them.
She also had to endure many of her former team-mates, including Laura Trott and Sir Bradley Wiggins, coming out in support of Sutton. Becky James, once so close to Varnish that the pair went on holiday together, said she would welcome Sutton's return.
Katy Marchant was quoted as saying: 'It's a cut-throat sport and elite sport is a tough place to be, but we choose to do it.'
The idea that she was in some way not tough enough to handle elite sport is something the 25-year-old takes issue with.
'My body's changed from being an athlete and that's part of sport,' she says. 'I've had to come back from injuries, I've been disqualified at an Olympic Games and didn't retire after that. I think that shows I'm tough and I wanted to come back from being on the back foot.
'I've never had anything handed to me on a plate. I live with Liam who's broken his collar bone eight weeks before the last two Olympics. I've seen how tough elite sport is first hand. I've lived it for the last 10 years. I know what it takes to achieve.
'A lot of my friends know that I take banter and I'm part of it myself, I love it. But there's a line and it was crossed.'
Varnish also maintains she had no option but to 'go public' with her complaints. 'I had nobody to speak to and absolutely nowhere to go,' she says. 'It was me as an athlete trying to get my voice heard and that was the only way.
'I had sleepless nights thinking about who to contact to gain information and support. My voice wasn't able to be heard.'
She agrees that the macho world of sport makes it more difficult potentially for women to speak up about wrongdoing.
'If people do feel like that then it really upsets me because whether you're male or female, you're still a person, you've got exactly the same rights,' she says.
'You have to back yourself and what you believe in, even if it means you have to stand on your own as I have. That's the only reason the truth has come out.'
For now, though, she has university work to be getting on with and a personal training client to see.
'I just feel I've got a new lease of life,' she says. 'I don't know what the future holds but I'm very happy with my life.'