When the Hylton sisters were teenagers – they are now 21 – they were netball ninjas, terrorising the courts of southeast London. “It was our second favourite sport,” they say in unison, before combusting in a fit of giggles – a laugh that, since primary school they say, has been compared, pretty accurately, to a dolphin celebration.
Their main weapon was that they are twins and, to the untrained eye, identical. This made them devilish to mark. Shannon was a wing attack and Cheriece played centre but, to add to their opponents’ bemusement and frustration, they would fluidly switch position. “People would get so confused,” says Shannon, who is fractionally taller than her sister and has a tiny beauty spot on her left cheek. “And then they’d start shouting: ‘You’re marking the wrong twin! She’s over there! No, she’s there!’”
More explosive giggles. The other thing the Hylton sisters had going for them was that they were fast. Lightning quick. This quality, though, was most evident in their favourite sport: athletics. Shannon and Cheriece’s parents were never scared to let their daughters compete against each other. This, they believed, would only push them to run even faster. But, because the Hylton twins were in the same house at school and lined up for the same athletics club, they would often divide and rule. They specialised in the sprints – 100m to 400m – but they could hold their own in any distance up to 1500m. The only thing better than one of them winning was both of them triumphing.
What started with Kent Schools has gone to national level and now beyond. Last year, Shannon was the British senior champion over 200m; Cheriece, meanwhile, is one of the fastest 400m runners on the blocks. Their promise is such that when Andy Murray launched his sports management company, 77, in November, his first, hand-picked clients were the twins. “They are obviously hugely talented,” he says, “but also really down-to-earth. Their focus should always be on performance and not to get caught up or worry about anything that might affect that, that’s where we can help. There will be plenty of setbacks along the way, but it’s about how you learn and respond to those setbacks.”
It seems likely that the Hyltons will both be on the starting line in GB vests at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Maybe even on the podium. “How would that feel?” I ask. The room shudders with the most thunderous laugh of the day.
It’s just before Christmas, and the Hylton sisters are in a café in a London photographic studio, waiting for the Pro Plus to kick in and their chicken burgers to arrive. They’ve had something of a week. On Saturday, they had a party for their 21st birthdays: they hired a boat on the Thames and there was a DJ and 130 guests. The next day, they zipped up to Liverpool to attend the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Added to this, they are training most days and also studying for university degrees: both are adamant they will accept nothing less than first-class honours.
It has been a week of firsts, as it happens. The 2017 event was their debut at Sports Personality. The Hyltons have also, since birth, had some serious food allergies – notably to eggs and nuts – and they are gingerly becoming more adventurous with what they eat (while, at the same time, keeping their EpiPens at the ready). At their party, they had their first taste of red velvet cake. “Amazing,” decides Cheriece. “We understand now why everyone loves cake. We understand.”
Then they had their introduction to Indian food in a Liverpool curry house: naan, pilau rice, lamb biryani. “It was soooo good,” gushes Shannon. “Oh my God, we’ve been missing out so much.” Hence the Pro Plus, though the Hyltons don’t immediately strike you as people who need additional caffeine stimulation. They talk breathlessly and when one twin pauses, the other immediately jumps in.
What did they think of the Sports Personality result then? Mo Farah was so sure he wasn’t going to win that he didn’t even attend the ceremony; he didn’t even engage a babysitter, and as he was interviewed over video link his two-year-old son Hussein scrambled all over him. But Farah’s victory was a much-needed fillip for British track and field, bolstered, as it was, by a lifetime achievement award for Jessica Ennis-Hill and a coach of the year nod for the three men behind the GB relay squads.
Athletics can sometimes feel like a marginal sport in the UK, losing the battle with the under-30s audience against the likes of MMA and eSports. “Personally, I feel like Mo’s deserved it from a long time ago,” says Cheriece. “We were just voting Mo, Mo, Mo – we have to support our own. We were sitting with the athletics lot and when they announced his name they just went crazy. Yeesss! .”
At a time when we are looking for the new Jess, the next Mo, the Hyltons offer genuine hope for a bright future. “It was just such an inspiring event,” Shannon goes on. “There are so many legends in the same room as you, breathing the same air, it’s incredible. If you weren’t motivated by that, I don’t understand what you could be motivated by.”
After the ceremony, they buttonholed many of their heroes for selfies. Top of the list was the boxer Anthony Joshua. “His agent was like: ‘He has to go,’” says Cheriece. “And then AJ just pointed at us [and mouthed]: ‘Do you want a selfie?’ And we were like: ‘Yesssss!’ God, so cool.”
But even though it’s deep in the off-season for athletics, the Hyltons didn’t drink much and were in bed by 1am. Already, they were thinking about what they needed to achieve in 2018; perhaps even one day contesting Sports Personality in their own right. “We sound like such grannies!” says Cheriece. “We’re not, honest.”
The strides made by Shannon and Cheriece Hylton are particularly impressive given they are both basically novices. It was only when they were 16 that they began running seriously. Until then, they were dancers: contemporary, ballet, acrobatics, anything really, five or six days a week. They performed regularly in pantomimes and shows, such as Cinderella and Aladdin, at the Broadway Theatre in Catford, southeast London. One of their productions had a guest cameo from David Tennant, then Doctor Who.
Their parents, Dwight and Sharon, an IT consultant and BT employee respectively, were, in their own words, “glorified taxi drivers”. Shannon says: “Our mum was very much the dancing taxi driver and our dad was the athletics taxi driver. And we’d say: ‘Dad, don’t think of it like that!’ Think of it as: ‘You’re going to come and see us run!’”
“I cannot put into words how grateful we are to them,” Cheriece adds. “Without them we would not be where we are at all. They have been the backbone of everything.”
It was on one of these car journeys that Shannon and Cheriece decided to switch their focus from dance to running. “My mum picked us up one day after school, we had all our dancing stuff, our ballet shoes, and I sat in the car and said: ‘Mum, I don’t want to go to dancing today,’” Shannon recalls. “And she was like: ‘Oh really, why?’ And I said: ‘I don’t know, I’m not excited to go any more. I really like athletics, I really like it.’”
The change in priorities coincided fortuitously with the 2012 Olympics. Although Ennis-Hill and Farah won the medals and the headlines, it was the performance of a young British heptathlete, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, then just 19, that caused the biggest stir with the Hylton twins. “London 2012 was a massive inspiration to us,” says Cheriece. “I remember watching KJT, she was a junior at the time and she did so well and she was so young. I was a little 15-year-old thinking: ‘This is what I want to do. And I don’t know how I’m going to get there.’ I didn’t know what was going to come. I didn’t know the depths of the sacrifices we’d have to make, but I knew what I wanted. That was it.”
Sacrifice is the word, and the Hyltons are in the minority in deciding to pursue the tough regimen required by athletics. According to the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF), under 20% of 15-year-old British girls take part in the recommended level of physical activity. In their teenage years, women stop playing sports at around twice the rate of boys. Research by Sport England found numerous reasons for the drop-off: everything from disliking how they look when they sweat to fearing they will be regarded as less feminine. A lack of role models was also often cited.
This is all despite plenty of evidence that participation in sports can have considerable benefits for young women: in their confidence, health and future success. One study in 2013 found that 96% of female C-Suite executives (that is, those with CEO, CFO, and COO titles) participated in sports as teenagers. It has also been linked to a decreased chance of having breast cancer in later life.
For the twins, there has never really been a wobble, but the commitment has become greater as they’ve got older. “When we were 15, 16, we’d go out anyway,” says Shannon. “Like to Bluewater shopping centre: ‘Oh my God, girls, let’s go!’ But when we got to 17, 18, and you’ve got more independence it was really hard for us: everyone wants to go clubbing and we just had to say: ‘No, we’ve got training.’”
Both of the Hyltons have boyfriends: Cheriece’s is also an athlete, someone she’s known since she was 14; Shannon’s isn’t. “It’s nice because he gets what you’re doing,” says Cheriece. “That’s the big thing: they need to understand.”
Things are becoming serious now for the Hyltons: even on the day of their 21st birthday, they trained from 10am to 3.30pm. Their targets for this season are the Commonwealth Games in Australia in April, and then, in August, the European Championships in Berlin. These aren’t “the big ones” – the Olympics or World Championships – but they should provide invaluable experience. “We’ve got to pull out some stops to compete with the football World Cup,” says Shannon, smiling. “But every competition is a building block towards 2020 really.”
Before that, there’s also the small matter of graduating with firsts. Shannon studies biomedical science at the University of East London, while Cheriece is reading business management at Cass Business School. One of the main pieces of advice Murray gave them was not to neglect their education, a regret he has had from his own youth.
“It’s a balance, but a lot of my friends are very studious,” says Cheriece. “So I’m surrounded by people who want to achieve similar successes, just in different ways.”
Not all of them, though. “After my lab,” says Shannon, “one of my friends said: ‘So what are you doing now?’ I’m in my Lycra and about to go training, and say: ‘What about you?’ They say: ‘Oh, I’m going home to watch some Netflix.”
Shannon and Cheriece look at each other and sigh simultaneously: “What a life!”
All clothes by Stella x Adidas. Shoes from adidas.co.uk
Fashion editor Jo Jones. Hair Neusa Neves at Terry Manduka using Charlotte Mensah. Make-up Linda Johansson at One Represents using Eyeko and Laura Estrada using Urban Decay and Waleda. Fashion assistant Melina Frangos. Photographer’s assistant Sam Benard.
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