IT takes a lot of hard work and dedication to reach the top but two talented Bucks athletes have been handed a major boost towards achieving their sporting ambitions thanks to a nationwide funding initiative.

Managed by charity SportsAid, Sport England’s Backing The Best programme aims to support talented young athletes who would face difficulties progressing through their sport’s talent development system without critical financial help.

Seventy athletes were supported during the programme’s first term in 2016, producing world, European and national age-group level champions.

Para dressage rider Mari Durwood-Akhurst and squash star Katie Malliff are two of those named among the recent intake of athletes and, as a result, the pair are set to receive an annual award of up to £5,000 to help with essential costs such as travel, accommodation and kit.

They will also benefit from extra support from coaches and physios as they aim to progress in their sports.

Amersham’s Durwood-Akhust, who has cerebral palsy, expressed her delight at being named on the programme and how it will help her realise her dream of going to the Paralympics.

“I’m absolutely over the moon it is going to make such a difference,” the 23-year-old said. “My sport is really expensive, because it is not just me but the horse as well.

“Backing The Best is going to make such a difference because I can more training with my trainer. It will allow me to do more strength and conditioning. 

“Dressage is everything, it is my way of life and every day I get up to ride and it just gives me so much.

“It is massive because I really want to get to the Paralympics and it is great to see that my talent has been recognised by Backing The Best.”

Wendover’s Malliff, meanwhile, has played squash for four years, and has set her sights on taking her place among the world’s best.

“SportsAid has helped support me play squash with going to tournaments throughout the year because it can get quite expensive,” said the Tring School pupil.

“I was really happy to be selected, because it is a massive for me.
“Backing The Best is a good programme because it gives us support and makes you more confident. It makes you feel like you have achieved something by getting the money. 

“My dream is squash to play in the Olympics one day, and get into the top 10 in the world.”

Backing The Best will use £5.5 million of National Lottery funding over four years to extend SportsAid’s reach into new areas of the country and offer more support to those who face the biggest financial challenges.

All the athletes are nominated to SportsAid by their sport’s governing bodies, with the charity then ensuring funding goes to those who are most in need.

Rebecca Adlington, who also benefitted from SportsAid, said: “It’s about these athletes absorbing everything around them right now at their age, almost being a bit like a sponge.

“SportsAid was a massive help with that, whether that was playing for petrol or new training equipment that I needed. It really made a huge difference to myself.”