When it comes to raising the profile of women’s sport, Danielle Sellwood has more experience than most. Ten years ago, she launched Sportsister.com, a trailblazing sports lifestyle website for women which shone a light on female athletes and women’s sport when coverage was even scarcer than it is today. Now, when she’s not growing Find it Film, a media company she co-founded with the aim to use film and events to showcase female sporting role models, she’s working to improve the way we photograph sportswomen through her work as Visual Campaigns Director for the Women’s Sport Trust.
A former athlete herself, Danielle was an elite level canoeist for more than ten years, competing for Great Britain in both sprint and marathon disciplines, and she was a three-time record holder of the annual Devizes to Westminster 125-mile canoe race (racing hard for 17+ hours!).
Danielle, tell us a bit about your background – how did Sportsister come about?
As a teenager I was good at art and sport, which was an odd combination back in the 1980s. So, I decided sport would be a hobby and art would be my profession. I did a degree in Fashion and Textiles and was encouraged to have a go at designing sportswear. This hadn’t occurred to me, but turning up to college on a racing bike with a technical backpack meant I stood out – and not in a cool way! It was a great suggestion and I went on to design for major sports brands for over 10 years before moving into Trend Forecasting right at the beginning of when the internet changed everything. Instant info became the thing and I spent 8 years as senior sports trend editor at WGSN.com.
Sportsister came about because I spent so much of my time looking for ‘the next big thing’ or gaps in the market, that when no one was acting on the opportunity of women’s sport, I decided to. Louise Hudson was Youth Trends editor at WGSN and we set up Sportsister.com together. That was in 2008. We had a bold aim to re-brand sport for women – inspired by how board sports had sold their sports as a lifestyle, we wanted to do the same for more accessible sports. It was the right idea but we were just too early.
Is the website still live?
The social media accounts still function, but the brand is owned by a company that tried hard to make it profitable, but then ran out of steam. It’s a shame, but I’m still proud of what we achieved. We were influential and we gave an outlet to hundreds of athletes and sports that otherwise would never have had any coverage. At its peak we had a 50,000 free distribution print magazine, a website and very active social media. We even got accreditation for the London 2012 Olympics. We were widely copied and often called upon by some very high profile people for information and direction on women’s sport. The trouble is, very few people were prepared to pay for the information… so it was a struggle.
You’re no stranger to elite sport and represented GB in canoeing – can you tell me a bit more about this?
I was in the GB team for sprint canoeing and went to several World Championships. This was before lottery funding though, so we were very amateur compared to how it is now. I did get to travel to some great places and made friends for life though. Towards the end of my canoeing career I was persuaded to give the Devizes to Westminster race a go. Our club coach, Brian Greenaway (a legend in the canoeing world), had a feeling it might suit me, so he persuaded me to do the warm-up races with him and then he just said, ‘Shall we do the long one then?’ I couldn’t really say no. We set the mixed record at 17 hours 35 in 1994, which stood for 20 years.
The following year, I did the women’s event and with Sandra Troop we set the women’s record at 18 hours 47 minutes which was broken just a couple of years ago. I then did it a third time with Steve Baker and we finished third overall, which was probably my best result even though the time was slower. (The times are so dependant on the conditions).
As a former athlete how important is it for you to fit some form of activity into your day/week?
I can’t imagine not doing something active in my week, but I’m not obsessive at all and not very competitive with others either – people are often surprised by this but I guess I don’t feel the need to prove anything. I love sport, but it’s purely for the experience now; I don’t have time to train for anything serious, so I don’t put pressure on myself. I’m the one smiling and waving and stopping for a snack!
I dabble with triathlon and have done a half-Ironman distance, I’ve run the London Marathon a couple of times, I play badminton with friends and go surfing. I love a challenge and like seeing if I can actually do something. I’m always thinking ‘I wonder what that feels like…?’ and I like trying new things – I have a curious mind!
At the moment I’ve got a sprint triathlon lined up this month. I go to a really cool and totally inclusive club called the Crazy Tri Club at Bath University. It’s run by George Clack, who is so encouraging and supportive – we have all different abilities and ages – it’s the perfect environment for anyone who wants to try triathlon but is put off by the pro image.
What other sports and events do you enjoy?
When I stopped canoeing I decided to try skateboarding, but was pretty useless, so we got into surfing (less painful landings). I’m very much a small wave surfer though! I have a lovely aqua green longboard and I pootle around in the small stuff. I went on an all-girl surf camp on the North Shore of Hawaii about 14 years ago, it was amazing in so many ways – I loved it – I was totally out of my comfort zone in some of the waves, but it was a great challenge. I’d love to go back with my family one day.
You contribute to the Women’s Sport Trust. For those that don’t know, can you explain what the Women’s Sport Trust is?
I’m Director of Visual Campaigns at the Women’s Sport Trust. Tammy Parlour and Jo Bostock set-up Women’s Sport Trust in 2012 and I met up with them really early on – they were brilliant at reaching out and getting to know everyone who was already trying to make a difference. I got involved more officially after we collaborated on a project to curate the best women’s sport photography together for an exhibition. This came from my frustration that so much marketing of women’s sport was focussing on sports women as sex symbols. So many women were having to diminish their athletic achievements by posing for sexy shots – we were told that that was basically the ONLY WAY to get any coverage. There is so much evidence that proves that sex sells sex, not sport, and that route is so unhealthy for young women and girls, even more so now that they are surrounded by social media perfection.
We pulled together the best imagery that sold the sport and showed how wonderful their achievements were – we didn’t shy away from muscles and mud and sweat – it seems odd now that this was such a big deal as it was only 4 years ago, but it was. Change is definitely happening at a very fast pace now.
The main objective of WST is to make women’s sport Visible, Viable and Unstoppable – so that means more coverage, higher profile, more sponsorship – the hardest part I’d say is getting investment and sponsorship on, but it is happening …
Can you tell me about Find it Film?
Find It Film came about in my head about 6 years ago when I saw the Hazel Findley Film, Spice Girl, at the Banff Film Festival. I loved it, but thought it was only reaching those that are already doing stuff – I had this overwhelming need to make sure that films like that reached a much wider audience. In my mind they should be seen by teenage girls the world over. So Nicola Waterworth and I set up Find It Film in 2017 really just to host some women’s sports and adventure film events.
Very quickly, though, I was keen to also get involved with making the films – there are still not enough out there – so we do both. I absolutely love it and am so impatient to make more films, have more events, reach more schools…that’s the only reason I buy a lottery ticket from time to time – I am hugely ambitious to make a difference and influence peoples lives in a positive way. The filmmaking part feels like the perfect conclusion to all my years in the industry; it combines my love of beautiful visuals, authentic storytelling and uses my vast amount of gained knowledge. I have a long way to go with it and am loving learning a new skill.
Since you started Sportsister a decade ago, how has the visibility of women in sport/adventure changed?
It’s incredible how far women’s sport and adventure has come. When we started in 2008 there were very few people shouting about women’s sport; there had been a handful before and there were a few alongside us, but it was hard, hard work and extremely frustrating. There were barely any women’s events, hardly any women’s coverage, social media was still in its infancy. Basically it wasn’t cool to be sporty… but that has all changed. It’s taken a lot of hard work, largely by a few dedicated individuals.
What improvements do you think still need to be made?
For me, the biggest thing is getting more diversity in the marketing of women’s sport, especially in adventure sports. This comes back to the much-used phrase ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it’ that we used so much to get more visibility for women’s sport. Now that needs to be applied to diversity generally, we need all sections of our community represented.
What are your favourite podcasts, books or blogs about women in sport and adventure?
I don’t really have a single one, I love so many and I think my years of trend forecasting have taught me to look far and wide and cherry-pick the best. I guess my favourite film is Johanna, which I first came across on Nowness – it combines the best of everything to make what I consider to be perfection.
A blog post that sticks in my mind is one by The Ordinary Adventurer (Bex Band) where she basically stuck her head above the parapet and asked the adventure blogging world to stop spouting that ‘anyone’ can go on an adventure, because the reality is that not everyone does have the chance. It was brave, but so true and it needed to be said.
I loved both of Sarah Outen’s books and I also love reading about historical trailblazers like Katherine Switzer – one of the first women to run the Boston Marathon – it reminds me how far we have come.
Basically, I love things that are authentic and honest… and if they look lovely too then I’m in heaven!
You feature female adventurers and sportswomen in your films and interviews. Can you tell us who you’ve had on and who has inspired you personally?
This is tricky as over the years I’ve interviewed hundreds of famous and not-so-famous female athletes and most of them have inspired me in some way. Most recently, I really loved spending time with the GB Short Track Speed Skating team for our film FOUR YEARS – we spent 6 months following their journey to try and become the first GB women’s relay team to qualify for the winter Olympics. All the team were so welcoming, modest and dedicated – they inspired me mainly because in their sport they get so little coverage, it really is all about the sport and being part of a team.
We’ve been doing a project with Lia Ditton who’s training to be the first woman to row the Pacific – I first spoke to Lia a couple of years ago and immediately knew I wanted to do more work with her. She’s really interesting to me, partly because she also comes from an arts background but also because she is so intellectual and driven, yet also funny and a bit quirky. I’m really excited about what we’ll create…I just wish we had a bigger budget (as always!)
Do you get to incorporate adventure into your life? You have a campervan don’t you?
Oh yes, I love a mini adventure most of all. My favourite thing is being in my van with a view, the kettle on, family and dog in tow – that can be by the sea checking the surf, up in the hills or even as a parkrun tourist. I am itching to do a longer bike ride, a more challenging open water swim and also visit some of the places I’ve seen in some of the adventure films.
What’s on the horizon for Find it Film?
Two things are the priority: making more films and learning more skills ourselves – there are so many stories to be told and I’m impatient to tell them. I have too many ideas – that’s always been a problem of mine!
Plus, we really want to nail the schools engagement programme – we are determined and ambitious to inspire young women and girls from all backgrounds with films and stories from across the whole sports and adventure world. We firmly believe that there is something out there for everyone – they just need to Find It.
You can follow Danielle on social media via www.twitter.com/D_sellwood and find out more about Find it Film via www.finditfilm.com, www.twitter.com/finditfilm, www.facebook.com/finditfilm and www.instagram.com/finditfilm.