The Times and The Sunday Times Sports University of the Year
Loughborough makes a mighty splash
Loughborough University

Winning comes naturally to Loughborough University. It’s a breeding ground for British sport and its athletes helped put the “great” into Great Britain’s record-breaking Olympic and Paralympic medal hauls in Rio this year. Naming it our Sports University of the Year into the bargain is only its due.

Loughborough’s sporting set-up is the envy of other UK universities. It attracts top student-athletes with its world-class facilities, coaching and research, and houses sporting organisations on a 438-acre campus in the Leicestershire market town. A postgraduate London campus was added in 2012, embedded in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

The Rio Olympics provided an international platform for the university. Team GB included Loughborough students or graduates in a wide range of sports, as well as athletes based there for training - often by coaches who are Loughborough graduates themselves, such as the Olympian Mel Marshall. She trains Adam Peaty, who won a glorious gold in the men’s 100m breaststroke at this summer’s Games.

Five members of this summer’s victorious Olympic women’s hockey team are Loughborough alumni, including their penalty-saving goalkeeper Maddie Hinch, while Paralympic successes included the cyclist Crystal Lane and high-jumper Jonathan Broom-Edwards.

Had the university been a country at the Olympics, it would have been in the top 25 in the final medals table, but John Steele, Loughborough’s executive director of sport, shies away from such comparisons. He considers sport at Loughborough an “ecosystem”.

Steele, who is also chairman of the English Institute of Sport, says: “What I would emphasise is that we’re part of a number of stakeholders that have come together to create something very special for Team GB and Paralympics GB. There is no one organisation that can take credit for this. But there is a collaborative attitude – I think born of Beijing and London and matured over those cycles – that has just created something very special.”

Such was Loughborough’s success in Rio that the Brazilian ambassador in London is holding a reception in its honour next month.

The university’s sporting prowess – it was also our Sports University of the Year in 2014 – is firmly rooted. A former technical college founded in 1909, Loughborough gained university status in 1966 and has focused on sport for more than 60 years. Its alumni list includes John Cooper, who won a silver medal in the 400m hurdles at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, the marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe, the former England rugby union coach Sir Clive Woodward and ground-breaking Paralympian and life peer Tanni Grey-Thompson.

The university’s pro-chancellor Lord Coe, double Olympic 1500m champion and president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, is also an alumnus. He picked Loughborough because that’s where the revolutionary athletics coach George Gandy was based, says Professor Robert Allison, the university’s vice-chancellor. “So in other words what Seb’s saying is: have the very best people. And then he said, on top of that, have the very best facilities you can afford. And if you have the best people and the best facilities, the athletes will come. Hey presto.”

Facilities at Loughborough – which are open to all students, not just elite sporty types – trounce the opposition and are constantly being upgraded. They include an eight-lane athletics track with indoor facilities, the National Cricket Academy, an Olympic-size swimming pool (where regular students could find themselves doing lengths alongside Paralympian Ellie Simmonds) and the Powerbase free-weights gym, which is popular with the England rugby squad.

There are also all-weather pitches, a netball centre and a water-based hockey. The tennis centre has been refurbished in the Loughborough colours: African violet and pink, the same distinctive hues all “stash” – or kit – comes in.

One hall of residence has a 10pm noise curfew, to help those with 5am training start times get early nights. It is always oversubscribed. Elite athletes need elite diets, and Loughborough offers a campus restaurant that caters to their special meal plans.

Varsity sport is as strong as you would expect from an institution that breeds Olympians at the rate this one does. For the past 36 years in a row Loughborough has resoundingly topped the British Universities & Colleges Sport (Bucs) overall points league. It finished more than 1,700 points clear of its nearest competitor, Durham, in the 2015-16 contest.

Isaac Miller, 22, who captains the first XV rugby team, says improving at sport is inevitable here. “I just played at school, I really loved it,” says the hooker, who confesses: “I wasn’t the best.” As a fresher he joined the third team because “there’s so many quality players, you need to almost earn your right, progress up and prove your worth a bit” – which he did. By the end of his first year Miller was playing for Scotland’s under-20s.

“Literally everything here is on your front doorstep: you’ve got top-class coaching, the facilities to go with it and everything else on the side of that – sport science support, strength and conditioning coaches. All you have to do is fall out of bed and it’s there to use, you just have to turn up, really, and you’re going to get better no matter what,” says Miller, who hopes to gain a professional rugby contract when he has finished studying.

The main draw for Miller, a former Stewart’s Melville pupil who gained the equivalent of three A-level As in his Higher exams, was Loughborough’s sport and exercise science BSc, which did not disappoint. “I think it went above and beyond what I expected,” says graduate Miller, now embarking on a master’s degree in management.

Allison says that average entry grades across all Loughborough courses are “somewhere between two As and a B, and an A and two Bs. For some degrees it’s less, for others it’s more”.

Steele adds that the university is “very proud that we get incredibly high-achieving academics who perform at the top level of sport as well. The days of underachievement at A-level and getting into Loughborough are gone. The moment we start compromising the academic standard because of sport we’ve got the decision making the wrong way round.”

Flexibility is important. A sport development department supports the elite student-athletes so they can balance their demanding schedules (Miller trains at least 12 hours a week and spends just about every Saturday travelling to matches around the UK) with their studies. In some cases, “an international athlete could stretch their degree over five years,” Allison says. Loughborough’s top athletes competing overseas have been known to sit university exams in a British council office or the High Commission.

Success breeds success, as the university’s popularity on Ucas forms testifies. Loughborough is welcoming between 3,400 and 3,500 new students this week – and received 28,000 applications for those places. There are 23,000 registrations for this month’s open day, and 21,000 came to the one in the summer. Not all of them are into sport and Allison tells hopefuls they do not have to be sporty to come here.

However, he adds: “There is something about sport being in the DNA of this university. And what I say is, you need to understand that if you come here don’t think being involved in sport has got to be throwing, jumping, running or kicking. We do things in the local community encouraging young people to get involved in sport. We encourage volunteering, we encourage students to learn how to coach, we encourage students to learn how to referee. You don’t need to do any of that if you don’t want to, but sport at Loughborough is so much more than just kicking a ball.”