IT was a cold and drizzly Sunday morning when a skinny and exhausted teenage Victoria Pendleton watched her father pedal his bicycle uphill and away from her.
"He doesn't love me," she said to herself as she tried to keep up with the distant figure. "He doesn't love me. He doesn't love me-"
She repeated the words over and over again, never lifting her gaze from "the unbreakable man on the bike" climbing the steep hill. "I turned my legs as fast as I could. I had to hang on to Dad."
When the Olympic gold medallist received her first world champion's jersey she had it framed as a gift for her father. Me? I would have strangled him with it. For that morning was but one of hundreds of Sunday training sessions. In her early teens she told her teacher she'd ridden 50 miles the previous day with her father. "Fifteen," her teacher said, correcting her. "Fifty. Five 0," the young Victoria replied.
Her father's ambition for her was as relentless as was her need to please him.
She was daddy's girl. I'd like to hand a copy of Pendleton's autobiography to every new dad. It's not that I want to see a nation of small girls being driven to the edge of a breakdown in their need to achieve. Rather I'd like new fathers to realise that for good or ill they will be the centre of their daughter's universe.
It's a given that they will be a prototype, a role model, for their son. But how many of them realise they will also be the lodestone of their daughter's life?
How should they discharge this responsibility? Should they be openly affectionate with their small charges? Should they ignore them, remain emotionally unobtainable? Should they withhold approval until goals are reached? Or should they push?
Pendleton's father has been the making of her, but he almost broke her along the way.
Did you know that most successful women are daddy's girls?
I discovered it by accident. I was making a speech to a group of businesswomen. In my search for material I scanned copies of interviews I had done with exceptional women looking for commonality.
Two coincidences struck me. None of the women was part of the in-crowd at school. All were daddy's girls.
When I came to that part of my speech a murmur of recognition went through the audience. "Woooo..."
Have a look around and you will spot it.
The Queen qualifies. She didn't have the opportunity to mix with her own age group. She also famously adored her father. Our first (and to date only) woman prime minister also fitted the bill. Margaret Thatcher didn't go to parties and dances like her peers in Grantham. At weekends she and her adored father, Alderman Alfred Roberts, visited the local library. They took out political biographies and a novel for her mother. She brought his values into Number 10.
Some have healthy bonds. Just last week Scottish singer KT Tunstall pulled out of a music festival following the death of her father David. The physics lecturer adopted her when she was just days old. He introduced her to their shared passion, astronomy. Her first album was Eye to the Telescope.
"Dad goes back to cosmic dust. I'll be following him one day..." she wrote on Twitter.
Others remain toxic. Jane Fonda was in late middle age when she admitted she'd spent a life time trying to impress her emotionally distant father – desperate to earn his love.
She was a beautiful and successful film star but without that crumb of acknowledgment from him, she felt hollow.
Fathers are the first men in girls' lives. Very often they are the prototype for those who follow.
It used to be said that behind every successful man was a strong woman. Well the world is changing. Now behind many successful women is an adored dad.
Girls are out-performing boys at school and university. The percentage of women in the workforce is tipping to a majority. But it seems that however high they climb, they still seek their father's approval.
TV commentator Clare Balding is a classic example. In her newly published autobiography she too says her whole life has been spent trying to get approval from her racehorse trainer father.
She said: "That's what happens when you have a father who wasn't interested in anything you did unless it impacted on him." She told one friend: "I was head girl at school and thought that would satisfy him. I won the ladies' racing championship and I thought that would satisfy him. I was president of the Cambridge Union, and I thought that would satisfy him. Now I present racing. Do you know what he said? You nod too much."
Ian Balding may be just discovering his impact. Pendleton's father clearly understood his. He spotted her potential and pushed her to maximise it.
I think most fathers are instinctively soft on their daughters. And since girls achieve more every year, it doesn't seem to be harmful. But if you want your girl to be top of the heap; if you want her to maximise her natural potential, is tough love the way to bring up daughters?
The evidence suggests it forges champions.
But taking a closer look at the life behind the medal doesn't every parent have to ask: what price excellence?
Pendleton took to self-harming. She smiled for the world when she won but inside all was emptiness.
Balding abused laxatives and made herself sick after meals when she was working as a jockey for her father and was desperate to keep her weight down.
She says: "I see now that I spent most of my life trying to be what I wasn't, trying to get people to like me – only to discover that it's when you stop trying to make people like you that they do."
So what should fathers do? I've always believed that parenthood is about helping children towards independence. I thought it necessitated unconditional love. But will children who are raised that way ever truly excel? Will they command our screens and beat all comers? Probably not.
If pushing, or with-holding affection breeds champions, do the means justify the ends?
I don't think so.
For all that Victoria Pendleton and others like her succeeded, in my opinion their fathers failed. In my book, a father's task is to raise daughters to be happy, well-balanced adults, not to be first across the finishing line.
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