Deta Hedman is a trailblazer. Quite simply, it is what she has always done. She laughs as she recounts the details of an extraordinary sporting career that has found space for itself in amongst a life packed full of challenges. “You could say that I’m a freak,” she says.
To afford the term its modern, informal connotation of hysteria is to do the world’s top-ranked female darts player an almighty disservice. To take the original notion of the ‘freak’, however – that of abnormality, of the unparalleled, is a just reflection on a remarkable woman, whose ambitions are showing no signs of waning in her 59th year.
Phil Taylor, the iconic 16-time world champion, retired at the end of 2017, aged 57. He confessed that he was tired, that he had more than done his time, that for all his love of the sport that he led for so long, he had nothing left to give.
In the sport of darts, where age has shown to be no barrier – Taylor’s last ever throw came in a world final, after all – pitting male and female protagonists alongside one another is by no means unique.
The PDC has always had its tour open to both male and female players. Gayl King and Anastasia Dobromyslova have both played at the PDC World Championship in the past, while Lisa Ashton has recently taken part on the PDC Unicorn Challenge Tour.
However, to the many who tune in to watch the action unfold as casual fans – both on television and at the Alexandra Palace showpiece – the gender-inclusive tour is a little-known fact, though Momo Zhou’s appearance for China in the 2018 World Cup of Darts has provided some recent televised impetus.
Hedman has just put her name forward for the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) World Championship qualifiers, following a relaxation of long-standing policies by new British Darts Organisation (BDO) chairman Des Jacklin. The announcement means that BDO players who wish to enter the qualifying stages of the more lucrative PDC tournament will not be penalised.
This year, with the sport continuing to ride the crest of an ever-growing wave, provisions have been made to ensure that at least two women will compete in the year-ending 96-player flagship tournament in December.
Hedman, though, is no stranger to the situation, having previously been a member of the PDC between 2002 and 2007.
In 2005, she made history, beating Aaron Turner 4-3 at the 2005 UK Open to become the first woman to beat a man in a match at a televised major competition. She followed up by beating Norman Fletcher in the next round. It marked an enormous moment for the sport, but – perhaps – one that has not become the watershed development that it could have been.
“It was hugely significant,” Hedman says. “Ladies weren’t used to being televised. So few ladies would be on that screen; back in the days when the BDO World Championship was on the BBC, you could only ever see the final of the ladies tournament on the TV. You’d be lucky to find it on the red button. They’d only really show it on the last couple of days.
“For me though, when I got that win, I was over the moon – especially because it allowed me to show the other ladies that we still had to work so hard.
“I wanted to show women what they could achieve and where they could go. It was very difficult, to be honest. Each time I’d get on that stage and it was being televised, there would just be so much going on in my head. Not only did I have to concentrate on trying to play the game, but I had also just done so much work on actually reaching that stage in the first place.”
Darts was a different beast 13 years ago, with Hedman recalling the stigma of losing to a female player. Turner, who spoke graciously in a television interview immediately after the match’s conclusion, had nothing to gain from what Hedman acknowledges was, at the time, a nightmare draw for any male player on the circuit.
“As Aaron said at the time, he was on a hiding to nothing that day,” Hedman admits. “Poor Aaron, even to this day, still gets rinsed for it. It doesn’t matter how good you are when you go up there and you beat a guy. The guy goes home and his mates ask how he got on. They might say that they got beaten by Lisa Ashton, Deta Hedman or Anastasia Dobromyslova, but to their mates, they just got beaten by a woman. It is beginning to change though.
“I would like to see more ladies able to say: ‘Right, darts is what I want to do as a career and at the end of it, if I’m really good, I can make a really good living from it.’ That’s what I would love to see happen.
“It probably won’t in my time, but that’s where I’d like to see it go, so the ladies can do the same as the men. In my own little mind, I would like to see someone like Barry Hearn decide to do a tour for the ladies and put a bit of money forward so the ladies can understand that there is a decent living out there for them.
“That’s all that anyone who plays a sport wants – the knowledge that they have chosen their career and that if they are good enough at it, they can earn a decent living.”
As it stands, it is – as Hedman confesses – a pipedream, though one that has increased in tangibility in the last month.
Glen Durrant won £100,000 for winning the BDO World Championship in January. It was his second successive world title. On the same card at the Lakeside, Frimley Green, Lisa Ashton won the ladies’ title. She took home £12,000. “Disgust,” Hedman says when broached of the disparity. For a competition televised alongside its male equivalent, the three-time world runner up’s response is powerfully candid.
A winner of more than 100 ranking titles, that Hedman was the woman to provide that symbolic breakthrough for the sport more than a decade ago should be of no surprise.
Yet, to put it in the context of a life story as varied as that of Hedman only succeeds in emphasising the immense talents – both technical and mental – of one of the nation’s most dominant sportspeople.
Born in Jamaica in 1959, she only moved to England at the age of 14. “I am one of the lucky few,” she says candidly of the life that she has created in her adopted nation.
“My dad came first and then followed by my mum. I was one of seven kids – it’s the usual story. I was one of the last three to arrive because of the work permit situation and my brothers were already here. One of them was married with a baby and they were very into the pub scene by then.
“They had a dartboard at his house, so I used to babysit and then I’d have a practice when I came home. It was the first time I had ever seen a board.
“I knew nothing about darts. I remember seeing my first snow because we never had anything like that back home. Honestly, I went out in it and was so excited. Everything was fairly new for me back then.
“Where I came from in Jamaica, we were a very poor family. To be fair, I have been very lucky – my parents could have just left us in Jamaica. They worked hard and I thank them so much for just bringing me here, so I have this chance of making something for myself.
“We used to play 301 double-in-double-out and I used to get whitewashed back in the day because I could never get double-in. My brother always finished before I’d even started, but I’d never give up until I actually won a game.
“I progressed and started to go for lunch with them to the pub. We used to go at lunchtime, have a roast and then have a game of darts, and then someone would ask you to join a team. The rest is history really.”
It is a history that is tinged with just a single ounce of regret. Hedman captains England, she has been a history-maker and perhaps the ultimate darting trailblazer. However, three BDO World Championship finals have brought with them three agonising defeats.
It is the first that stings the most – a miscount at a crucial stage against Dobromyslova saw Hedman throw at the wrong double. By her own admission, she imploded after the error, never recovering her composure. “I’d gone,” she sighs with a wry chuckle. “I had completely gone.”
Two more opportunities have come and gone – once to Ashton, before a 2016 defeat to Trina Gulliver. Yet, far from lacking the bottle to win the big prizes – more than a century’s worth of ranking titles see to that theory – Hedman has perhaps achieved more than she should ever have been able to.
There is grafting, and then there is combining elite sport with a 52-hour working week, including night shifts. Hedman – a long-time Royal Mail veteran – is whatever that is.
“I have a full-time job and I have worked nights for 25 years,” she explains. “Most of the top girls now – Eileen de Graaf, Sharon Prins, Trina Gulliver, Anastasia Dobromyslova, Lisa Ashton – aren’t working. So, when you go to the World Championships, they have all the time to practice and to put everything into form.”
For Hedman, the same could scarcely be less true. At this year’s tournament, she arrived at Lakeside on the Friday night, having worked at 4am that morning ahead of her first round match the following afternoon.
It has left her with a training pattern to be found in few coaching manuals.
“I got a dartboard fitted at work,” she explains. “We have a games room with a pool table. Obviously, quite a few people like to play on it.
“All I ask is for during my lunch break from 1am to 1:40am to be allowed a bit of time and space. I go and grab something to eat and then I throw for half an hour.”
It is an extraordinary declaration from a champion sportswoman – 40 minutes at the height of darkness. However, it is an image that serves to highlight the steadfast, bloody-minded determination of the world’s best player. As far as practice goes, it is almost perverse – the oxymoron of the suitability of such a regime balanced up against the champion mental fortitude to take on such a schedule.
“I just do the same routine that I always do,” she says. “I don’t practice every day but I try and put in as much as I can, which is half an hour.”
It is the attitude of a serial winner, whose lifelong desire to succeed has made her as formidable as any on the women’s circuit. As she creeps towards a seventh decade, retirement is not amongst her most imminent plans.
“I love the game and I’m in love with the game,” she gushes. “The question therefore is, at what point do you stop while you’re in love with it?
“The big thing might be finances. At the moment, I’m fortunate in that I have a few sponsors. If you’re not winning anything though, it’s a different story. In the ladies’ game, you’re only really looking at maybe £4,000 per year in sponsorship. If you don’t do well, you can’t do it. It may come to the point where I’m not winning anything, the sponsors’ money runs out and then I’m left with a very easy decision to make.”
Just from listening to the passion in Hedman’s voice, there is an unmistakable air of steely willpower etched onto the back of each and every word. After all, there is still the small matter of that elusive world title.
“If you knock me down I will just keep on coming back,” she tells me. It is hard not to believe her – the best player in the world, via Jamaica and the Royal Mail.
“I’m going to win that World Championship on my Zimmer frame,” she stresses. She is half-joking. “Honestly, I will. I will just keep coming back and I will not stop until I physically cannot do it anymore.
“I’m just that person – you knock me down and I just get straight back up. You dust yourself down and start again. I’ve always tried to just be bigger and better, and that’s just how I go about everything I do really.”
You’d be bold to bet against Deta Hedman, a highly respected competitor of fiercely supreme resilience.
Featured Photograph: Deta Hedman / Twitter