At a small pub called The Horseshoe tucked away in a corner of central London, Deta Hedman, the current number one female darts player in the world, is practicing. She's wearing relaxed jeans and a pink and black darts shirt, drinking a pink cider to match. It's only a small session, relatively, as she has to be up at four in the morning to travel to the Isle of Man for a tournament.
"I do as many as I can. I think last year I only had a couple of weekends off. But this year so far I've had two weekends off because [a tournament in] Billingsgate got cancelled. Because I don't go out each night to play leagues, I have to keep playing tournaments, because that's how I practice. And while you're winning it becomes a habit. And I love those habits," she says.
Hedman was born in November 1959 in Jamaica, before moving to Witham, Essex, with her family. Her voice contains traces of a patois cadence she once had. She still lives in Witham. "I've been here 43 years. When I came my brothers used to play darts in the pub. One of them had a dart board at his home. When I go down to his house after school, do my chores, we used to have a practice and it was 301, double in double out, and they used to whitewash me and I would never get off that board until I won a game. And that's how it all started really."
Since then, Hedman has won over 100 tournaments and risen to the top spot in women's darts, while holding down a job at the Royal Mail, doing late shifts, and working until the early hours of the morning. It's a work ethic that has been present throughout her career, and it makes her uncomfortable with the title of 'professional.'
"I'm a semi-pro, to put a finer word on it. To me, when somebody says you're a professional, that's what you do for a living. But I'm a semi-pro, because I've always worked. Once I left school I found a bedsit. From that I just worked, paid my bills, and darts is just a hobby that I thoroughly enjoy. Whenever I get prize money, I think OK, that's a bill that's going to be paid."
In 1997, financial difficulties and redundancy caused Hedman to drop darts altogether. The hiatus lasted seven years.
"What you've got to realize is, up until I came back, I've never had a sponsor. If I didn't win, I'd have nothing. So if I did win anything, that just goes back into the kitty. Even though I have a couple of sponsors now, which helps, if I didn't do so well then I wouldn't be able to do as many tournaments as I do, because the prize money for the ladies' tournaments is absolute pants. It really is. And it costs us exactly the same as the men to travel, especially in Europe. The pairs, the singles—we pay exactly the same. That's why the World Championship, I get so angry with it, because the men's prize money is £100,000 [$142,000] and the ladies' is £12,000 [$17,000]. And it's only three years ago that it went up to 12. Before that it was ten, and before that it was six, and before that it was four."
Hedman is "The Dark Destroyer," a nickname she lifted from boxer Nigel Benn. "I destroy people on the board normally, so that's where it came from." Hedman's throw has a beautiful glide to it, much like the rest of her movement. Though tall, she swans when she walks, and her throw has a strange time-stopping effect, as if she's pushing it directly into the board through telekinesis. There is something decidedly easygoing and stress-free about her actions, even down to her speech. Everything is said with the calming placidity of experience and quiet determination.
Like all pub sports, racial diversity in darts isn't great, to say the least. It's something Hedman has had to deal with in the past and, unfortunately, on occasion, still does. "We were in Europe once and someone said in a clear voice, 'I didn't know they trained monkeys to throw darts.' It doesn't really bother me as such. If they were to say it in my face, then I would tackle them. I would go back in their face. I will fight my battles. If it continues then obviously I'll do something about it." In contrast, she's been made to feel different in her long-term home of Witham.
"Pubs aren't the black person's culture. But where I live in Witham, there are pubs everywhere. You probably don't remember, but in the olden days everybody used to go to the pub on a Sunday and play darts, dominos, card games—all the little cheese and pickle and biscuits—that's where it came from, we all loved doing that at lunchtime. And where we lived in Essex, it was such a friendly place, it really, really was. Everybody knew everybody."
The nurturing disposition has rubbed off on Hedman, as she contemplates a life after darts. "There is going to be a time where I will have to stop playing. I would like to put something back into the game, such as being an official. I was actually speaking to the youth selector recently, so I might go into that."
Deta Hedman's supreme love for darts is evident. It seems that her maintenance of a 'normal' life and remaining semi-professional has allowed her to care for the game and the people in it in a different way, and let her retain a sense of great humility, even as the best female player in the world.
"I still walk around Witham and people say, 'There's that darts lady!' And I say, 'Who?'"