"I DON'T LOOK like the stereotypical darts player, do I?" Fallon Sherrock says.
In her black flats, leggings and pink top, sipping from a glass of water before chucking her pink-flighted Tungsten darts at Robin Park Tennis Centre, the 25-year-old woman from Milton Keynes, a town about 54 miles north of London, is more anomaly than the norm.
It's 8:30 a.m., and the beer is flowing. The indoor facility is usually a veritable temple to fitness. But on this chilly mid-January morning in Wigan -- a town in Greater Manchester, England -- the grounds are being overrun by other darts players, who are, let's say, slightly less health-conscious.
A makeshift bar is set up near one of the covered court baselines. Burly, mostly middle-aged blokes, many wearing loose, loud T-shirts bearing seemingly prerequisite nicknames such as The Candyman, Jellyfish and Grizzly, queue up in a snaking line for a liquid breakfast. You can take darts out of the pub, but you can never entirely take the pub out of darts.
Sherrock and the rest are on-site for an event in the four-day Q-school of the PDC (Professional Darts Corporation). Hundreds of players are out there, having paid their $580 entry fee, all trying to fulfill the dream of earning a card that will enable them to throw for big prizes as a darts professional on a burgeoning pro tour.
"They're after Willy Wonka's golden ticket," says Alan Warriner-Little, chief executive of the Professional Darts Players' Association.
Of the more than 500 starters, only 12 are women, including Sherrock -- but she stands out at the event for another reason.
A month earlier, Sherrock became the first woman to defeat a man in the PDC World Darts Championship after beating 77th-ranked English player Ted Evetts. In case anybody thought she was a one-hit wonder, Sherrock followed up by beating Serbian-born Austrian player Mensur Suljovic, the world No. 11. And she did it at one of the most iconic darts venues in the sport, Alexandra Palace in London, better known as "The People's Palace" or "The Ally Pally."
Sherrock was crowned "The Queen of the Palace." The day after beating Evetts, she was taking on (and outplaying) Piers Morgan on "Good Morning Britain" and corresponding with Billie Jean King via Twitter. And actress Sarah Jessica Parker congratulated Sherrock on Instagram.
The single mom who gave up her career as a mobile hairdresser to look after her 5-year-old son with autism while trying to keep up with her darts career, and who had endured a serious kidney illness, was now a global sensation.
"I KNEW WHEN she was a girl, when we played pairs together, that she was going to be good," recalls Deta Hedman, an all-time great in the women's game. "Just so cool, calm and collected. It was funny -- she was about 16 and me about 35 years older. But if anything, I felt I was learning from Fallon, not the other way around.
"She played with her twin sister, Felicia, who many tipped to be the better player. I always thought Fallon would be the one who'd go places. She had the better temperament."
Darts was always part of the identical twins' lives as they were growing up in Milton Keynes.
"Mum [Sue] works in the garage at Tesco [supermarket] as a cashier, my dad [Steve] is an electrician, and they both played county darts," Fallon explains. "As a little kid, we'd go along to watch them playing at social clubs and stuff."
At Bletchley Working Men's Club, Sherrock's mom would practice throwing while the twins would mess around with coloring books and throw the odd arrow or two. Felicia took up the sport seriously in her early teens, and then Fallon did so at 16 and quickly caught up.
As a pair, the twins won major youth titles and played for England together, but there was sibling rivalry there too. "We've always been determined to beat each other," Sherrock says. "It's good rivalry when we were playing -- and then afterward, we're just a normal family again. She's really supportive -- all my family are. We're all quite close."
That closeness has helped Sherrock through trying times. After the birth of her son, Rory, in 2014 -- she has never talked publicly about her son's father and is protective of her family's privacy -- she became seriously ill with a debilitating kidney disease. Sherrock has to be a teetotaler and, to ensure she's properly hydrated, must drink copious amounts of water. It's why you'll always see her with a glass by her side during matches.
During the televised 2017 BDO World Darts Championship, her face ballooned in a reaction to her kidney medication and the trolls had a field day. A weaker person might have been crushed. "But it just made me more determined to show them," she says.
Sherrock's focus is family and, most important, protecting and providing for her son. "I seem to have inspired him now," she says of Rory. "Because before, he was never interested until he saw me playing on the TV.
"He's my No. 1 fan. When I'm practicing, I've now got to set up a little board next to me because he likes to have a throw himself when I am. I think he might be a player one day."
The challenges of looking after a son who is autistic can only be heightened by the increased number of spells she's likely to be away from him as the new demands of her fame kick in. Yet Sherrock says he always comes first.
"I'll be away a bit more at weekends [on the exhibition circuit], but I'll try to keep the same routines at home and sometimes take him with me, depending on school commitments. I've got good family support. I don't have to look for a babysitter."
And if she's not there physically, there's always FaceTime.
THE CROWD GATHERS to watch Sherrock's first-round match with Irishman Shane McGuirk. If it were just the old Fallon, the friend they've all known for years, they wouldn't have bothered. But this is the newly minted Fallon, the revolutionary pioneer who wowed the world by beating the men at their own game.
"How much it's blown up surprised me," she says. "I knew it was going to be big, whoever the first one of us to beat a man was, but it's gone across the world. I've had messages from New Zealand, Australia, the U.S. -- they all want to know about darts now."
Everyone genuinely seems to want Sherrock to enjoy her new success, but my, how badly they want to beat her at darts too.
"I haven't changed as a person, just more confident," she says. "I've now got this massive target on my back, so everyone's now throwing their best game against me. I love that because I love being pushed. I'm like, 'Yes, come on then, bring your best!'"
McGuirk brings his best. Sherrock plays well but loses five games to three, and her ambition of making it through Q-school, and earning a PDC Tour card, is over for another year. Though this is just beginning for her: In June, Sherrock will headline the grandest of the World Series of Darts tournaments in Madison Square Garden, a venue that signals how big the sport is becoming.
SHERROCK IS THE most celebrated woman darts player on the planet -- but not even she is prepared to say she is the best. Her rivals for the accolade have all held the title in the women's-only world championship, but Sherrock's best performance was reaching the final when she was 20.
There's the current two-time women's champion from Japan, Mikuru Suzuki, and Russian three-time women's winner Anastasia Dobromyslova, and few dispute that Trina Gulliver, the Englishwoman who has been out of action while ill, has -- with 10 titles -- a matchless résumé.
Then there's the 49-year-old woman on the other side of the sports hall who, even as Sherrock is departing the Q-school, is still going strong in the tournament.
Lisa Ashton is from a different darting generation. From the northwestern town of Bolton, England, she has supplemented play with jobs as varied as an injection molder and a school lunch lady. During Q-school, Ashton beat 13 men in 17 matches over four days, earning her PDC Tour card. She's the first woman to do so.
There's an argument that Ashton, "The Lancashire Rose," is the best woman player of all. She has won four world titles and holds a 25-7 record over Sherrock, including victory in the 2015 final. But she wasn't even a little envious of all the media attention Sherrock garnered after her win.
"Not at all!" Ashton declares between matches. "It's brilliant what Fallon's done. She's taking her opportunities, and hopefully, by doing that, she's opened doors for all of us too."
What Sherrock achieved under the Alexandra Palace lights was groundbreaking yet at the same time nothing really new. Women players have been beating men for years, be it down at the local pub or in Open competitions.
"If there's a room, and it's just boring, I'll just go in and make it entertaining. I think I'm a person who just makes things better." Fallon Sherrock
Hedman laughs when she recalls how she was the first woman ever to defeat a man in televised competition, in the 2005 UK Open. "I'd like to think I was a bit of a trailblazer too. They didn't make the same fuss back then."
That's because the sport has changed in those 15 years. Sherrock's Ally Pally performance changed perceptions because it happened in an era when PDC darts has become big business, with $3.2 million in prize money up for grabs in the world championship alone.
Previously, the best women played against one another only in tournaments organized by the rival British Darts Organisation (BDO). But the PDC introduced a special women's qualifying event in which the top two would gain a place in what had always been the men's showpiece, the world championship. It was like opening up an Aladdin's cave for Fallon.
"You see what opportunity can do," says Lorraine Winstanley, a former world championship finalist and one of Sherrock's best friends in the game. "It was a surprise to those people who thought, 'Oh, wow, I didn't realize a girl could play darts' -- and the reason they didn't realize it was because what goes on the floor in ladies' tournaments is never seen."
A MONTH AFTER the Q-school disappointment, Fallon-mania has not abated. Invited to be the woman guest challenger in the Unibet PDC Premier League competition in Nottingham in February, Sherrock has been given her toughest challenge yet, facing three-time BDO world champion Glen Durrant of England.
The match is, again, engulfed in enjoyable hype in Robin Hood country, with Fallon billed as "The Sherrock of Nottingham" and several men in the crowd dressed up in pink shirts and wigs, brandishing posters declaring: "She-Rrocks!" and "Marry Me Fallon!"
And once again, she could not look more at home in the spotlight. Durrant reckons it's the hardest night of his darting life as he manages to eke out a 6-6 draw, but Sherrock seems to make it all look like a walk in Sherwood Forest as 6,000 fans serenade her.
"I'm loving all this," she said, and the feeling is reciprocal.
When asked how she'd describe herself, she says: "I think I'm an enjoyable person to be around. If there's a room, and it's just boring, I'll just go in and make it entertaining. I think I'm a person who just makes things better."
"Well, what's not to like?" Winstanley says. "She's going to stand out. It's great for the sport. Stereotypically, it's associated with the pub, beards and beer bellies. But that's changing."
Sherrock is making the sport more inclusive, more interesting -- and better. Of the "Fallon effect" on the sport, Ashton says, "It's like she's kicked a door open."