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Description

John McFall
an athlete’s tale


My name is John McFall. I was born on 25 April 1981 and I live in Caerphilly in South Wales.

A bit about my background. I was born in England, I was born in Surrey. My father was a military man. My mum, at the time I was born, was a housewife and looked after me and my two sisters. As a result of being in a military family, I went to boarding school. It saves having to move schools every now and then and we didn’t really know where my father was going to be from one year to the next. So, I went to boarding school from about the age of seven or eight and it was there that I started to really get involved in sport. I was a really lively kid. I was always outdoors and I was one of those kids who was involved in every sports team in school, you know. I was in the hockey team, the football team, rugby team, squash and tennis, which today I’m actually rubbish at but I was still in those teams when I was at school, swimming as well, so I could turn my hand to just about anything. I’ve got two big sisters who I went to the same school with and then, at the age of about 13, I moved on to a, I guess it would be a secondary school. In boarding school, it works slightly different. At the age of 13, I moved onto Millfield School in Somerset which is where I really kind of got involved in sport, seriously. I mainly played hockey to a high level, there. During all that time, I really enjoyed my cross country running and I was very much a distance runner, really, more than anything else, but I had a good turn of speed in me. I could do repeated sprints and stuff, but I could do it for a long time which made me good at being a forward in hockey and a good winger or centre in rugby and a good attacker in football, as they were the sorts of positions that I would play.

i turned up in wales

I was born in England but I represented Wales. Now, this is mainly because my international career as a sportsman has only taken off since I’ve been a Paralympian. I was always very good at sports but never pursued it to national / international level. When I was a kid, I kind of got distracted by other things and then, when I discovered Paralympic sport, it was whilst I was in Wales at Swansea University which I had chosen to go to before I went travelling and became an amputee. So, I turned up in Wales in 2001 to do my degree in Swansea in sports and exercise science and I got contacted by a friend of mine at Uni and he said, “You know, I’m looking to do some 400 metre training. I want to go down to Swansea Harriers, the local athletics club, and do some running. I hear that you’re starting to do a bit of running. Do you fancy coming along?” I was like, “Well, yeah, why not? I’ll give it a go”. So, what I did was go down with him a couple of times, down to the track and started to run properly. I managed to teach myself to run prior to that, in a very sort of crude and ungainly, very un-pretty sort of way, but it was still running to me.

running in my everyday legs

I taught myself to run in my everyday legs, so the leg that I’m wearing now - or the equivalent of that that I had a that time - so it was very cumbersome, not designed for such dynamic work, but it still did the job, you know, to a certain extent anyway and it actually got to the stage where I was using my day leg that the cylinders kept on exploding because it wasn’t suited to that sort of dynamic activity.

Then I made some enquiries about the sport and I thought, “I actually quite like this running stuff”, and I really thought, “Is there anywhere else where I can go with this? Does Paralympic sport exist?” So, I made a few phone calls and contacted some people and I ended up speaking to Anthony Hughes who at the time was the Performance Director for Disability Sport. They were responsible for giving me the opportunity to get involved in Paralympic athletics and Paralympic sports and it was very much a Welsh initiative. It didn’t exist in England at the time and it still doesn’t really exist in England on such an intimate scale. They really provided this framework for me to go on and pursue my athletics career and that’s where I have this real strong allegiance for Wales. I’ve been here now for nearly ten years, I’m now engaged to a Welsh girl and, you know, this is where I feel like I belong. I’ve got a lot to thank Wales for.

too fast around a corner

At the age of 18, I decided I wanted to go travelling. It was always a plan of mine when I finished my ‘A’ Levels to take a year out, go travelling, see some of the world and then come back and go to university, the main aim being to get a bit more life experience. I was planning on joining the army when I finished university, so I wanted to squeeze in a bit of personal growth in-between. I did the normal sort of 18 / 19 year old thing when you go travelling: South East Asia and Australia and New Zealand and I finished up in Thailand and it turned out to be my last port of call.

One of the ways that you get around there is on scooters and motorbikes and it’s super easy. It’s one of the most efficient ways to go and see the sites and I’m probably one of hundreds of thousands of people who’ve had bad experiences with scooters or motorbikes abroad. It just happened that I was off sightseeing, an accident that was totally my fault. I was going too fast around a corner, lost control of the bike. I went down with the bike. In trying to stop myself from falling off the bike, I stuck my leg out to try and stop it happening and in doing that my leg ended up bending the wrong way. It was pointing outwards and ripped everything around my knee and then the bike came down on top of me and then the chain, the drive chain of the motorbike, the chain ripped into my thigh and did an awful lot of damage to the all muscles and the vasculature in my thigh. Essentially, I did an awful lot of damage to my leg which resulted in it requiring amputation probably about two or three days after the accident. I had the accident on a small island in Thailand and eventually got flown up to Bangkok where I had the surgery.

During the whole accident period, my dad actually kept a diary of events and I remember one thing that he wrote in there. I remember very clearly when I read it. It was the first moment when I came round after I’d had the operation and the look sort of in my face of the reality of what had happened, even though it was a decision that we had to make, the amputation had to take place because it was necessary to save my life. There was still an awful shock about my face when I sat there and kind of realized; you look down the bed and you see where the sheet falls and you see you’ve got the sheet falling over one leg and then you see where the sheet forms its shape over the leg that’s now missing, and that makes it very real and it was very apparent and that was probably the first time that it really hit home what had happened. But I’ve always been the kind of person, I don’t tend to dwell on things like that, and I’m very rational and it’s like, “Well, I know there’s nothing I can do about this. The damage has been done. The amputation has happened. My biggest problem now is the uncertainty of what happens. However, I know that with all the skills and family and friends that I’ve got, I can manage the uncertainties or I can manage all the obstacles and stuff.” It’s just I wasn’t sure what those obstacles were going to be.

During my rehabilitation when I came back to the UK, I probably had a couple of seminal moments but one particular moment was when I was in Roehampton in South West London which is where I did my rehabilitation, at the Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton. You would stay on the wards there, so it was a bit like boarding school, actually. You would go up on a Sunday night and all week you would live on the ward with other amputees, other new amputees, what we call primary amputees who are going to and from walking school and having physio and being fitted for their prosthesis and all that sort of stuff, and you would go home on a Friday afternoon.

One night, lying in my bed - it was still sort of early days, probably only about six weeks, less than that probably, probably about five or six weeks after the accident - lying in my bed, not being able to understand why I was feeling the way I was feeling. I was crying so much, just sitting in my bed crying, and I couldn’t understand why I was crying so much. It was uncontrollable. I couldn’t stop myself crying and it was very cathartic. I’m not a very artistic person at all. I was at the back of the queue when they were giving out artistic talent but for some reason, at that particular time, I felt the only way I could kind of manage this was I wrote a poem. I had my photo album from my travels which I’d just come back from, and I’d slipped all the photos into the appropriate leaves in chronological order in this photo album and I think it was sort of flicking through that that started it off, and I think also that it was the only bit of paper I had to hand, that I started writing this poem and it’s now in the front of this photo album. It was the process of crying, the process of trying to understand why I was crying, this catharsis, and in writing the poem that I understood where I now was which was that I had my life, I had my family, my heart was still beating, I was still breathing. I had so many rich things in my life, loads of doors had slammed shut but at the same time there were loads of doors that were about to open, and I just didn’t know what was on the other side of them. The poem was actually titled ‘Opportunity’, and it was from behind these doors from which I was now reaching that opportunity arises and that was sort of where I decided, “Look, it’s not that bad. I’ve just got to decide what I’m going to do or just embrace what’s happening to me and move on”.

the best thing that ever happened to me!

It’s ironic. I’ve got a friend of mine that also thinks that becoming an amputee is one of the best things that happened to him, Steve Thomas. He’s a bilateral baloney Paralympic sailor and we met through Paralympic sport and we get on really, really well. We’ve got a lot of things in common. It’s given me a tremendous richness to my life that I think that I otherwise would not have discovered or achieved or endeavoured to achieve. The challenges as a result of having the accident, both emotional and physical, the diversity and the emotional and personal rewards that that gives you is huge, and I think that had this not happened to me I wouldn’t be as well equipped for life as I am now. And that’s just one side of the coin. The other side is I probably would have never got to stand in the stadium in front of 91,000 people who were all watching me race; I wouldn’t have got to meet the Queen a couple of times; I wouldn’t have a bit of fantastic hardware up in my cupboard upstairs; I wouldn’t have met my fiancé who is an ex-Olympian, all those sorts of things, all the spin offs that becoming a Paralympic athlete have given me. I wouldn’t have had a contract with Adidas. I wouldn’t have been sponsored by Visa. All these sorts of things never would have happened had I not gone down this route and you could say, well, if I’d gone down the other route which was joining the army, most likely I would have gained other richnesses out of that part of my life. I’ve always been the kind of person that I’ve always wanted to work hard and reward myself. My dad gave me an atlas the first Christmas that I came back from travelling, for Christmas. He handed me this present and I unwrapped it and it was this giant atlas. Inscribed on the inside of the atlas, my dad had written, “Always go that extra mile. Life will reward you”, and that’s always been with me ever since that moment. You get out of life what you put in, it’s as simple as that. I’ve always been very much like that and in that respect it’s one of the best things that ever happened to me because it’s enabled me to gain such a richness to my life.

inspirations

I am quite a confident person and I am relatively self-assured. A large part of that, I think, has been coming to terms with my amputation and being comfortable in my own skin as a person with a disability. In saying that there have been plenty of people in my life who have inspired me. I’m tremendously proud of my dad and I’m tremendously proud of my mum, but I think being a boy and having a dad in the army, you have a certain kind of relationship and the stories that he’d tell me or he used to tell me when I was a kid about the things that he had done in his life, you know, I was always in awe. We sat there kind of dropped jaw, listening to these fantastic stories.

A very good friend of mine, another ex-Olympian, a girl called Helen Reeves who was a white water slalom kayaker and won a bronze medal in Athens, she was an athlete. Starting out in my Paralympic career, I looked up to her a lot for advice and experience about what this kind of full-time athlete thing was all about, this Olympic and Paralympic dream, what was that all about, so I drew a lot of inspiration from her. I grew up in the middle of the British middle-distance running era and my dad was a middle-distance runner as well and so I used to love watching Coe, Ovett, Cram, all those guys, and from that age, I always found athletics very inspiring. I found those guys very inspiring.

the long and the short of it

It’s very hard getting to the top, in any sport, in anything. You can’t do something if you don’t enjoy it. The hardest thing I found about athletics was that I’m not a natural sprinter. I come from a middle-distance / distance background. In Paralympics, particularly in my discipline, there aren’t the number of athletes in the world to populate lots and lots of events. The fact is our demographic is very small: there are few people who are able to walk again with our level of amputation let alone jog, run, sprint and become full-time athletes and the infrastructure is different. I wish I had had the opportunity to do middle-distance or slightly longer distances in Paralympic sport and it was always a real frustration for me training as a sprinter, although I did okay at sprinting, it was always a frustration training as a sprinter because I knew I wasn’t a hugely explosive, powerful person and ultimately in Beijing the only event that we had was the 100 metres. There wasn’t even a 200 metres or a 400 metres because of this population problem, and for that reason I had to do sprinting. It was the only thing I could do if I wanted to compete internationally or at a Paralympic level and so I just kind of had to suck it up. By the time that was the reality it was a little bit too late, it was too far down the line, too far down the process to quit. This was 2007. I was like, “I’ve got Beijing in my sights. I want to do this”, and so I stuck it out and I did it.

seeing the world?

People think that when you’re an athlete you travel lots. We do go to competitions a lot but one of the problems with that, you go from hotel room or athlete village to training track or competition track. That’s all you do. Now, if you’re fortunate enough to have a few days spare at the end of your training camp or the end of your competition, you may get an opportunity to go and see some of the places, and on a couple of occasions, I’ve had those opportunities and one was after the World Championships in Taipei where I finished my competition early and the rest of the team wasn’t flying home for about another four or five days. So, I took myself off and did a whistle stop tour of Taiwan and another one was in Beijing where I got the opportunity to travel home by train from Beijing, so I think, by being an athlete you don’t directly get opportunities to travel, you get opportunities to go to different places but you don’t really get a chance to see anything.

friends and lovers

I think the kind of friendships you make through sport largely depend on the sport that you do. For example, in team sports you do make an awful lot of friends in that team environment. Athletics, I think, is slightly different. It can be far more insular and especially when you compete on an international level where you’re drawn from all corners of the country and you’re taken to an event. I’m fortunate that I’ve become very good friends with Danny Crates and a couple of other athletes, but outside of that I don’t really stay in touch with other athletes. Danny lives all the way over in Essex and so we speak occasionally. You do very much look after yourself because it is an individual sport.

I met Sonia at a common training venue. When Sonia retired from gymnastics in the late nineties, I think something like that, or 2000, she decided that she wanted an Olympics and a degree on her CV rather than two Olympics so she went to UWIC and did a degree and when she went to UWIC she took up pole vault and she trained as a pole vaulter and went to Manchester in 2002 to the Commonwealth Games, and she was training, primarily she was training for 2004 in Athens. Unfortunately, in 2004, she snapped her Achilles doing some training and that basically knocked her out of the sport and I met her in 2005 when she was trying to get back into pole vault after her rehabilitation. So, I suppose, in that respect you do meet some awesome people. I’m extremely fortunate that I met her there. In saying that, we didn’t actually get together until about 2008 just a couple of months before I went out to Beijing but that’s where our paths crossed in 2005.

Sonia presently works as a sports development officer in Caerphilly. She is one of the Active Young Persons coordinators in primary and secondary schools in Caerphilly Borough Council, promoting sporting opportunities, extra-curricular sporting opportunities for primary and secondary school kids.

building welsh success

I think it’s difficult for the public as a whole to really see where Wales is on a national level in terms of the numbers of medals and how successful they are as a nation individually around the world. But I think there are some statistics taken out of the 2004 Games which I remember that during the Paralympics in 2004 Wales had the highest medal count per capita of population in the world. They’ve been a tremendously successful Paralympic team, very much a result of the implementation of the programme that they’ve now got in place. It’s great for all the kids in the nation watching the news to see that but I think on a British scale it’s not really emphasised.

My career was from about 2004 to 2008, really / 2009, so quite a short career and in that time probably my first major success was getting selected in 2005 to go to the European Championships in Helsinki. It was the European Open Championships so actually there were guest runners from anywhere in the world, so effectively it was pretty much like a World Championships to me and in the 200 metres, I won a bronze medal, my first major international competition. It was my first vest for Great Britain and it was my first major medal so that was pretty exciting. Subsequent to that, I competed at the World Championships in Assen in Holland the following year, in 2006. I’d made huge progressions in terms of my performance just before that 2006 season. In December 2005, I got on to the World Class Podium Funding programme and had sports science support and strength and conditioning support and my ability progressed quite steeply, and in 2006 at the Worlds, I came away with a bronze medal in the 200 and a silver medal in the 100, and probably my most notable achievement to date will be my bronze medal in the Paralympics in Beijing in 2008.

losing another leg

Just before that in terms of my leg. I think it was actually a couple of years before that, it was actually in 2006. I remember coming out at the end of the day, finishing training, finishing work, going to my office to get my keys, my bag and stuff. I went into my office and I couldn’t find my keys anywhere, the keys for my car. I hunted around and they were nowhere to be seen so I was like, “Did I leave them out in my car?” because I knew that I went out to my car to get my bag at lunchtime. I thought I had a lapse of memory and left them in the car or something. So, I went out to where my car was parked in a disabled parking bay right outside the front entrance of the Welsh Institute of Sport and lo and behold, my vehicle was nowhere to be seen. I thought it was one of work colleagues playing a prank on me and messing around, so I went in and saw them and said, “Has anybody moved my car just for a laugh?”, and they were like, “No!” And I was, like, “I can’t find it anywhere”, and they were like, “Are you serious?” And I said, “Serious, I can’t find it anywhere”.

It was then that it dawned on me that the car had actually been stolen. It’s not really a big deal. It’s a bit of a pain in the arse, your car getting stolen, but the worst thing for me was my sprinting leg was in the boot, or the foot, the carbon fibre blade of my sprinting leg was in the boot, and I was due to go off to Stuttgart for a European Indoor competition in a couple of weeks time and I had no prosthetic foot.

Within a matter of hours, John Morgan, the Executive Director of Disability Sport Wales, he was fantastic, he contacted the PR department upstairs in the Welsh Institute of Sport and they got on to all sorts of media and before you knew it, it was in all aspects of the news, you know, in the print and I’d been on the radio and I’d gone on the evening news down in the BBC studios on the TV. Basically, everyone was up in arms, can’t believe, it wasn’t that someone had stolen my car, everyone was saying someone has stolen my leg, and obviously it struck a cord with a lot of people and I had so much support and it obviously had the right impact because about a week after the car was stolen a couple of youths swaggered into the foyer here of the Welsh Institute of Sport and went up to reception and asked to speak to me. I got a call to my office that said, “There’s a couple of guys who want to talk to you”, so I went out there and I say, “How can I help you?” And they said. “We think we might know someone who might have your leg”, and I was like, “Ah, right, you might know someone who might have my leg?” And I said to them, basically fairly sternly, I said, Look, if you understand how much this means to me and you understand what your friend has done then”, I said, “I don’t care about the car, I care very much about the foot because it’s a massive part of my sport. I need it to compete. I need it to train”. I said, “If you understand the seriousness of this, you’ll go and tell your friend the seriousness of this situation and you’ll go and recover the foot”. About half an hour later, these two youths ran back in to the Welsh Institute of Sport and chucked something on the desk and off they ran again and it was my leg, inside the hood of my golf bag that also happened to be in the boot, so I got the leg back. It was about ten days disruption to my training. I couldn’t sprint on the track. I had to do that training in the pool and stuff, so it was quite a big disruption but the competition in Stuttgart went well, not as well as I would have liked, but it’s just one of those things, I suppose.

waiting for beijing

Where do I start? Beijing had been the focus, I suppose, from the moment I thought that being a world class athlete was a realistic goal, and once I thought that I could be a top athlete, I could potentially do very well at this, I then set my sights on Beijing, so those horrid times when you’re training and it hurts and you’re really not wanting to carry on, I would just repeat the mantra you know, “Beijing, Beijing!” I always knew that that was the goal and I never had any worries about qualifying, although Sonia and I had a glass of champagne when I did actually get the proper confirmation that I’d qualified for the Games, but, to be honest with you, I was never really in any doubt that I was going to qualify for the Games. I was in pretty good shape. I know for a lot of people the hardest part of getting to the Games is qualifying. For me, my group is quite small, the guys that I compete against, so the likelihood of me going was quite high. The year before, in 2007, we done a recce to Macau - the holding camp that a lot of the Olympic team and the Paralympic team used - so I left, I think it was about 27 August in 2008 to fly out to Macau, planning on spending about 10 to 12 days there before I then flew into the village in Beijing, Macau is a good place, you know. It was a nice five-star resort, good food, it was very, very warm, it was probably about six or seven degrees warmer than it was in Beijing which was actually quite a welcome respite when you got to Beijing, but Beijing was still warm enough to be comfortable.

I had not really been in a multi-disciplinary village situation before but, I mean, athletics is probably the biggest team in a championship, so when I went into my European and my World Championships, you know, the villages were still huge, there was still thousands of competitors, but it was kind of stepped-up an extra scale and it was great. I didn’t do a huge amount of exploring because, for me, I was there to do a job.

My event was quite late on in the championship, so I arrived in Beijing after the Games had started, so I watched the Opening Ceremony from my hotel room in Macau. I got in there and I was sharing with Danny Crates and Dave Weir. It didn’t feel particularly relaxed among the GB camp, in the GB athletics camp, where we were. There was a lot of tension. One of my room mates, Danny Crates had just suffered a grade two tear of his Achilles in his calf, and was going to spend the next 24/48 hours trying to see if he was going to compete or not, and in the end he didn’t. The night I arrived, Dave Weir had come back from the track having won his first medal - I think he won four medals - and the first medal he won was silver which he was very happy with, but he had an awful lot of pressure on him because, in terms of athletics, he was the team’s golden boy, you know. Everyone expected him to win four golds from what he had done in the World Championships in 2006 and the form that he was in, so, when he came away with a silver that he was happy with, the press had said he felt frustrated, so I came into a room that had a kind of negativity about it. I had been in Macau for the longest period out of pretty-much anyone. There were only about three or four athletes left. We all left Macau together, so it was a very small group who were left in Macau.

I had about six days to get myself squared away and sort stuff out and it’s just a waiting game. That’s probably the weakest part of my armoury, I suppose, waiting. I’m not very good at waiting. I’m not very good at sitting around or lying on a bed listening to music or playing video games. I like to be busy, but you can’t do loads of training, you can’t go and wander around, you can’t go and see the sights because you’ve got to keep yourself fresh and discipline yourself, to stay fresh for your competition. My track coach was off looking after other athletes as well, because he was a sprints’ coach for the Paralympic team as well, so I didn’t see him a huge amount. I felt a little bit of a loose end but I still kind of went around. I did what I could do and I did what I had to do. I stuck to my plan.

the breakfast of champions?

Competition day swung around pretty quickly, a lot of nerves. I do suffer a lot with nerves and I really struggle to eat coming up to competitions, and Beijing was obviously the biggest competition I’d been to to date, and it was no different. I couldn’t eat that morning. The only thing I could eat the night before was a Maccy D’s because it was about the only thing I could keep down. It was quite simple food and for me, I needed to get something into me. The morning of the competition, I didn’t have any breakfast. I had a recovery shake, which came up about 20 minutes later and that was all I had, so I was up at about half past six to start getting ready to go to the track because my race was at eleven o’clock on the Sunday morning. I kind of lived on Powerade and Redbull for the next four hours really and it was about all I could stomach to stay hydrated and to be fair it didn’t really matter that I didn’t have anything to eat because at that stage it wouldn’t have made much difference.

a triumphant culmination

I was pretty nervous but I just tried to do everything that I planned to do and I was excited and I kept telling myself that I want to enjoy this experience, I want to walk out onto that track and I don’t want to be petrified. I don’t want to be bricking it. I want to actually enjoy the experience. I want to stand there on the start line, look the crowds in the eye and remember where I am and remember that moment and I did.

I remember walking out on the track from the cool room down the tunnel, coming out to 90,000 people. Eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning, the stadium was absolutely jam-packed and I stood on that start line and I looked up and I looked around and then I absorbed everything. I absorbed the crowd and I could hear my family screaming from about 70 metres down on the home straight. They had found themselves a spot and I looked up and I managed to see them in their red, white and blue t-shirts and flags, and that kind of gave me a bit of comfort.

Once your blocks were set up, we had to sit there and wait for two medal presentations before we could compete, so there was a little bit of waiting around, stood on the start line. Now, my competitors, my category for whatever reason has been notoriously bad for faulty starts and false starts. In the World Championships, I think we had nine starts and three people disqualified, so there’s a lot of tension around the start, and behold, there was a false start and then there was another false start and one disqualification, and then, the third time, we got away successfully. I think I’d been worn down by all the processes leading up to it, the new environment, the new experience, the not being able to eat, the false starts, and I didn’t perform to my potential on the day.

I ran 13.08 in the final and I came third. I know that I have more potential than that but it is what you do on the day that counts. It took a little bit of time for me post-race to come to that resolution but for me the most important thing about that was that I came away with something to show for it, you know. I came away with a bronze medal. My goal all along was to get onto the podium, to fulfill my potential and to enjoy it, and I got two out of the three. I enjoyed it and I came away with a medal. For me, that was nice because it was something tangible I was going to have for the rest of my life, but it was even more than that. Stepping off that track immediately after the race, it was a watershed in my life because it was the culmination of eight years pretty much of rehab. It was quite a seminal moment because it was almost like a chapter closed because I had spent the last eight years having lost my leg in 2000, the process of finding myself again, rehabilitating, learning to run again, learning to sprint again, getting myself to a level where I was competitive internationally, doing the whole Paralympic thing, coming away with a medal, stepping off the track and going, do you know what, “I’m happy with that. It’s done”. Afterwards, I met up with my parents, directly after the medal ceremony, and there were huge amounts of tears and stuff, because we all felt exactly the same. It was very, very cathartic, the end of eight years of triumph, really. It was quite a seminal moment.

my last games

Immediately after the race, I didn’t think that that was going to be my last Games. I had reservations about athletics leading up to the Games. Physiologically, I come from a more middle-distance, endurance stock. That’s just my genes, you know. Again, because of the nature of my disability, the number of people who are able to get back running to that level, the demographic is so small, so there are only sprinting events available to my class of disability. So, if I wanted to compete at Paralympic level, it was only sprints that I could do. By the time I’d kind of got to this thought process and realised I’d quite fancy something a little bit more, I was very well committed to athletics and I wanted to see it through and I wanted to do Beijing as a sprinter, but I did think after that I might be able to change sports and maybe have a go at something that I was perhaps more physiologically suited to. So, I knew that something was going to change after Beijing though I didn’t know exactly what it was going to be. I knew I was going to carry on for probably another year in athletics and then in that year sort of have a look around at other things, and then we’d kind of see how it goes.

coming home the long way

My intention well before I went out to the Games was that I was going to travel home by train. I love travelling. It’s a big part of who I am and it’s a big part of me asserting my independence and especially as an amputee. Having acquired my disability while I was travelling initially, travelling again as an amputee was a great way for me to assert my independence and I arranged with the people organising the logistics for the British Paralympic team that I didn’t want a flight back to the UK, and I managed to organise to travel by train over land pretty much all the way back to the UK.

Come the morning after the Closing Ceremony when everyone rolled in, well, I rolled in about half past six into the athletes village where the rest of the team was getting changed or all assembling outside the accommodation to hop on the bus and head to the airport. I was sat there packing up my stuff and sending all my kit home with my coach and stuff like that and packing up my rucksack to go travelling for a couple of months, so I spent a couple more weeks in China. My eldest sister was out with a couple of her friends, her fiancé at the time - now husband - and a couple of her other friends and we spent a couple of weeks travelling around China together, and at the beginning of October, I left them and hopped on the train in Beijing up to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, spent about three weeks travelling around Mongolia and then hopped on another train back in Ulaanbaatar straight to Moscow which was five days straight on the train, and then I did a bit of city-hopping basically. I went to Moscow, to Kiev in the Ukraine, Budapest in Hungary, met up with some friends in Vienna and then Vienna to Zagreb. Spent a couple of weeks in Croatia and then I had a deadline of the middle of November. I think it was 15 November that I had to get to Rome because that’s where I was meeting up with Sonia. We were meeting up in Rome and we were going to do the last two weeks together which we did and we eventually flew home together from Nice.

I don’t regret missing the celebrations. I mean I think it’s nice for people to be able to publicly recognise the work of the Olympians and the Paralympians from any Games but I mean, what I got out of Beijing is personal to, you know. I don’t need to be appreciated by the public to know what I’ve achieved and for me it was nice because I think there is a tendency to come back from Games like that. You come back to this massive hype around the Games and celebrating the medallists, and then, all of a sudden, it just flops and everyone is kind of left going, “Right, okay, well what now?”. I had this massive, fantastic adventure in front of me and it was a good opportunity for me to reflect on my experience and I think as well if I’d come back straight into that at that time, I was still in a quite a reflective process about what I done and how to process that and I wasn’t in a place where I wanted to be in that environment.

So, my journey home gave me a lot of opportunity to think and especially the couple of weeks that Sonia and I spent travelling in Italy, Switzerland and France, we had a really good opportunity to dissect the whole thing and so I don’t regret that at all, and I still went to Buckingham Palace in January and had a good knees up with the rest of the team, then.

back on the bike.

I had a competition in Taiwan in 2007, and I finished my competition about five days before we were due to fly home so I said, “Is it alright if I take myself off for a few days?” and I just did a big loop of Taiwan and went out to this tiny little island and the only way you can get around on the island was by motorbike, so I hired a motorbike.

It’s probably made me. I was never really into motorbikes. When I lost my leg, it just happened to be the best form of transport in that part of the world, you know. It’s just easy to do. I could ride a push bike and I really like my mountain biking, so I thought, “How hard can it be?” when I first went travelling. It’s just like riding a bike! But since losing my leg I’m just more responsible I think is what it is, and having been driving for 12 years or whatever, I’m more familiar with the roads and stuff, so it certainly hasn’t put me off motorbikes and I’m hoping to do my full license in the next couple of years.

the carrot wasn’t big enough

The decision to retire from sport, the decision not to go to another Games which is really, I think, for me was what it was all about. I could never really retire, I suppose, in the middle of Paralympic cycle. I would probably have to retire after a Games. It was London 2012, really, that would have been the driving force but it’s been actually quite a recent development, as recent as this summer, really. I decided that I’d have a go at cycling and I made some contacts and I spoke to some people and I got onto the Paralympic Talent programme. You go from the Talent programme to the Academy and then onto the Podium, and that was great but I started that earlier this year.

I took the whole of 2009 off just to have a break from sport and get myself squared away and get my first year at Uni under my belt and so I could come back to sport a little bit fresher, and that was when I decided I was going to come back to cycling and give cycling to go, and I gave the cycling a go. I enjoyed it. It really did open my eyes to the challenge that cycling was, but I think I’d come to it too late. I had an awful lot of work to do in order to really be a force in 2012. I wasn’t prepared to make the lifestyle choices which would probably have involved moving up to Manchester and stuff, putting my medical studies on hold in order to get there. At this time in my life, the decisions that Sonia and I had made together about what we wanted together as a couple out of life, it just didn’t marry with the sport side of things, and so it was after a brief spell with cycling that I decided that cycling wasn’t what I wanted to do. I couldn’t give to them what they would have required for it to be successful.

Subsequent to that I did think, “Okay, what about running again, potentially?”, and I thought, “If I’m going to run again, I’m going to make some changes”, and one of those, I wanted to get a new coach and I thought about it and Sonia and I had a chat about it and thought, “Well, it’s old ground. I’m familiar with it and I know how it works. I know what the commitment is and so I could possibly do it”, and so, throughout this summer, I spent a few months getting back into sprint training. I had a new coach based out of London and during the summer holidays that I had from Uni, I was going up there for two or three days a week with a coach up there and a new coach down here and it was good. It was really enjoyable but at the same time I had arranged some placements in hospitals to do over the summer and I was going in at half eight, nine o’clock and coming out of surgery at five o’clock, and I would have to go and train. It got to the stage where I thought, “When I go back to med school, this is what it’s pretty much going to be like and I don’t want to live my life like that for the next two years and with the wedding coming up and med school and training”. It just wasn’t, the carrot wasn’t big enough for me to make those lifestyle choices to be able to go forward to 2012. It sounds ridiculous but the carrot of potentially getting a gold medal in 2012 was for me at this time in my life not big enough for me to want to make those changes to my life. So, I’ve achieved a lot of what I wanted to achieve and those things that I haven’t achieved in my sport, I’ve managed to put into perspective, and I’m happy with those, so I’m very happy with the decision I’ve made.

watching the games

I’ll be thinking, “Thank God I’ve managed to get some breakfast down me this morning!” Because I wouldn’t have been able to if I was stood on that start line. I am a hundred percent sure that when I watch the final of my event in 2012, I will have absolutely no regrets about it for all sorts of reasons and yeah, I’ll be very relaxed. I’ll be quite happy to watch it from the comfort of that stand. Hopefully, I’ll be in the stadium, if not then at home.

seeking consistency

Little bits and bobs, maybe gripes in sport, especially in athletics, doping bans and things like that get on my wick a little bit, the consistency across the world in terms of who is eligible to compete and all that sort of stuff. In Britain, obviously we have a policy whereby if you get caught doping you serve a ban. You’re welcome back to European and World sports competitions in athletics but you’re not allowed to compete in the Olympics or Paralympics. I think Britain and I think perhaps Norway are the only two nations in the world who stipulate that and it just so happens that the guy who won the gold medal in my event had served a two-year doping ban and was allowed to come back to Paralympic sport to compete at the Paralympics. He was a Canadian guy. He was a very talented guy but I just wish there was this kind of consistency, you know. It’s a shame that there’s one rule for some and another for others really, but other than that I don’t really have any gripes.

I’m a fairly kind of laid back guy. I don’t get wound up by huge amounts. Probably the thing I get wound up by the most is myself. I expect an awful lot of myself a lot of the time, and that quite often is a source of frustration.

dreams

I’ve got loads of things in my life that I want to do. I’m one of those people who will never stop having goals because that’s what I need in my life to keep me ticking over. I think in the short term, especially in the next five years, I would love to see myself become a father and I very much look forward to that.

I can’t wait to qualify as a doctor in the next four years, fingers crossed, and start that chapter of my life. I still have physical goals as well, you know. I want to do half marathons and marathons and I would like to do some more extreme events, time-permitting, you know. That’s the thing that is most apparent now, having the time to do these things, but I would love to do things like marathons to start and my brother in law and myself have always had a dream of rowing the Atlantic. Just generally stay fit and enjoy life is my main goal, and have a happy marriage.


The three words I would use to describe myself are confident, funny and sensitive, potentially.



interview conducted by Phil Cope, 6 October 2010

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