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a weight-lifter’s tale

My name is Russell Willey. I was born on 17 November 1963 and I’m from Bridgend. I was actually born in Altrincham in Manchester. My parents are from Newport, and, about six months before I was born, the family moved up to Manchester for my dad’s employment. I was born in Manchester but I very much consider myself as Welsh. We moved around a lot when we were kids and, eventually, we settled in Barry, when I was about eight, so that was pretty much where I was brought up. I’ve actually got dual qualification. I could have represented England but I chose to represent Wales.

always been me

I was born with spina bifida, a deformity of the back. I was lucky to be born in Manchester because, at the time, the leading neuro-surgeon was there, and he operated on my back, and, consequently, the damage to my limbs wasn’t perhaps as bad as it might have been. I’ve never experienced anything else, you know. I’ve always been me and I’ve always walked around on crutches or used a wheelchair. I’ve never experienced anything else.

My parents, I think, took a very pragmatic view, very early on. They thought, “It’s a hard world out there”, and took the decision that they wouldn’t treat me any differently from anybody else. If I was in my wheelchair, they wouldn’t push me because I’ve got to push myself. They always encouraged me to walk. When I was very young, even though I had a wheelchair, they very rarely let me use it. My brother and sister never really treated me any differently. Me and my sister used to fight like cat and dog as, I think, probably most brothers and sisters do. The only drawback of it all was that I had to go to a residential school in Penarth, Erw’r Delyn, so, from the age of about five, I was a weekly boarder. That was quite traumatic, driving down from Pontypool on a Sunday night. I can still remember the butterflies in my stomach, knowing that I was going to be staying there on the Sunday night and not picked up until the Friday.

My dad used to pick me up and, invariably, we’d go fishing or something like that, and then go home. I used to love the weekends. We moved up to Birmingham two years later and that was a great relief as I became a day boy. Then, when we came back to Barry, it was near Penarth, so I was a day boy then, too, and I enjoyed that.

I sound a bit negative about special schools. They do have their place, and, in terms of learning independent skills, it was absolutely fabulous. I mean, we were encouraged to dress ourselves and wash ourselves and all that sort of stuff. And, at the end of the day, it was through being in a special school that I ended up doing sport. If I’d been in a mainstream comprehensive school, I may not have had that opportunity. The school I was in used to do sports’ days, and that’s how I got into sport … so I can’t be too negative about it.

The ones who won their events on sports’ day went on to represent the school at the Welsh Championships in Sophia Gardens; then the ones that won that went to the British Championships in Stoke Mandeville. I got my first opportunity, in athletics, in 1976 – field events, track events, a whole range of things. I went through school representing Wales in the National Stoke Mandeville Games in 1976, ’77, ’78 and ’79.

Just before we left school in 1980, we were talking to a physio-therapist at Erw’r Delyn and she pointed us in the direction of the sports club in the spinal injuries unit at Rookwood Hospital, near Cardiff, where she said we might be able to continue with our sport. I don’t think we were greeted particularly warmly to be honest: there’s lots of discrimination within the disabled world towards people with a congenital disability; people with an acquired disability don’t necessarily like being associated with people with a congenital disability. People with a physical disability don’t like being associated with people with a learning disability; there’s lots of that going on. So, when me and my two friends – all with spina bifida – turned up at the Rookwood Paraplegic and Tetraplegic Sports Club, we didn’t receive a particularly warm welcome, initially. They all had injuries and they saw themselves very differently to us. They gave us three months to prove ourselves, and my two friends very quickly dropped off, but I was quite determined to prove that I was up for it. Having said all that, there were one or two individuals there who pointed out that I wasn’t the best build to do athletics, and they pointed me in the direction of weightlifting, so I thought, “Okay, let’s give that a go”, and I took to it like a duck to water.


I was naturally very strong. Relative to the rest of my body, my arms are quite short and I’ve got a big chest, so, in doing a bench press, I don’t have to push the weight that far. The guys that were doing the weightlifting were a little bit more receptive to me; they were showing me more, people like John Harris, Steve Haines. So, I proved myself and entered my first Welsh competition in 1981, and I won it. I’d actually set myself a target. I’d said that I wasn’t going to enter a competition until I could lift 100 kilos. I’d got to the competition and I lifted 115 kilos which is actually quite an impressive jump from what I was doing in training. There was a circuit of events, and as you go around the circuit, you get picked up by members of the current British team. People began to notice me. At that point, I couldn’t enter the British Championships because I was in college and it clashed with my exams, so, for two years, I couldn’t do it. In 1982, I went along to watch. I did a little demo for the coach and he said, “Look, somebody has dropped out of the British team and we’re going to Sweden. I’d like to take you along”. So, before I’d even entered a British Championship and before I was even British Champion, I went to Sweden and represented Great Britain. I was a bit like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I was only eighteen, nineteen years of age. Nevertheless, I really did enjoy the experience. Then, in 1983, I was able to enter the National Championships for the first time and really knuckled down and did some training and set myself some goals. I went to the Nationals and blew them away!

I won. I beat the current British Champion by some margin and I was selected for the European Championships. We went over to Paris and it sort of mushroomed from there, really.

no champagne for stoke Mandeville

1984 was my first Paralympic experience. The Games were scheduled to be held in Champagne, Illinois, and the Olympic Games were in Los Angeles. Until that point, the Paralympics Games had been a very much smaller event, not considered as anything to do with the Olympic Games. About three months before, the Americans pulled the plug because they couldn’t get the funding, so, at the very last minute, the British Wheelchair Sports Foundation stepped in and held the Games at Stoke Mandeville, a massive disappointment to us because we were used to Stoke Mandeville. It was just like going to a National Championships for us. To be fair, the organisers did a cracking thing but it really wasn’t what it should have been.

I always remember, in 1984, at the Closing Ceremony, representatives from Seoul, the hosts of the 1988 Games, talking about how they were determined not to let people down, how they’d taken the decision that the venues were going to be exactly the same as the Olympics.

on top of the world in paris

In 1985, I was injured so I didn’t compete, got back onto the wagon in 1986 and then, in 1987, I was getting a lot more into my training. I was looking more at my diet. The whole thing was getting a lot more professional. In 1987, I dropped down a body weight and I won the World Championships in Paris, very much unexpectedly. It was one of those times when some of my competitors didn’t have a very good day and I had a really good day, and I ended up winning. That was a fantastic experience, especially as my father was there watching me. My sister lived out there at the time, and my brother-in-law and my oldest nephew were all there to watch me.

life and seoul

Then, we came into 1988 and, in that four year cycle, things were really building up. We were getting all these promises about how the Koreans were going to do it differently from the Americans, but I don’t think we ever believed it. We flew out there and there was none of what we’ve had in subsequent years, acclimatisation and forward camps. Some of us had never been in an aeroplane for that long before; we didn’t know what the heck jet lag was. And, it was the first time that the Paralympic athletes had had the same kit as the Olympic athletes, so we all felt really good. We arrived in Seoul and got off the plane and there were thousands of people waiting for us, waving Union flags or Korean ones. My old man pushed his way through the crowd and he said, “I’ve managed to get a ticket for the Opening Ceremony”, and I looked at him and thought, “What are you talking about?”. He said, “They’ve gone absolutely mad about it. It’s a sell out! The Opening Ceremony is a sell out!”. Wow! People were stopping us for autographs in the street.

I’ll never forget the Opening Ceremony. We were all togged up in our uniforms, waiting on the warm-up track at the side of the stadium, and we could hear the drums, these big drums, and you could hear this big boom, boom. We saw the parachutists going into the stadium for the Olympic rings, but we couldn’t hear a crowd. We thought, “They’ve been having us on. We’re going to go in and it’s going to be empty, a 90,000 seat stadium and there’s going to be nobody there”. So, off we go in our teams and we come out from the tunnel, and it just hit you, 70,000, 80,000 people, absolutely fantastic. Never had any of us experienced that in our entire lives and, even though I’ve done it since then - I’ve done it four times since then - that is the one that always ... I’ve got goose bumps now, talking about it, absolutely phenomenal.

After the boycotts of 1976, ’80 and ’84, Seoul 1988 was the first event in three cycles that was finally going to bring everyone together. There were lots of questions about whether we should be going out there because of the way they treat their people with disabilities, classed very much as second-class citizens. I think the Koreans were very keen on using the Paralympics to change all that. They wanted to say, “Right, this is what people with disabilities can do”, to try and change the mindsets of their people. The accommodations were all accessible and the venues were all accessible which was a brand new concept for the Koreans. They used the Paralympics as a vehicle for launching a new outlook on how to regard people with disabilities. My dad went out there afterwards, and it had very much worked. People with disabilities were in full-time employment for the first time. I think that’s the power of sport, the power of Paralympic sport. I heard that the Korean medalists in the Paralympics were given a lifetime pension. And, it’s notable now, that, twenty-two years later, the Korean Paralympic team is still very much a force within the Paralympic world and they probably always will be, and I think it was on the basis of what happened in 1988.

paralympics coming of age

I have to say, in terms of Paralympics, I’m the proverbial Colin Jackson or Paula Radcliffe. I’ve been World Champion but I‘ve never been Paralympic Champion. I think that demonstrates what is so special about the Paralympics.

My favourite Games were Barcelona in 1992, although mine was a very disappointing performance. I came back from Seoul and I won the World Championships in 1990 and then went to Barcelona. I hadn’t been beaten for four years. I’m the world record holder and I got beaten into fourth place which is the worst position in the world. Seoul was very much the birth of modern Paralympics but, in Barcelona, they came of age; it proved it wasn’t just a one off. You were in the city, the venues were in the city, you got to see the city, whereas, a lot of the times, you just don’t see the place you’re in, you’re very much in a bubble. Even though in Seoul the Opening and Closing ceremonies were full, the venues were pretty much empty. In Barcelona, the venues were full; it was absolutely fabulous.

Atlanta was a disappointment in terms of the Games, but in terms of the performance, I absolutely lifted out of my skin. I didn’t win a medal but I was really happy with my work. In terms of the Games, though, the Americans failed again. If I had anything to do with the International Paralympic Committee, I would never allow the Americans to hold a Games again. For the first time, they were run by a consortium of business people and it hadn’t dawned on them when they put the bid in that they had to run the Paralympics as well. By the time we got there, they had started knocking down half the buildings. We weren’t even competing in the same venues.

Sydney was fabulous again, but everything by then had gotten a whole lot more serious. Lottery funding came in, so there were great expectations on the individual athletes. In the two years leading up to the Games, we regularly went to Australia to compete, so we were all very familiar with it, and, before we went to Sydney, we went to a preparation camp in Queensland; contrast that with 1988 when the first time we’d been to Korea was when we stepped off the plane. Unfortunately, for me, it was the twilight of my career. I was thirty-six years of age and I thought, “If I was only just ten years younger …”.

I took the decision in 2000 that I was going to retire from the Paralympics and from power-lifting … and I set myself a goal. Because I was born in Manchester, I thought, “What better way to retire than at the Manchester Commonwealth Games?”, so that was the target. I was selected, I was about to go and about four weeks before, I had an injury and was unable to compete, so I had a bit of a premature retirement which I was very disappointed about.

fast and full contact

As a recreation, I’d been encouraged by a friend of mine, a couple of years before, to get involved in ice sledge hockey. There was a team in Cardiff, the Cardiff Huskies and I remember, before I was due to go to Atlanta, Andy McNulty collaring me in Queen Street in Cardiff and saying, “When are you off to Atlanta, Russ?”. So I told him and he said, “Right, give me a ring when you get back. Come and try sledge hockey”.

Well, I never did! Then, about a fortnight before I was due to go to Sydney in 2000, he collared me again and he said, again in Queen Street, “When are you off?”. And I said, “Two weeks time”, and he said, “Right, give me your number and I will ring you when you get back!”. And, lo and behold, I’d been back about three days and he rang me and I went down and tried it and I got hooked almost straight away, the very first time I played it at the old ice rink in Cardiff. It’s a fast, full contact sport. I just loved it. That was in 2000 and, by that time, I was a lottery-funded athlete and along with that comes responsibilities; you can’t fully commit yourself to something else, so I just used sledge hockey as a recreation for those two years. Then, when I retired from lifting, I was able to focus on hockey a little bit more. I got called into the British squad and, before I knew it, I was invited to compete at the World Championships in 2004. We came fifth after a penalty shoot out with none other than the Germans. In 2005, we went for qualification for the 2006 Paralympics – because we’re not one of the ranked teams – and I broke my leg in a collision with one of my own players in a warm-up at the qualifying tournament in Turin in October 2005. I never got to play in that tournament but we qualified for the Games, so, as I was part of the squad, I was selected, an opportunity that I never thought I’d see again.

I remember in Sydney, before I left the Closing Ceremony, I went out into the middle of the pitch and I had a good look around, because I thought, “This is the last time I’m going to experience this. This is the last time I’m going to stand in front of so many people”. I sat there in the wheelchair and looked around and took it all in. But, in 2006, in Turin, I got the opportunity to experience it all again, and that was absolutely fabulous. The venue sold out - 4,000 people - especially when we were playing the Italians; to be on an ice pad with 4,000 screaming Italians chanting, “Italia, Italia”, and then we score a goal and it just silences it. Fabulous! We came seventh, as well as we expected.

giving everything up

We didn’t qualify for 2010 and there’s a whole new system in place now, so they’re hoping to qualify for 2014 … but I’ve retired. I’m forty-six years of age, now. It’s hard work pushing around an ice rink, being clattered by lads who are half your age.

I sat down when London first got the Games and looked at what the British lads were doing and, apart from one, none of them were really doing much more than we were back in 2000. But, realistically, I think it’s such a commitment, and, you know, I’m married now, I’ve got two children. When you’ve got a family, you sit down and think, “Blimey, sport is one hell of a selfish thing to do”, because, when I’m up on the rostrum, absolutely fabulous, people are proud of you, but the person who really gets that is yourself, and your family has given up everything; when I was a kid, my parents taking me training and taking me to events, and when I first got married we could only go on holiday at certain times because that’s when it fitted in with training.

a wasted resource

Looking towards the future, I’ve got to admit I’m fearful that post-2012 the bubble may burst. Everything now is focused toward London and everyone is looking to Britain putting in an absolutely fabulous performance, but I’m struggling to see where the legacy is.

I’m extremely disappointed at the lack of involvement we’ve had, as former Paralympic athletes, in the preparation for the Games in 2012. We went out to Sydney in 2000 to the forward camps and in the Gold Coast, and they were involving their former Olympic and Paralympic athletes in the consultation, and as hosts, looking after us. Nobody has asked us to do anything like that this time. We’ve got the Australian Paralympic team coming to South Wales; nobody has asked anybody as far as I’m aware.

There are guys living in South Wales, guys that I know who’ve been to Games like me, years at the highest level, and have got a hell of a lot to offer. I think we’re a wasted resource.

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