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a sailor’s tale

I’m Stephen Thomas. I was born on 5 January 1977. I’m originally from the Ogmore Valley and grew up there, around a load of fields, until about the age of ten when my parents moved down to Bridgend, did my schooling years there.
I was always running around. I was okay in school but I was more interested in the physical aspect, PE and stuff like that. My mum would give me a pack of jam sandwiches on Saturday morning and she wouldn’t see me until Saturday night. Typical of the Welsh valleys at that time, I think.
When I was eighteen, I contracted meningitis, meningococcal septicaemia. Going out with my girlfriend for an evening, felt pretty unwell, got her home, was violently ill throughout the night. I had hallucinations, my temperature was well up. The following morning, I got taken to hospital and that was the last thing I knew, really, until I woke up six weeks later in ITU.

Meningococcal septicaemia is meningitis of the brain. The meninges in the brain get inflamed and then there is a secondary complication with blood poisoning, and that starts from the peripheries, in your hands and your legs, and then your skin and flesh dies off. It’s a bit like frostbite, actually, and they have to amputate, otherwise the infection will go into the rest of your body, and you will die. So, I’m pretty lucky to be here, really. I think I had a thirty percent chance of surviving at the time, so I’m very fortunate. Good job I’ve got my hands, as well. Once I was well enough, then they could make some decisions about amputation. They wanted my permission. At the end of the day, it wasn’t really a brave decision. There was only one decision. At the time, I was gutted, didn’t think I could play rugby again, didn’t think I was going to be a sportsman ever again, and, you know, I remember one of the surgeons saying, “Yeah, you can play wheelchair basketball. You’ll be fine”. And I was like, “Right, okay”. I was playing full contact rugby. I didn’t really want to play basketball. I’m not very good at shooting into hoops, anyway.
I think you’ve got no choice, you know, at the end of the day. You’re put in this unforgiving, unforgettable position. You have to go, “Right. What am I going to do? I’m either going to sit here on my backside for the rest of my life or I’m actually going to get up and do something”. I was an active person before my meningitis hit, so it was just, like, “Well, I want to continue like that”. So, I got back in the gym and, step by step, I got on the treadmill, started walking, started jogging, got back on the weights. You take little steps, small goals. Sport is very much like that, and, I think, life is as well, take small steps and, you know, see where it takes you.

sledge hockey
Getting into sledge ice hockey? It’s quite an interesting story. I’d played sledge hockey before sailing. It was in the National Eisteddfod. A lad came up and said, “Do you fancy playing sledge hockey?”. I said, “What’s that?”. “It’s ice hockey on sledges”. Well, I’d never seen that before, and he said, “Come down and give it a try”. I went down, loved it – full contact, the only full contact Paralympic sport there is – got involved and within three months, I think, I was in the GB squad, just because of my natural physical ability.
We campaigned for 2002 but didn’t make the qualification for Utah, and I thought, “Right, I’ll give it one more go”, because my ambition was always to go to the Winter Games. We went to Turin – I think it was in September of 2005 – to qualify, did that, beat a couple of teams there, won the play-offs and qualified. And then, 2005 was the Worlds, 2006 was sailing Worlds again, then 2006 was the Games. So, there was four major Championships in the space of six months.
Sledge hockey is a fantastic sport, full contact, same rules as ice hockey and all the technicalities of ice hockey as well. Very different to sailing. You get the camaraderie, all the boys together in the changing rooms and different skill sets. You propel yourself on a sledge. It’s a bit like a toboggan, an open toboggan with two ice hockey blades at the back, with a seat bolted on top of it and then a long U-shaped frame and a pivot on the front end. You’re laying flat to the ice, stick in each hand, metal spikes in the bottom of each hand to dig in and there’s a blade at the top end of the stick and you shoot the puck like that, and you control it and you just pass off, skate, skate, dribble, skate, skate, dribble, bang, shoot into the net! It’s great, a great sport to be in. If I wasn’t a sportsman full-time in sailing, I’d probably campaign for 2014 in sledge hockey.

I did sledge hockey for a couple of years. We didn’t make the selection for the Utah 2002 Winter Games and I thought, “Right, well, I’ve got to get into something else”. I was in Tesco’s one day, and the Performance Director for Welsh Disability Sport was hanging out of his chair in the car park, and I got alongside him, and he said, “Oi, mate, can you come and help me?”. He had his face forward so he didn’t know who I was, so I picked him up in his chair, then got my shopping, never thought anything else of it. Two months later, I was in Welsh Disability Sport, training in the gym, and he came in and he said, “Hi, how are you doing? You helped me into my chair and I was chasing you around Tesco’s. I couldn’t find you.” He said, “Do you fancy going sailing?”. I was like, “What? Sailing?”. He said, “I just had a phone call from British Sailing saying they needed someone with your disability and your physique. Just get in the boat and see how it goes”. And I said, “Right, okay, fine”. Spent the first six months flailing around, falling out, but within nine months we went to the Worlds and won a bronze, without having ever sailed before, and got put on funding … and the rest was history, really.
It was completely new. The nearest thing to getting on a boat for me was a ferry to Ireland. I didn’t know where the wind was coming from, I didn’t know any nautical terms, and the other two guys beside me who had been to World Championships, they had grown up around sailing. It was pretty hard, pretty tough for the first year or so, but they were patient. And we had a great coach as well, and they just basically taught me as I went along. Hannah Stodal does tactics – she’s the decision maker – and John Robertson drives. My role is main sheet, to trim, and communicate between the helm and the bow person. I’ll make some decisions along the way, but, actually, my role is to make sure the sails are trimmed and the boat’s going fast. They look for big grinders, big guys that can perform the physical job on the boat and let someone else make the decisions. My physicality lets me do that. In 2003, we went to the World Championships. I’d spent seven, eight months in a boat. I was a complete novice when I stepped in that water there that day, but it was fantastic. I remember being ‘physically anxious’, shall we say, before the start of the first race, and on the first day we got a first and a second. That set us up, and we went on, from strength to strength. We managed to get a bronze at the first World Championships. That was fantastic for us, bearing in mind that there were two boats in the GB system at the time, and the other chap had won a gold medal in Sydney. So, to beat him and then get selection on the back of that was a great

In the Athens Paralympics in 2004, I fell out of the boat on the first race on the first day, and I think that hit us pretty hard, to be honest. One of the ropes that I was hanging off un-pleated, and just came out. We didn’t really recover from that, psychologically, all week. It was tricky conditions but we struggled on. A disappointing first Games. But, then again, you can look at it and say we had no right to be there in terms of experience. The figures suggest that it takes ten years to win an Olympic or Paralympic gold medal. So, if we’d won there, it would have been exceptional. I think it was a mistake you have to learn from, and you make sure that it doesn’t happen again. In sailing, the idea is to stay in the boat … but in any sport things happen.

We trained hard that winter on the back of the disappointment from the Games. We just put loads of hours in. We’re lucky to be full-time. Like the Olympians, Paralympic athletes get the same benefits. We made a massive leap in terms of boat handling and sailing, and we were third going into the last day of the Worlds in 2005, and we came out with a gold medal. I don’t think it actually quite hit home. There’s a picture of me just sitting on the rostrum, just sitting there, sighing, going, “We did it. We finally did it. Two years of hard work, training full-time and realising the dream”.

2003 was the best moment to be honest, getting on the world stage and establishing yourself, realising that you actually can win a medal at international level. But, then, to win it back to back in the January 2006, another Worlds, no one’s ever done that. It was along similar lines as well. We were second going into the last day and we came out on top, a second and a first on the last day which leap-frogged us over the Germans.
We didn’t start very well at Beijing. A few outside pressures got to us, I think, psychologically. I didn’t think that we dealt with it very well and it was just a snowball really, just rolling. There was six points between the top seven boats at the end of the event. If we’d only had a mediocre day in the middle of the week, we would have been in with a medal. That’s the tightness of the Sonar fleet, that actually ten boats could win a medal. We’ve done a lot of work on that in this last year, just saying, “You’ve got to keep your head down. You’ve got to keep banging away”. I was flag bearer for GB at the Opening Ceremony in the village, an amazing honour. The only disappointment was not winning a medal. That’s what we go there for, to win it, to do our job.

So, we’ve not won any gold medals at the Paralympic Games. Athens, we went to and we came sixth. Beijing, we went to and came sixth. We’ve been successful in other areas; we’ve just not won the medal that counts. We’re still together because we actually want to get a medal out of the Games, and us three being together is the best solution for that. I’ll be there in 2012, unless selection suggests otherwise, but as a three we’re campaigning together, to win that gold medal.

all for nothing?
Being in a relationship with two other people for seven years, you’re going to have your ups and downs; it’s going to be a rollercoaster. After Beijing, I actually considered coming home, thinking, “Is this ever going to happen? Are we meant to do this?”.
And I sat back and thought, “What are my options?”.
I have a great life being a full-time athlete. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I get to be in one of the top systems in the world in terms of British sailing. The Olympic guys are far above everyone else in the world and we get the same benefits, and I just thought, “I’ve worked hard for this. I need to be in a position where I can realise my dreams and, if I quit now, I’m not really going to achieve it, and I’ll be thinking, ‘Was me becoming disabled, would that all be for nothing?’”.

I talked to friends and family and they said, “This is you. This is what you are about. You’re not a quitter”, so I just said, “Right, okay, we’ll give it third-time lucky”. We’ve actually got a website, All that matters is that one event and it’s two years, 29 August in two year’s time, so I’m counting the days down.

open events
We regularly compete with able-bodied sailors. We came fourth in the Open World Championships in 2005, and we regularly sail in open events. We’re Sonar National Champions, Sonar British Champions and those are open events, so we’re competitive on an able-bodied basis.
That’s the way Paralympic sport is actually going, at the moment. You look at Oscar Pistorius, who’s a 100 metres sprinter who can actually almost hit the qualifying time for the Olympic Games. You look at the swimmer, Natalie du Toit who’s doing the same, and recently, in the European Championships, there was a blind man who got into the semis of the 100 metres. The levels of performance in disability sport are rising all the time. Every Games you’ll see an improvement.

As you get older, your priorities change, and it’s actually stability in your life that you crave for. We spent eight to ten weeks out in Miami and it was great, winter sun, blah blah blah, but you miss your family, you miss your friends, you miss your own bed, miss your own shower, you know, and you miss your girlfriend to cuddle up to, and you want that. But that’s the sacrifices you have to make to win a gold medal and we all realise that. You just have to prioritise what you want when you’re home, and make sure you get those things in.

UWIC in Cardiff, they’ve been really understanding. I started my degree before I actually started sailing and got to Athens 2004, and the coach said, “Can you quit your academic studies to carry on with sport?”, and I ummed and ahhed, and eventually I did. UWIC allowed me to go part-time, and do it through – I hate to say it – probably about six years, my degree, six or seven years, but I managed to get it in the end. That’s important, because sport, it is a career, but it’s a short-lived career, and you need something to fall back on. So, hopefully, I’ll be able to go into teaching or go into coaching or something like that after my career as a sportsman. I’ve worked with a few disabled kids as well, helping them, and it’s really rewarding being able to facilitate opportunities for others. Cardiff and Wales has a fantastic disability sports programme. It’s a leader in the world, so if I can be involved in that, in some shape or form, that would be great.

a rich person’s sport?
I’ve come from the Welsh valleys, so that should buck the trend, really, the traditional idea that sailing and rowing was a kind of rich person’s sport. A great deal of work is being done in getting sailing out to the community, and I imagine every sailing club around the area will have a sailing school. I love the freedom, the independence. And there are so many skills that can be learnt from sailing: the physicality, technical stuff, rules, sportsmanship. It’s great on sportsmanship, it’s a very gentlemanly sport. You might not feel it when you get out on the water but rules are there for people’s safety and they are followed as a whole, so that teaches you great respect. And it’s great to be in the sunshine, wind in your sails, sailing along in the elements.

totally welsh
I am totally Welsh. I love being Welsh, just proud of the homeland, proud of the community feel, the people, the way people interact, you know. I’m on a boat with two English people and there’s a great divide between them two, one’s south and one’s north, and we all take the michael out of each other. I get the Welsh Pakistani accent going on, and then we do a “Why aye, man” for the northerner.

My dream is to win a gold medal, there’s no doubt about that. We just have to make as few mistakes as possible. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves in Athens and Beijing to win medals, and I think that’s probably where we fell down. We won the test event before Beijing in 2008, so we won the gold there at the same venue three months before, and we were leading favourites … and we came sixth. So, anything can happen in sailing, that’s the nature of the sport, and we’re just going to go looking for as faultless a performance as possible, really. Then, hopefully, on the last day, we’ll be in the position of winning a medal. We were in fourth position at the last Worlds just gone, we were nine points away from first and we were almost comfortable at winning it. We only lost the gold on a protest. That’s how tight it is in terms of the Sonar fleets. Anything can happen. So, we’re just going to keep our heads down, keep working and see where we are.

I think Wales will be a massive success in terms of Paralympic sport in 2012, and will add value to the Olympic table, as well. Hopefully for me, it’s about medals, but it’s also about our legacy, making sure that development happens on a grass roots level, and using that as a springboard to make sure sport is on the agenda in Wales for 2016 and 2020.

(Stephen and skipper John Robertson and fellow crew member Hannah Stodel came fifth in London 2012.)

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