Finding my way into blind sport – part 1

I was always a keen sportsmen – actually, that’s a lie; sport was the most important thing in my life. I would have given anything to be a professional sportsman. Little did I know…?

I played football for the county, for school and a Sunday league team, rugby for the county and school, cricket for school, and ran for the county and City of Hull AC. However, I thought my sporting career was over when I finally lost all my sight aged 21.

The real impact on my sporting career started when I was 20. The first casualty was my blossoming career as a 400m hurdler. During the athletics season, at a meeting at North or South Shields, it was one or the other, the City of Hull senior men’s team was short of numbers and needed volunteers for the majority of the field events, the 400m hurdles and the 3,000m steeplechase. As I would have struggled to run 3,000m never mind jump over barriers and a water jump, and I didn’t want to volunteer for any throwing events (after a disasterous javelin incident at Sheffield earlier that year – I’ll probably blog about that some time), I volunteered for the 400m hurdles. The biggest problem I had was getting over the hurdles as they were much higher than I had thought. To say I hurdled them with difficulty was not true: I actually jumped over them with difficulty. I was drawn in lane 1, which meant that all my competitors were on my blind side. I was so focused on the hurdles that I didn’t pay much attention to anyone else but as I approached the half way point I glanced across to my right-hand side and as I couldn’t see anyone I realised that I was in the lead, which certainly concentrates the mind. Having successfully negotiated the remaining obstacles, I won the race by a large margin. Whilst the time of 61 seconds was not outstanding, this did however provide me and my coach, BS, with enough encouragement for me to start to train seriously for the event.

One such training session took place in early September 1990. It was still fairly warm so there was little chance of me doing myself an injury when attempting to clamber over the obstacles – or so I thought. I set off from the 400m hurdles start with the intention of going over the hurdles up to the 200m point in the race, and to do this several times depending on how well it went. The key to 400m hurdling is in the stride pattern. From the start line to the first hurdle took me something like 21 strides, and there after I settled into a regular stride pattern of 14 strides between each hurdle. Once I reached the 200m point in the race I would probably have to increase the number of strides to 15 between each hurdle as my legs tired and my stride length shortened. However, theory is fine but it is not always that simple in practice.

As dusk descended, I set off on my first run, counting my strides as I went along in order to give me practice at the stride pattern. After 17 or so strides I realised that I should be approaching the first hurdle but I couldn’t see one. “Trust BS, he’s forgot to put one out” I thought. But not more than a couple of strides later I knew I was wrong to think that of BS, for there appearing out of the gloom at great speed was the 3 feet high barrier. I had to make a split decision. I was too close to hurdle it properly, and probably too close and going too fast to side step it. If I had tried to do either I would have ended up on the floor wrapped around a hurdle which was not a pleasant prospect. Therefore, I opted for a straight forward dive over the hurdle. It hurt like hell but at least I knew what I was landing on and all I suffered were impact injuries not the alternative of impact plus entangling injuries.

That was the first sign that my sight was really starting to deteriorate to a disabling level from a sporting point of view, but further signs came on the football pitch. My real love had always been football. I had represented the school team for every year that I was at school, at one point even playing for the school sixth form 11 when I was in the third year. I was also picked for the county side and had, at every county match, scoured the sidelines for scouts who had the ability to make all my dreams come true. Maybe because the county manager played me as a holding midfield player, rather than my natural position of attacking midfielder, the scouts never turned up, or if they did they were not impressed enough to speak to me. Maybe it was because my ability to control the ball appeared to have worsened as I aged, which sounds rather counter intuitive, but I had definitely noticed it happening. Looking back, only being able to see out of one eye could not have helped with my ball control as only seeing in two dimensions meant I could not judge how fast a ball was moving towards me. Colliding with players who moved towards me on my blind side, even kicking players in the head who had stooped to head a ball on my right hand side and the abuse that followed, didn’t help my cause either. I had been just as good at rugby, but as soon as my school found out that I was blind in one eye they banned me from playing.

As the new football season started in early September I noticed that as I looked directly at the ball I couldn’t see all of it as the loss of vision was starting to spread further across my left eye. If I looked at the middle of the ball, I would only be able to see the left hand side of it. In order to see all the ball, I had to look upwards and to the right of the ball. Only then would all the ball be visible within the remaining field of vision that I had. The problem with relying on peripheral vision is that the further away from the focal point the object becomes, the less detail you can see, and trying to rely on peripheral vision only over long distances was of limited utility. The other problem was that the blind areas were broadly a grey colour, which meant that the sky and clouds that I could see didn’t particularly stand out from the blind areas that surrounded them, which just confused me.

At that point, my football had been limited to playing in the local Saturday afternoon league for the Rudston B team (a village near Bridlington), and I played for a Sunday league team made up of friends of both myself and my brother. The Sunday league team, which played in the Hull league, was quite a good team and I looked forward to the games every week. Towards the end of the previous season, I played with what had become usual sight for me. I couldn’t see anything out of my right eye, and I had started to lose the vision on the right hand side of my left eye. But this was not really a problem as I had started to play as an old fashioned right winger so as to open up the amount of the pitch that was in my field of vision. Using my pace I was the leading scorer for our team and the usual tactic was the long ball over the top for me to run onto using my superior speed, the only remaining task was to put the ball in the back of the net, which I seemed to do more often than not.

However, as my useful vision diminished, and I became more reliant upon peripheral vision, the tactic had to be adapted somewhat, as I required our defenders or midfielders to shout to let me know that the ball was coming my way over the top and, if they were able, to give me some indication of which way I should run, right, left or simply straight ahead. If they weren’t able to issue instructions quickly enough, I listened for the ball bouncing and then ran towards that noise and hoped that the ball would appear in my field of vision. It worked, to a point, and I kept on slamming in the goals and we kept on winning.

But it only worked for so long. Not long after my 21st birthday I played my last game of football, one of the things that saddens me the most. I often dream about playing football, and it is my favourite dream, even better than the Bay Watch dream. The freedom of being able to kick a ball, to control it and hit long passes, to float over the ground with the ball at my feet, pass a defender or two and then crash the ball into the back of the net – it’s really exhilarating. The down side of this is waking up. I always feel a great sense of loss after this dream and feel miserable for hours, but I suppose it’s worth it just to experience those feelings again.

My last match was played at South Hunsley school near Hull. By this time when I looked directly at the middle of the ball all I could see was the bottom left hand segment of the ball, maybe about 15% of the ball at best. It was against the league leaders and we were in second place. The game started well and after 10 minutes the ball was cleared by their defence, not very well as it happened, and I could just make out that the ball was coming towards me, begging to be smacked back from whence it had come. Instinctively I put my head down and swung my right foot at the ball, or where I thought it would be. The result was a 25 yard screamer into the top corner and I laid at the bottom of a mass of my team mates.

We were still winning 1-0 towards the end of the second half when our left winger went on one of his mazy runs. F went past five or six defenders from what I could make out, and then moving in from the left wing dribbled the ball past the goal keeper. However, he was at such an acute angle to the goal that he looked up and passed the ball to me as I was standing on the penalty spot with no defenders around me. I could have side footed it home, or blasted it, but I had started to lose confidence in my ability to see the ball coming, so I decided to control it as I had so much time. It turns out that I had made the wrong decision, as I managed using all my concentration to control the ball remarkably well, and I stood with the ball at my feet, with acres of room in front of an open goal. But there was one slight problem, where the bloody hell was the goal? I just couldn’t see it! There was green stuff, and above it grey stuff, but that was all I could make out. If the keeper had stood his ground I would have at least had a reference point upon which to focus, but he had most inconsiderably buggered off. I put my head down and hit the ball towards where the goal must surely be. However, as goals are not awarded for hitting corner flags the score remained 1-0.

I can still hear the laughter and shouts of “donkey, donkey” to this day – team mates can be so hurtful.

It was one of those defining moments in your life. It dawned on me that I was properly visually impaired. I turned and walked slowly towards the half way line with my thoughts blocking out the ridicule that was being hurled in my direction. I attempted to carry on and defend our one goal lead, but my confidence had totally gone by that point and I didn’t go anywhere near the action in truth. I walked off the pitch not able to join in our celebrations at going to the top of the league as I knew I would never play the beautiful game again. That was probably one of the lowest points during the loss of my sight.

As my sight continued to worsen on a daily basis through late 1990 and early 1991, the only sport that I could participate in was athletics, and that was becoming increasingly difficult. I felt compelled by something inside to try to carry on as normal for as long as I possibly could, but it was becoming increasingly scary to do so. The dilemma was to carry on and fight the fear, or take the fear away by giving up and giving in; the former feelings won the battle.

The only way I could do my athletics training during the winter when it was dark was to follow somebody who was wearing a bright top that I could make out well enough to feel safe. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing this, I just got on with it. I had to make excuses if we were supposed to do a road run to warm up, because the dazzling car headlights were all that I could see, trees, lamp posts, pedestrians, etc, were completely obscured. Whilst I could still see enough to safely negotiate my way around, even in darkness, when walking, trying to do this at speed proved to be a different matter. It only took one hazard to jump out at me from the shadows, be they real shadows or ones caused by my failing retinas, and my confidence would be shattered. A fake limp would suddenly appear and I would walk back to the stadium if on a road run, or back to the stands if doing a track session. I don’t think that I would have been able to continue running if I had remained partially sighted. There again, maybe I would have got used to it and the terrifying fear may have subsided. I suppose we will never know as events meant that I wouldn’t be running alone for much longer.

During a trip to Liverpool to meet an RNIB job advisor where we tried out some vision aids, part of the prolonged task of trying to find a way for me to return to work at the bank, my Mum had noticed a British Blind Sport magazine with a picture of a blind athlete, NT, on the front of it running. She read it to me on our long train journey home and made a note of the number for me to ring.

This was amazing news! I was ridiculously excited to think that blind people could do sport. Before this I suppose I was as ignorant, if not more so, than the average person with regards the capabilities of blind people. I rang the number as soon as I could.

Little did I know the chain of events that would unfurl from this one phone call and that within less than six months I would be the proud owner of a Great Britain tracksuit, a European gold medal and a World Record to boot! What a serendipitous event!

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