Finding my way into blind sport – part 2

The number my mum had copied out of the British Blind Sport magazine was that of JB. I told him I was an athlete who was losing my sight rather rapidly and asked him to give me some details about athletics for blind people in Britain. He explained to me the role of BBS who run blind sport in this country. He explained how they were a charity, how they put on training weekends and competition days for blind athletes and how they chose teams and sent them to compete internationally.

I was absolutely dumb struck – an upside to being blind. As JB spoke my mind was racing ahead with what might be. International athletics for the blind meant that there was a possibility that I could achieve one of my childhood dreams of being an international athlete.

I asked JB for more details about the international competitions and found out that there was to be a European Championships later that year in France. It wasn’t too late for me to qualify for the team but it would be hard as GB had lots of good athletes. He asked me what times I ran for my preferred distances. I told him my times and I could hear the disbelief in his voice 11.6 for the 100m, “22.7 for the 200 and 51.6 for the 400m? Are you sure?” he asked. I briefly ran through my athletics career up to that point and he began to realise the kind of athlete he was talking to.

JB asked me the name of my guide runner and asked how we ran together. “What’s a guide runner” I innocently asked. He couldn’t believe that I was managing without a guide runner and told me that I would have to find one immediately and learn how to run with him. Whilst this is in no way intended as a criticism of JB, not least because his advice turned out to be absolutely correct, I found this to be an attitude all too often prevalent within the community of people who work with disabled people. All too often they tend to tell disabled people what they need based on their past experience with others in similar situations, but what is right for one person is not necessarily right for another. At the time I had been managing, admittedly only by the skin of my teeth, to run unaided. The attitude that I must run with a guide runner, and there was no question about it, was the same as those who insisted that I must have a guide dog, I must learn Braille and must go to Torquay to the blind rehabilitation centre. It was a one size fits all type of mentality – you are blind therefore you must follow this pathway. The one thing interestingly that does not happen is someone to tell you that as you are now blind these are all the benefits and help which you may be entitled to. Funny how people tend to tell you that you need something which will keep them in a job, but don’t tell you about things you are entitled to which may cost money. Although I knew very little about life as a blind person and needed some guidance, at times it did feel like people were making decisions for me rather than giving me the information upon which I could make my own decisions. The slightly older Andy would certainly not have tolerated this kind of attitude.

At the end of the conversation JB told me that he would like to invite me to a training weekend which was to be held in Solihull a couple of weeks later. In the meantime he suggested that I found a guide runner and he told me the basics of guiding and a few suggestions that I might like to try.

I had regularly trained with and raced against my friend JW, or to be precise, I regularly had the pleasure of looking at the back of his head several times a week as he disappeared into the distance. As my sight became worse, it took less and less time for him to disappear from view during our training sessions. JW was a very very good athlete. He had been the UK Indoor under 20 400m champion, had made the English Schools final at 800m and could beat me at all distances; in short, the longer the event, the further he beat me by. JW and I had been the best of friends since he had moved to Bridlington from Nuneaton after his O’ levels in 1986, both on and off the track. As he lived quite close by he seemed the obvious person to ask. He agreed to give it a go, after all, it might be a bit of a laugh. How right he was, as whilst success was not necessarily guaranteed, fun certainly was. Had JW said no, who knows how the rest of my life would have played out.

The invitations for the BBS training weekend arrived and I, JW and Dad the chauffeur travelled down to Solihull. We were to stay at the Moathouse Hotel on Friday night and Saturday night and to train on Saturday and Sunday. Having had to wait for JW to finish work, we arrived at 10:00 pm and we were told that we had missed the evening meal. We weren’t too bothered about this as we had all had a kebab and a pizza before we set off. They really were innocent times, thinking that because we had an intensive weekend of training that we should, or even could, stuff our faces on unhealthy food. I was very nervous about the training session that was planned for the next day as I was sure that I was going to get my arse kicked, and as such my dreams would be shattered and I would be left with only the messy end of the stick that represented being blind. Strange how quickly my view of blind people had switched from non sport playing basket weavers to athletes who would kick my arse: I hadn’t been educated that quickly, so this obviously showed a severe lack of confidence in my own ability.

This fear, combined with JW’s unquenchable thirst for beer, resulted in four pints being devoured by 11:00 pm. Pizza, kebab and beer: how things would change over the years, at least for me if not JW!

We went down for breakfast the next day and despite my intrepidation about the forthcoming training sessions we heartily disposed of a cooked breakfast (the full works), and then went down to the track. I met some of the athletes and the coaches who were involved and then sat down awaiting the welcome speech. This was given by J “you will go on my first whistle” A, later to become famous as the referee on the ITV Saturday night television programme gladiators. JA was the driving force behind blind athletics and stories abound of his no nonsense attitude to red tape and obstructive officials, including allegedly managing to successfully get the team onto the Moscow Olympic track that was being guarded by armed soviet guards who did not want him to do so. JA, who had coached some of the countries top able-bodied athletes, was trying to drag the world of disabled athletics into a more professional era, where our disabilities were secondary to our status as athletes, which involved training like athletes who had disabilities, rather than like disabled people who were doing athletics. Training philosophies which were used in the able bodied world were the norm for JA, and the athletes certainly seemed to be benefiting from this if their vast array of medals from recent championships were anything to go by.

JA introduced himself and all the coaches in the room, and explained what was going to happen over the weekend. I was informed that I was to train with JB and the rest of the sprinters. I had managed to get separated from JW, and as we stood up to leave a young girl grabbed my elbow and asked if I could guide her out of the room. Too embarrassed to do otherwise, I followed the shapes in front of me which were slowly making their way towards the light at the other end of the dimly lit room, but despite my best attempts I managed to bounce her off a variety of chairs and tables, before slamming her into the doorframe. I felt bad about that, but I wasn’t sure what else I could have done. After she let go and searched for another elbow I was grabbed by JW and we made our way on to the track.

After a warm up session I was asked by JB to show him what I was capable of by running a 100m race against the other athletes in the group. Despite JB telling me over the phone that I had to find a guide runner, I was asked to run on my own in the outside two lanes of the track. I was very anxious. I was afraid that my inadequacies as a sprinter would be revealed by this contest, but also afraid for my safety. Although I had told JB that I had been running on my own, that was two weeks earlier and by that time I was struggling to do anything on my own, so the prospect of the race was very frightening. However, I was not about to let these strangers know that I was a wimp so I just did it and braced myself for a fall or a bump. As it happened I was quite safe, due mainly to the fact that I pulled my hamstring after about 40m or so.

I was hit with a feeling of total frustration and a sense of anti climax. I had travelled all that way to only run 40m, and possibly miss out on the chance to show them what I was capable of. However, JW had been keeping an eye on the rest of the athletes and told me that I was leading when my hamstring went and he thought I could beat them all. This helped my mood somewhat, as did the coaches saying that they were impressed with my all too brief exhibition of my talents.

As it turned out, this pulling of the hamstring was probably a blessing in disguise. It meant that I couldn’t train at all for the rest of the weekend, but it did mean that I could meet everybody in the team and all the coaching and support staff. This was a real eye opener. By talking to blind people and people who worked with them I soon came to realise the all too simple truth that blind people were just people who could not see. Being blind did not mean that you had to be good at basket weaving, like radio 4 or wear clothes from the seventies. It didn’t mean you had to sit in a chair in the corner all day either, most of these guys and girls had jobs, and good jobs at that. Various degrees of blindness had not stopped all these inspirational characters from doing whatever they liked. Despite various prejudices that they had experienced, it was mainly factors which able bodied people had to put up with which prevented them from achieving their dreams: MF would never play for Wolverhampton Wanderers because he wasn’t good enough at football and was only 5 feet tall; JW would never be able to eat all the food in the world despite his best efforts as there was not enough time in the day; RL would never get to sleep with all the women in the world as not all of them fancied ugly scousers; MW who I would meet later in the year, would not get to lie in front of the telly all day as he had to work for part of it. They were all real life normal people, with normal lives and normal problems. MF wanted to know the football scores, JW wanted to know when dinner was, RL wanted to know intimate details about my then girlfriend, and MW wanted to know if there was anywhere he could lay down. Their sight problems were only mentioned fleetingly. Their sight, or lack of it, was part of who they were, it did not define who they were. Of course, things could have been different absent their sight problems, but they tried not to let their lack of perfect vision place boundaries on what they could achieve.

I must have done enough to impress the coaches as I was invited along to another training weekend and to the UK championships which would determine who would be picked for the European Championships later that year. I returned home optimistic in what the future held for me. The most important thing I took away with me from the weekend (apart from the hotel shampoo and soap) was the will power to get through whatever problems I faced. If ever I was in a situation where I thought I couldn’t do it, or was embarrassed I would say to myself /“What would RM do in this situation?”, or “what would RL say to that person?” I found that the athletes I had met had become my new heroes, my role models. I am proud to say that they later became very good friends as well.

The BBS training weekend was all that was needed to reignite my sporting dreams and aspirations. The excitement and sense of purpose in my sport that had been missing since my early teens resurfaced overnight. It was like being born again. I now had the opportunity to achieve all my boyhood dreams. The result was a change from a social athlete into a 100% serious athlete. The drive and determination that had been present in my sport during my formative years resurfaced. I started to train more often and harder during all sessions. I wasn’t going to let my blindness prevent me from achieving my full potential; I had been given an opportunity to achieve my dreams and I was determined to take advantage of it.

Enthused by the BBS training weekend, throughout the spring of 1991 JW and I practiced our guiding technique as often as we were able. At first we used a sock as a rudimentary guiding tool, but soon found that this could slip out of your hand which resulted in sheer panic, usually me panicking, but often JW as well. Our next device was a rather sturdy shoe lace tied into a figure of eight which made it nearly impossible to lose hold of. However, this was soon disposed of as well after a disastrous start to my competitive career in blind athletics.

Our first race was to be at the City Of Hull open meeting, held every year in April at the Costello stadium in Hull. This seemed like a good place to do our first race as Costello had been home to my athletics since I was 12 years old and I knew it like the back of my hand so it took away some of the fear. It would also be full of people who knew me and had followed my progression into the ranks of the blind. I thought this would make me feel less embarrassed and less freakish. It probably would have worked if all had gone well. We had explained to the track officials that I was competing and that I would require two lanes. They said that they were aware of my situation and had allotted to me what would become the usual outside two lanes – keep me away from the real athletes so I can’t hurt them was the thought that went through my mind.

We settled into our blocks, a skill which we had practiced extensively, and then rose into the set position on the starters command. The gun fired, our legs and arms drove hard and the shoe lace snapped! Our first race had lasted approximately two meters.

“Good place to do our first race” I thought, “not embarrassing at all”. So much for that. It was to get worse. Ours had been the penultimate race of the day. The only race left was the senior women’s 200m race. I had a simple choice to make, run with the women or don’t run. Men racing against women never happens. I decided that I had better do it despite being embarrassed at the thought of it.

We settled into our blocks for a second time, this time clutching a sock which, despite our concerns based on previous disasters, was the only option available to us and prepared to go into the set position. Two thoughts, or more precisely prayers, were racing through my mind. The first was a prayer not to let the sock slip out of my hand, and the second, the more important one, was to not let me get beaten by a girl. The prayers must have worked as I managed to hold onto both the rope and my dignity by winning the race in a particularly unimpressive time of 25.7 secs, a time which would become the usual time for my first race of the season.

By the time the BBS UK Champs came around in early June I had taken to using a loop of sturdy rope which allowed both myself and my guide to place our hands in with the backs of our hands almost touching. We found that this allowed us to keep syncronisation better and to allow the guide greater control with steering me. However as the champs came round JW told me that he would not be able to guide me as he wanted to do a race himself on the same day. This turned out to be something I was going to have to get used to, especially as all my guides were seriously good quality athletes who had their own goals and objectives to achieve in their athletic careers, and so I asked another friend and former training partner if he fancied having a go at guiding me. His name was MD and he was some 2 or 3 years older than me. Despite being a 3,000m steeple chaser he was remarkably quick over the shorter distances, and being the nice guy that he was he said he would give it a try. We trained together a couple of times and achieved some very quick times. It was going to be a success, I could feel it.

I had decided that I would run the 100m at the championships on my own as I could just about manage to stay in my two lanes on the straight, and it was always quicker to run without a guide if it was possible as it is more biomechanically efficient. As I required guiding around the bends MD would just be required for the 200m and 400m. The champs were held at the Wolverhampton track, a track which held bad memories for me. The reason for these bad memories was a crime that I had committed at that track, one for which I have never really been properly punished.

When I was 14 I had suffered a great deal from ingrowing toe nails. I had received all the treatment which chiropody had to offer but I still suffered a great deal of discomfort. It had prevented me from playing football and rugby when it was really bad, and when it was not that bad had merely meant that I was in agony every time I kicked the ball, which is an important part of both football and being a stand off at rugby. Action had to be taken so my parents paid for me to have an operation to remove part of my nail bed and part of the side of both of my big toes which the specialist had said were the two problem areas. The operation was totally successful, but I had to wear massive bandages on both big toes. I could not fit my bandaged feet in any of my shoes, so I couldn’t go to school. Although this didn’t exactly upset me, it did mean that I had started to go a bit stir crazy. The athletics club were going to Wolverhampton to an open meeting, which meant a long coach journey. Long coach journey’s with the boys team were always really good fun, but add into the equation a load of attractive girls as well and we are now talking teenage heaven. I was not going to miss out on such a trip so I had to find a way of getting some footwear on my feet. One choice was to cut up my trainers, but I only had the one pair and my parents couldn’t afford to get me any new ones, so that wasn’t really an option. In the end it came down to either staying at home or wearing a pair of sandals. At the time sandals were extremely unfashionable, often being referred to as Adidas Jesus. I had no choice, if I wanted to get on that coach I would have to put up with this fashion disaster. I say disaster as this in itself was not the crime. The crime was the wearing of white socks with the sandals. All day I had to put up with shouts of abuse and hysterical laughter, and that was just from my brother! People who were not related to me were no better either. Therefore, every time I thought of Wolverhampton I broke out into a cold sweat and my toes started to tingle.

Despite these bad memories I turned up at the track there for the UK Championships in good spirits. I thought I would run well and was looking forward to gaining selection for the European champs. My 100m race was to be run very early in the programme. I was competing in the B2 category for athletes who were partially sighted. I was only to run against a couple of athletes, but I had no idea how good they were, so I was very nervous. The gun went, I exploded out the blocks and set off down the straight. I had no idea if I was winning or not, but thought I was running fast. I was probably trying a bit too hard and started to tighten up towards the end of the 100m. Five meters from the line my hamstring went again, but as I was so close to the finish I managed to limp at great speed through the line and still win the race. Without having run that brilliantly, I was the UK Champion, and I had only been registered blind for a month. After 10 hard years of athletics training, I was an overnight success.

That victory meant so much to me. It was a national title, it meant I was the fastest partially sighted athlete in the UK and it was my first accolade as a blind athlete. But it signified more than that; it signified that despite the adversity and dramatic changes in my life, the fact that my eyes had all but stopped working did not mean that everything else had stopped working. My body was still that of an athlete and whilst I needed extra help and an additional lane to run in, that had not changed. It made me realise that my brain still functioned as it had before my sight problems and that there must surely be ways of allowing me to use it in order to carve out some kind of career for myself.

I felt very frustrated at the thought of not being able to run the 200m and 400m. I wouldn’t normally have minded, but I had asked MD to guide me in those events, he had taken a day away from his own life to do it, and now I had to tell him he had wasted his time. These feelings of guilt and that I was abusing my friends are still with me today not only in athletics but in life in general. Feelings of being a burden are common to all disabled people I guess and, even when you know in your heart that the person really doesn’t mind, there is always a deep seated nagging doubt that they are just saying that.

To try and compensate him for his trouble I bought him a beer at the bar and awaited the verdict regarding the euro champs. The news came through by the end of the afternoon that I had done enough and I would be going to France. What relief, what joy. At last, I was going to achieve my lifetime ambition. Every cloud did in fact have a silver lining. Being blind was the only reason that I had achieved this.

Look out for the story of what happened at my first championships which should appear here over the next couple of weeks.

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