Stich not Caine – not a lot of people know that!

If I was a betting man….I’d bet most people that they didn’t know that 15 October is officially “White Cane Safety Day” – I certainly didn’t!


The following extract from the US National Federation of the Blind explains:


“White Cane Safety Day: A Symbol of Independence


by Marc Maurer


In February of 1978 a young blind lady said, “I encounter people all of the time who bless me, extol my independence, call me brave and courageous, and thoroughly miss the boat as to what the real significance of the white cane is.”


The National Federation of the Blind in convention assembled on the 6th day of July, 1963, called upon the governors of the fifty states to proclaim October 15 of each year as White Cane Safety Day in each of our fifty states. On October 6, 1964, a joint resolution of the Congress, HR 753, was signed into law authorizing the President of the United States to proclaim October 15 of each year as “White Cane Safety Day.” This resolution said: “Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives”, that the President is hereby authorized to issue annually a proclamation designating October 15 as White Cane Safety Day and calling upon the people of the United States to observe such a day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.’


Within hours of the passage of the congressional joint resolution authorizing the President to proclaim October 15 as White Cane Safety Day, then President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized the importance of the white cane as a staff of independence for blind people. In the first Presidential White Cane Proclamation President Johnson commended the blind for the growing spirit of independence and the increased determination to be self-reliant that the organized blind had shown. The Presidential proclamation said:


The white cane in our society has become one of the symbols of a blind person’s ability to come and go on his own. Its use has promoted courtesy and special consideration to the blind on our streets and highways. To make our people more fully aware of the meaning of the white cane and of the need for motorists to exercise special care for the blind persons who carry it Congress, by a joint resolution approved as of October 6, 1964, has authorized the President to proclaim October 15 of each year as White Cane Safety Day.


Now, therefore, I, Lyndon B. Johnson, President of the United States of America do hereby proclaim October 15, 1964 as White Cane Safety Day.


With those stirring words President Johnson issued the first White Cane Proclamation which was the culmination of a long and serious effort on the part of the National Federation of the Blind to gain recognition for the growing independence and self-sufficiency of blind people in America, and also to gain recognition of the white cane as the symbol of that independence and that self-reliance.”


Interestingly, the article continues: “The first of the state laws regarding the right of blind people to travel independently with the white cane was passed in 1930 …”, which suggests that until then it was unlawful – crikey, we’ve come a logn way!


Until now, I’ve never thought of my trusty friend in these terms, but I strongly agree with these powerful words. To mee, it’s simply Michael .. allow me to explain!


If you’re one of those people that names inanimate objects, like your car for instance, then you will understand me when I confess that my white stick is called Michael. There is logic in my madness! ,


Michael, as he shall be referred to in this blog, is not named after Michael Caine, as most people who query it guess, but after Michael Stich (pronounced “shtick”), the 1991 Wimbledon mens’ singles champion.


He’s named after the tennis player because I don’t refer to him as a white cane, but as a stick, or sometimes a bat!


Just for the record, Michael is actually a set of triplets: I have my everyday well-worn 141cm long Michael, my solo walking Michael who is 145cm long (thereby enabling me to detect hazards sooner whilst striding out purposefully, with the ambitious hope of avoiding said hazards), and a spare Michael which leans up against a wall in my office at work.


Michael accompanies me everywhere; if Michael could talk…. unlike yours truly, he’s seen some sights, I can tell you!!


1992: my first Paralympics, part III

It became clear after a couple of days that the doctors were talking weeks rather than days, so I booked myself in at the physio’s for some intensive treatment. The treatment involved ultra sound treatment and interferential treatment (passing an electric current through the joint). That wasn’t bad, but the mobilisation was awful. The physio forced my knee to bend, and then forced it to straighten, and repeated this action. It was very painful, and when I left it stiffened up again after about half an hour. However, after a couple of weeks and lots of physio I could just about bend my knee properly, and so I started training again. I had four weeks to get from a hobbling wreck to gold medal challenger. As was my modus operandi, I jumped straight back in at a high level of intensity. However, as was bound to be the case, having had two weeks out I had lost a great deal of conditioning. This meant that whilst I could run quite fast immediately I soon tired and lost the ability to run fast. If I was going to challenge in Barcelona I had to push myself enough to allow me to run the full distance of each race without tiring badly.


With hind sight, I should probably have re focused and chose just one event to have a good go at, whilst still making myself available for the relays. However, due to the confidence of youth I didn’t and instead I just kept on pushing myself. My hamstrings reacted badly to this. I suffered what I then thought were small muscle tears, but only serious enough to keep me from running for a couple of days. The feeling was like having sellotape pulled off from behind my knee to half way up my hamstring. The prognosis; stop running for a day or two, stretch and then get back into it slowly.


Despite these semi-self induced tribulations, JW and I flew out to Barcelona pleased to be on the plane but unsure as to just how well I would be able to compete against the worlds best. The atmosphere amongst the team on the plane was electric, lots of wise cracks and general excitement filled the air. When we arrived at the Olympic village we had to queue for our accreditation, the passport to all the Paralympic experience. If you don’t have an accreditation you can’t go anywhere or access any of the services, including the dining hall. Whilst stood in the queue the volunteers handed out small food items. I thought I had been handed a round chocolate biscuit, so I removed the plastic wrapper and popped it in my mouth, only to find out it was a small Edam cheese with the wax skin still on it. This was the first time I chose the “I hope no-one saw that” approach and kept my mouth shut and chewed, and while trying to portray enjoyment swallowed the cheese and wax mixture. I think I got away with it, but it hasn’t always worked since then.


We were staying in apartment blocks, 8 to an apartment and two to a room. I obviously shared with JW. The rest of our apartment was made up mainly of blinky athletes. MF was sharing with BR, MB, our very poorly sighted B2 marathon runner, was sharing with BS, the guide runner of TH, and a coach TW had a room to himself. The Olympic village had lots of amenities to keep the athletes amused and cared for during their stay. Most were not suitable for blinkies, but I do recall playing a couple of games of “Simon Says”, which back in the day, the late 70s to be precise, was at the cutting edge of technology as I recall.


On the waterfront was a private beach for the athletes sole use, a pizza hut was at the end of the beach at the start of a pier, and there were lots of shops and games areas in the international zone. JW and I spent many a happy hour testing out the perfumes and after shaves in the Perfumerie. We got many an admiring wolf whistle from fellow B1 athletes, but never did find a perfume nice enough, or more pertinently, cheap enough to force us to open our wallets.


One of our most important tasks was to collect our race kit. We had already received an all-in-one lycra bodysuit with the rest of our kit, but we had to personally collect our race shorts and vests. All the sprinters went to JB’s room as he, as the most experienced coach in the team, had been designated as the kit man for our squad. JB sat on his bed with several open boxes of kit strewn around the room. He had a clip board with all our names on it, and as he gave us our kit he marked us off on the list. However, JB got a bit confused, and JW got a bit light fingered. Every time JB turned his back more kit was stuffed down the front of JW’s shorts. By the time we left the room with our issued two vests and two shorts JW looked quite deformed and in need of a truss.


After the initial orientation day we ventured down to the training track to try and loosen out our legs after all the traveling. The first bit of excitement for JW was his first ever sighting of a Kenyan albino. It was probably a good job the Kenyan had bad sight as JW’s stares must have been unnerving. JW wanted me to stand on the track as the Kenyan approached so that he could take a photo of him without making it obvious, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.


The session we did was an easy one to get some life back into our legs after the traveling. However, my hamstring injury resurfaced on the second or third run. JA’s wife, DA, was a physio with the team and tried to deal with it. However, she struggled, as every other physio did, to find the exact area which was injured. This was undoubtedly due to it being a nerve issue, but at the time no-one seemed to realise that. Treatment was given, but I think that was more to reassure me rather than because they thought it was necessary. Looking back this theory is supported by one physio just asking me what treatment I wanted and on what part of my body. My notes obviously said something about me being a hypochondriac and the best policy was to amuse me by doing whatever I asked.


Prior to the games starting in earnest KA, the sprints coach, decided to hold a relay practice. I was to run the third leg. Although this was unusual to ask a B1 athlete to run a bend, we also had another B1 athlete in the team, RL, who was to run the second leg due to him being difficult to guide, and MW was to run the last leg as he was seen to be two large and cumbersome to run a good bend. When it was time to practice the last changeover I had to run flat out towards the changeover zone and MW was to exit it at full speed. I told KA that I would struggle to do this due to my hamstring. KA wasn’t having any of it. He told me that it was all in my head and to just get on with it and stop bitching about it. I complied with his demand, and 40 metres and one torn hamstring later I felt satisfied that I had proved that it wasn’t in my head, but heartbroken that my games were probably over before they had even begun. Injuries were bad enough, but being injured at a championships was horrible; to be surrounded by athletes excited and preparing for the races of their lives whilst you are unable to do likewise is awful.


We still had several days until the opening ceremony, and an extra couple of days until the races actually began, so there was hope that a miracle may occur in the intervening period, but I wasn’t holding out much hope. In short, I was distraught and miserable beyond belief.


I was referred to the teams top physio, NB. NB worked with the able bodied team, and has continued to do so ever since. Our paths would cross again in 1999 at the IAAF championships, and indeed NB would go on to be in charge at UK Athletics. At first he wasn’t impressed that I dared to disturb his sun bathing time while the physio centre was shut for lunch, but despite this initial mutual irritation we soon developed a good working relationship. And to be honest, we had to as I spent over an hour being treated by him three times a day for the next few days.


RL had also suffered a hamstring injury, so treatment sessions were never dull. I remember RL during one physio session politely saying to NB “please step away from the table”. NB took a small step back before RL farted in his face. RL received quite a hammering during that session. All three of us, RL, NB and I, missed the opening ceremony as we were being treated at the time and it was also felt that several hours queuing and standing wouldn’t be good for us. Despite hours of scouring the physio text books, NB simply couldn’t find a single academic that suggested hours of pointless standing around as a form of hamstring repair.


During this period NB told me that my hamstring was fine really and had just gone into spasm, and that come race day I would be fine. All I had to do was stay off my feet, keep trying to stretch it out, and once I blasted out of my blocks I wouldn’t feel anything. JW for once was more informed than I was; NB had told him that I had suffered a really bad hamstring tear and there was little or no chance of me being fit to race. He asked him not to tell me and to tow the party line. JW for perhaps the first time (and possibly the last time) did as he was told.


Due to the excessive treatment my skin, especially around the hair follicles, had become very irritated. I was ordered to shave my leg from half way down my calf to the top of my butt cheek. Although this was the area over which the bruise had spread I didn’t realise why I had to shave so excessively. It would soon become clear on race day …..


1992: my first Paralypics, Part II

The first post-selection task was to collect our team kit at a Paralympic training weekend at Solihull. We took the opportunity to do some intensive training whilst we were there.  The amount of kit we were issued with was astronomical.  Track suits, jogging suits, water proof suits, dress suits, blazers, shirts, ties, shoes, trainers, socks, t-shirts, sweatshirts, bags, rucksacks, hats, base ball caps, water bottles, and most importantly bum bags were all handed out.  We were all asked to make sure our kit fitted us, and unlike the kit we got when the kit was supplied by BBS, the vast majority was an exact fit.  The only kit which did not fit me was the best shoes we were ever given.  A swop shop was held and I managed to get a perfect fit, a pair of Loakes shoes which lasted me until the Atlanta Paralympics when I picked up my next pair of quality shoes.


At the time, other than spending most of my time with my ex, my social life revolved around going out with my friends at a weekend, as most 22 year olds do, and a lot of that time was spent in Bridlington rugby club. Once I had gained official selection for Barcelona a lot more people started to take an interest in my preparations and prospects.  At that time I was receiving no funding from any official body and was living off state benefits of £38 a week.  One of the rugby club regulars, MC, took particular interest.  MC had moved to Bridlington from the Peterborough area, and as a result was known throughout Bridlington as Cockney M.


It must be noted at this point that Bridlington, being miles away from anywhere of any note, is very insular. Non-Bridlingtonians are split into two main camps, Wessies and Cockney’s.  Cockney’s strictly speaking are supposed to be born within earshot of bow bells, but in Bridlington anyone south of Nottingham is a Cockney – they all sound the same to us!  The Wessies are in theory people, who like me, either live in, or originate from, West Yorkshire.  However, Bridlington folk use this term very indiscriminately, and in effect any person who visits Bridlington that is not a Cockney so described is obviously a Wessie.  Therefore, if ever in Bridlington, try wondering around the town centre, aimlessly getting in the way of the locals, or step onto the road in front of a car and pin back your ears to find out if you are a bloody Wessie or a bloody Cockney.  You might be surprised.


Cockney M took it upon himself to raise some money for me to help me prepare for the championships and to give me some money to help me once out at the championships. He badgered most businesses throughout the town and bit by bit the money started to role in.  A benefit night was arranged at the Cock and Lion nightclub,  where a raffle was held using prizes that had been donated by locals and local businesses.  Every time a prize was drawn out the winner donated it back and an auction was held.  It was amazing to see everyone dipping into their pockets to help me out.  It was probably more to do with M’s enthusiasm and popularity that somewhere in the region of £1000 was raised for me.  I owe M a great debt of gratitude and that money certainly helped me to prepare for Barcelona.


M’s money was soon required for additional physiotherapy. My friend JK was back home on leave from the army.  Since the first Gulf War, JK hadn’t been back in Bridlington that much, so such events were treated like a sort of homecoming.  It was to be my last night out before I went tea total for the rest of the season.  Being 22 and out for a laugh, it was decided that we were going to do 20 pubs by last orders.  At first I was horrified, there was no way I would be able to drink 20 pints, not if I wanted my usual donna kebab at the end of the evening.  However, it was decided we would only do halves, so being young and foolish I thought it sounded like a laugh.  The last time we had tried such an endeavor we had worn Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts, and taken out blow up crocodiles with us and wrestled them in pubs around town.  On that night we spent 10 minutes trying to out run a police van before we realised it was JK’s dad who was a copper asking him what time he’d be in at.


The night went well. We entered a pub, I went to the toilet, we downed our halves  and then moved on to the next hostelry where the procedure was followed.  Much hilarity ensued, and by last orders we had managed to accomplish our goal of 20 pubs; we actually did 24!  I felt very drunk, but at that stage in my life that was nothing new, as like the rest of my friends we did tend to put a fair bit of beer away every weekend, and had done so since we had started working at about 18 or so.  However, I didn’t feel like doing a club and having to evade the usual threats of violence, so I took JK and his girl friend M up on their offer to walk me home.  As JK was, and still is, fairly hap hazard with his guiding, I decided to let M guide me.  We were so busy chatting and telling her all about the fun and games we had had earlier in the evening that I lost track of the route we were taking back home.  I was in the middle of describing some hilarious act when M slowed down and said “step”.  As she had said step singular I presumed that we had reached a curb and so stepped off and kept on walking as normal.  However, a few things told me that I was not stepping off a curb.  The first thing was the fact that my second footstep didn’t touch the floor when I put it down on what I thought was the road.  The second was the scream that came out of M’s mouth.  The third was the angular bits of concrete that I kept bouncing off.  When the screaming and bouncing stopped, I realised that I had fallen down a flight of steps.  As I heard water lapping nearby, I immediately knew that I had fallen down the flight of steps that led to the harbour edge.   I had never in all my days gone this way home, and my first thought was “who put those bloody steps there?”  My second thought was that my knee was hurting a bit, but I wasn’t too concerned as I could walk on it reasonably well.  I said I was fine and managed to limp home with no major problem.


When we got back to my house JK, like the good soldier that he was, explained to my Mum and Dad that I had taken a fall and then quickly sounded the retreat, leaving the casualty in the crossfire of one concerned parent and one fuming parent.  He told me later that despite my protestations that it was just an accident, if looks could kill then JK would most certainly be dead, and my dad guilty of murder.  Good old Flynn started to lick the blood off my knee which was poring out of my torn jeans, and after I had got cleaned up I went to bed telling mum and dad not to worry as I was sure it was just a bit of a bang.  However, when I woke in the morning my knee had locked solid.  It was only six weeks before the Paralympics.  My last night out could possibly be my last night out ever if JA found out.  “Gladiators ready?  Athletes ready?” – not really J, my bloody leg wont bend.


The first thing I realised was that I was completely unable to walk. I had banged my knee before, I had sprained my ankle and badly torn my hamstring, all things that meant one leg was useless.  On such occasions I had hopped everywhere, but it was impossible to hop on one leg whilst the other was locked solid in a straight position.  The only way I could move was to walk backwards and drag the leg in its locked position behind me.  Going down steps was less difficult, as I could hold onto the banister and hold the straight leg out in front of me and hop my way down, but going up steps backwards was quite tricky.


After lots of tears from my mum, and angry threats from my dad, we went up to casualty to see what damage had been done. Being guided was extremely problematic.  I had to walk backwards,  dragging my leg along, which meant that the person who was guiding me had to face me, with me holding onto their shoulders for balance whilst they held on to my waist.  The result looked like we were ballroom dancing into the casualty department.  No serious damage had been done according to the doctors, time as usual would heal it.  The question was just how much time?

1992: my first Paralympics

1992 was the year that I found out what disabled athletics was really all about – the Paralympics. Just like able bodied athletics, its all about the opportunity which only comes around every four years for you to win the biggest prize, the one that every athlete dreams about.  Every other medal and championship is secondary to a Paralympic games.


The Paralympics get their name from a combination of the words Olympics and parallel, as they run parallel to the big one. I must admit that I always get a bit angry when people refer to these games by any of the usual set of misnomers.  “Are you running in the special Olympics this year Andy?” would be greeted with a short lecture about the fact that the special Olympics are for people with learning disabilities where everyone gets a medal regardless of their level of performance, as opposed to the Paralympics where medals are handed out on a purely performance basis, and the only people in my races with learning disabilities are the guide runners.  Alternatively, people will refer to the games as the Paraplegic Olympics, or the Wheelchair Olympics.  I have often pointed out that unfortunately I am not eligible for either championships as I am not a paraplegic or wheelchair user.  Using the last two names is like a red rag to a bull, as often the perception amongst the public, whether in a sporting context or social context, is that being disabled is synominous with being a wheelchair user.  Informing a receptionist that you would like to take advantage of the lower disabled entrance fee has on occasions been greeted with “well where’s your wheelchair then?”  I often get irate people complaining that I have used the disabled toilet when I don’t use a wheelchair.  Just for the record, I prefer to use a disabled toilet rather than the standard male toilets for two main reasons.  Firstly, it is less likely that I will bump into the back of someone stood urinating, thereby causing them to either splash their shoes or their leg, or worse still, feel their bums as I’m trying to find the urinal.  Secondly,  it is impossible to get lost in a disabled toilet, but let me reassure you, it is not impossible to get lost in a normal male toilet – some of them are like rabbit warrens!  A prime example being the loos at the Law Society; if it wasn’t for the Law Society President rescuing me whilst attending an awards ceremony, I probably would have still been lost in the bowels of the Law Society today.


It also annoys and upsets me when Paralympic athletes refer to themselves as competing at the Olympics. I know that for some they do this because they don’t expect people to know what a Paralympic games is, but to others it appears to be that being a Paralympian is not good enough.  It is as though the term Paralympic or Paralympian imports some degree of being second class along with it.  This is probably the reason behind calls from many people in disabled sport to merge the Paralympics with the Olympics, but you’ll never hear me espousing the virtues of such a move.  I am proud to be a Paralympian.  I do not want the Paralympics to merge with the Olympic games to give it credibility.  It is quite credible enough thank you very much.  The result would be such a watered down sanitised version that those calling for it would inevitably have no games to compete at.  Only a tiny majority would get the chance to compete on the biggest stage in their chosen sport.  This mindset is absurd to me. The majority of disabled athletes, and disabled people generally, spend a deal of time in our social lives trying to educate able bodied people that we have qualities and skills to offer society, that we are valuable in our own right and should be treated as equals, yet certain athletes act as though the only way to be treated as equal and receive validation is to compete at the same time as able bodied athletes, in the same stadium and in the same championships.


The Paralympics are held every four years about three weeks after the Olympics, or the test event as we like to refer to it; someone has to test out all the facilities for all the disabled athletes after all. The spread of sports is somewhere in the region of 18 or 19 different sports, with athletes competing in cerebral palsy classes, amputee classes, wheelchair classes, sometimes (depending on the current political preference within the International Paralympic Committee (IPC)) athletes with a mental impairment compete, and of course athletes with visual impairments.


I knew 1992 was going to be a big year. 3 to 14 September 1992 was etched on my mind’s eye, after all, it would be another four years before I would have another chance just to compete at the biggest festival of disabled sport, let alone a chance to win the elusive Paralympic gold.  It became clear to me at the first Paralympic training weekend that everybody else felt exactly the same, and I don’t just mean the athletes.  The coaches and support staff who would be involved in putting forward athletes for selection and who would themselves form part of the team management were clearly excited at the prospect.


J “Gladiators ready” A was a major force within the GB Paralympic set up as well as the British Blind Sport set up. JA was an important person to impress if selection for Barcelona was to be achieved.  Therefore I was very pleased when he stopped me after a training session and said in his broad Scottish accent “you’ll be fine, if you can find a decent guide runner”.  JW, having a very high opinion of himself and no lack of confidence in his guiding abilities, didn’t bat an eyelid.  JA certainly knew how to motivate athletes and after every meeting we had as a group I always left feeling that my ability had increased just from listening to him.  One thing that was for sure, if he was present at the track athletes worked hard.  I’m not sure whether that was because you always felt like his eyes were on you, or because you could hear him shouting encouragement and abuse at you whilst running, or just because you were scared that his dog (which was the size of a small horse) was likely at any moment to run onto the track and chase after you.


Whilst away from designated training sessions with the rest of the squad I was working hard at the track in hull. BS, my coach since 1988, was working me hard with the intention that I would be able to run a good 100m, 200m and 400m by the September of 1992 if selected for Barcelona.  JW was doing all of my training with me, and often I would wait until he had finished his sessions before he guided me.  JW was just as motivated as I was.  We both had a burning desire to be selected and this permeated into every session we did.  If JW moaned that he was tired after doing his own session I would motivate him by mentioning the B word, Barcelona.  If I got tired towards the end of a session all JW had to do was mention the B word and I used it to drive me forward to the finishing line on every run.


However, one issue still had to be sorted, and that was my classification. My sight had undoubtedly got worse since the European Championships only a few months earlier.  In France I could see a bit of track when I was stood up, but now I couldn’t.  By night my sight was different.  I could see car headlights from long distances and street lights from some distance as well.  But that was of no real utility to me.  I wondered if my sight was now bad enough for me to compete in the B1 category without any feelings of guilt.  My deteriorating sight had been commented on at training sessions, and team staff had suggested I spoke to the British Blind Sport classification expert, Dr IF,  about my sight.


I rang DR IF and asked him what he thought. He told me to ask my mum to get four or five objects from around the house and hold them out about a foot in front of my nose and ask me to identify them.  I was unsure as to whether the very small patches of colour and bits of outlines of shapes that I could make out were really what I was seeing or just part of the usual collage of colours and shapes that I could see.  Whatever, I had no idea of what the objects were that she was holding up.  Once she told me what she had been holding I realised that various bits of the images I saw could have been parts of the objects, but other bits still made no sense.  There was no way I could identify them independently.  After only a couple of objects Dr IF told me that I was a B1 and my classification had been taken care of.  To this day I believe I am the only athlete to have had his sight classified over the phone.  I think this way of carrying out medical examinations was a pre-runner to NHS Direct.


As a B1 athlete my chance of gaining selection had increased, as had my chances of winning a medal. I was in the midst of a paradoxical situation, I wanted to be able to see better, but I also wanted a better chance of winning medals.  As the state of my sight was out of my hands I don’t suppose my views on the subject was either here or there, but I was aware of the absurdity of it all.


I was personally in no doubt that I would be selected for Barcelona, due to being in the easier B1 category (coupled with a hint of youful arrogance!) , but this did not make me rest on my laurels.  Instead, it inspired me to try to improve enough to give myself a real chance of winning medals once I got out to the champs, and I worked as hard as I had ever done.  The resulting early season performances were satisfactory and progress was definitely being made in the right direction.


Despite my self-confidence, it still came as a great relief when I received official confirmation that I had been selected to compete in the 100m, 200m, 400m and relays at the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics!! My new-found dreams were going to come to fruition!