1993 Part III: European Championships, Dublin

Training and competitions went as well as usual, and work didn’t seem to be having any effect on my performances. Rather unsurprisingly, I was selected to represent great Britain and Northern Ireland in the European Championships which were to be held in Dublin in September of 1993. Acclimatisation was going to be difficult, but I took every opportunity to train and compete in the pouring rain, and this paid dividends in the end. We were to fly from Leeds directly to Dublin, which meant quite a short journey to the airport for a change. The only members of the team to fly from Leeds were myself and CS, MW, MB (our marathon runner), and the team manager BS.

The plane was a propeller job, and MB, who was a very inexperienced flier, was slightly nervous. He was so nervous that the name of Captain Pooh Stripes stayed with him for some time after the very bumpy flight. I must admit that it was not a pleasant experience, bumping around at 30,000 feet whilst trying to drink a coffee and eat a Danish whilst MB kept asking if it was supposed to do that, and to top it all there was a strange grinding clinking noise behind me that didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard on a plane before. MB’s nerves, my anxiety and the turbulence led to some very colourful language passing backwards and forwards across the aisle. It was only after we had disembarked from the plane that MW saw fit to inform me that the strange grinding clinking noise behind me was a similarly nervous and anxious nun busily doing her thing with her rosary. I can only hope that her thoughts were so focused on prayer that she did not hear our language.

When we landed at Dublin we were greeted by rain, but we were assured that it was only a passing shower. To give the weather men credit, they were right, it was a passing shower and sure enough after a week it did pass. If I had my time again I would definitely have taken more clothes with me. Our kit was an interesting combination of colours. Black, gold, red and green made us look like we were from the European branch of the African National Congress rather than Great Britain, and just to make a change, whereas usually the kit was so big we could fit a friend in our track suit with us, this kit was decidedly snug fitting. I had imagined that the kit would be of questionable quality and therefore I took a lot of my kit from Barcelona with me. One item of kit from Barcelona which I did take, and thank goodness for that, was my water proof tracksuit, which I ended up wearing every day. I also wore my lycra all in one from Barcelona, which turned out to be a good idea as well, as being made of lycra it dried out easily every night after my daily drenching.

We were housed in Dublin University accommodation, four single rooms and a sitting room/kitchen in each apartment. The track was at the other end of the university campus, and by the time we had walked down there we were well and truly on our way towards being warmed up. Like all good athletes, we visited the track at the first opportunity to loosen off and see what the facilities were like. We decided to make camp at the shallow end as the organisers had seen fit to place a small tent at that end, which was where we attempted to warm up. As soon as I started to do anything fast it became clear that the combination of the cold wet weather and the vast amount of speed work I had been doing had left my fragile hamstrings in a delicate state. I really didn’t think I was going to be able to compete at my best, if at all. The call went out for medical help, and although it looked for a long time like I would have to rely on the local horse doctor, an Irish physio stepped into the breach. He was well known to some of our team as he had studied at the same physio college as they had in London several years previously. Although he had received the same academic training his social development had definitely gone in a different direction to that of his British colleagues, as he turned out to be something of a prude. I told him what my problem was and he decided that the traditional treatment of ultra sound and interferential treatment was the way to go. However, there was one small problem to this. He insisted that I did not remove any of my clothing. This resulted in him administering ultra sound treatment with his hand up my tight trouser leg, and the way in which he placed the interferential pads on the top and bottom of my hamstrings with the attached wires was a feat of manual dexterity and electrical engineering. The ironic thing was that he was partially sighted, the athletes who may potentially wander in would be either blind or partially sighted, and it was so cold that a fully sighted person would have struggled to see anything of any interest anyway. Although this kind of treatment was a bit of a farce, it did work as I made it through all my races without a problem.

As I usually struggled to sleep at championships I took to having a half of the black stuff each evening, and it seemed to help. I think the 10 or 11 pints CS had every night must have helped him to sleep as well if the length of time it took me to wake him in the morning was anything to go by.

The first event of the championship was the opening ceremony. According to those of my team mates who attended the opening ceremony in Barcelona it was almost an exact replica of that extravaganza, although I don’t remember them mentioning being knee deep in mud, soaking wet and with only two men and a dog watching them at the time. One thing that was better than Barcelona was the announcer. It is difficult to describe him, but if you can imagine an Irish cross between David Coleman, in one of his less lucid states, and Alan Partridge in one of his more ludicrous phases then you’re somewhere near.

My first track event was the 100m. The weather, as it was all week, was heavy rain with spells of intermittent light showers. Warming up was a nightmare. There was no indoor area in which to stretch, so I had to resort to jogging around a muddy field, and lying down in one of the shallower areas of the field to stretch. We found a path that wasn’t too muddy to do our strides on, and by the time the race came around I had managed to get a bit of blood flowing to my legs. We all had a chance to post a time in the first round, and the fastest six went through to the final.

During the first round I became aware of the slightly bizarre judging methods that were to be employed at the championships. Not that I should have been surprised, after all these were the same judges who had measured a 3m 60 cm long jump as 6m 40 cm due to holding the wrong end of a 10m tape measure at a previous championships. One of my competitors was called to his blocks and went through his starting routine. The gun went and off he sped. Within a second the recall gun had gone followed by a call of “ah, you didn’t look like you got a very good start so you can have another go if you want”. As it turned out, the second time round he didn’t have a very good start, middle or end and ran a terrible time, so nothing was lost. It’s a good job the starter didn’t follow that policy for every athlete or we could have been there all day.

I must have got a good start, followed it up with a good middle, and ran a reasonable end as I managed to make it into the final as the fastest qualifier. It felt good, I was very excited and felt sure that I could go a lot faster in the final. After all, I had run the heat so relaxed, even managing to stick my tongue out half way down to make sure I stayed relaxed, a trick I often tried to execute for that purpose, and it had worked well. If I gave it everything in the final who knew what I could achieve.

I ate a healthy lunch and then followed my same warm up routine for the final in the afternoon. The weather was still the same, and I hoped that this would play into my hands, as at least the athletes from Southern Europe would find these conditions completely alien to them. I had run in the region of 12.1 in the heats, and although that was slow for such a championships the conditions meant that it wasn’t that bad, but I was convinced I could dip under 12 secs. All the athletes from Spain struggled, and it became clear that it was between myself and the Russian world record holder SS. He was the penultimate athlete to go, and he ran a time of 12.1 secs, so I knew it was mine for the taking. This was where I was going to fulfil my potential and bring home the gold medal that I desired so much.

As I settled on my blocks I knew that I was going to explode like never before, I just hoped that CS could keep up with me. If anything, the start was what I thought would be our Achilles heel, so I was very nervous. The gun went and we came out well. As I accelerated and started to get fully into my running I put everything in to it, and thinking back, probably too much into it. I drove my arms like never before, gritted my teeth like never before, and tried to move my legs like never before. The crowd, all 12 of whom I could name personally, were going crazy. I didn’t stick my tongue out this time, I had to put everything into driving my body forwards. As I crossed the line I felt that I had done enough, but unfortunately the clock did not agree.

I had managed to run slightly slower than in the heat, and thus I had to settle for a silver medal. Mixed emotions surged through my body. I was annoyed that I had thrown away the chance of a gold medal, but on the other hand I was pleased to have at last won my first individual medal. Initially the annoyed emotion was the strongest, which I suppose is why athletes like myself manage to find the drive to achieve as much as we do in the long run. My desire to win was so strong that second best was not good enough. It was only after several minutes that I noticed I had ripped my number down the middle, a sure sign that I had been trying too hard. If I was going to win gold medals I would have to learn to harness my drive and desire in a more controlled and productive way. Within a couple of hours the satisfied emotions started to win through: after all, I had beaten everybody apart from the world record holder, which was nothing to be ashamed about.

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1993 Part II: A change of guides

With such an unsatisfactory work life, I was pleased to have my running to rely on for motivation and a sense of purpose in life. After Barcelona, JW told me that he didn’t feel that he was able to commit any more time to Team Curtis as his own sport was suffering. CS, another training partner and friend for many years, agreed to step into the breach. CS was a very good 400m hurdler, and only just slower than JW over the flat 400m, so he had absolutely no difficulty keeping up with me. The only problem was that CS had a very long stride length, even longer than JW’s which was long enough, and mine was still very short. This meant that CS had to seriously cut his stride length, which had the effect of making him feel like he had run 500m when in fact we had only run 400m, and made him feel like he was River dancing rather than track running. CS also struggled to keep up with me out of the blocks, but with lots of hard work we managed to come up with a method of lessening the damage that this might do to our overall performance – basically I took it easy on him for the first 10m or so.

I had taken my multi gym with me to Grandma M’s house, so twice a week, after my post-work coffee and daily dose of Neighbours, I would work on my strength and power in the garage for an hour and a half. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I would go to the track in Hull and do a track session with CS. I took up my Uncle A, a Leeds resident, on his broad offer of whatever help I needed and he drove me to Hull. He was a lovely man who would do anything for you, never got cross and was always cheerful. This was such a kind offer and very gratefully appreciated that it seems disrespectful to flag up the shortcomings in this arrangement, but looking back it was very funny. In theory my sessions were to start at 7:00 pm, and Uncle A was well aware of this fact. Therefore it seems fair to question why he insisted on picking me up from my grandma’s in Leeds at 6:40 pm. It would also seem to be fair as a follow up question to ask why he then insisted on driving on the motorway at no more than 55 mph. The choice of radio station wasn’t to my particular liking either, radio four or three, but as this didn’t affect my athletic performance I didn’t really have an issue with it. As a result of this, we would usually turn up at the track in Hull at 8:00 pm at the earliest, where we would be greeted by a politely smiling CS.

At first we tried to combine both our training sessions. CS would guide me, drop me off on the way, and then continue to his designated finishing point. In theory this should have worked. Dropping me off at 200m in a time of 26 or 27 secs or so was about the correct sort of target time when he was doing a 400m run. But this didn’t take into account the fact that he had to change his stride length half way round, which caused him great difficulties. I would always manage to find my way back to the starting line, even without my stick as I knew the track like the back of my hand, where more often than not I would find CS laid flat on his back, or on all fours reacquainting himself with his lunch.

In the end we decided to go for a split session, which also seemed to tie in nicely with Uncle A’s laid back approach to time keeping. We would turn up at 8:00 pm, I would stretch for a bit, and then wander onto the track just as CS was either finishing his last run, or finishing being sick. By the time I finished my sessions it was usually approaching 10:00 pm, and thus I often didn’t get back to Gran’s until 11:30 pm. No matter at what time I returned home, I would be greeted by a cooked tea and glass of milk. After a warm bath I would collapse into my bed well after midnight, usually wrapped up in pyjamas, lumberjack shirt, dressing gown and woolly socks as my bedroom, devoid of central heating, was like an ice box in winter.

Living with my Grandma M meant that I had moved a lot of my stuff across with me, and so I started to think about taking out contents insurance. My Grandma M obtained a good deal with Help the Aged or Saga or some other such organisation, and so we applied for more cover from them. I had taken my two silver medals with me from Barcelona as I didn’t like to be parted from them. As they were rather strange valuables the insurance company insisted that I got them valued so as to ensure I had the correct level of cover. Gran took one of them down to a reputable high street jewellers in the city centre for them to value them. They said they would be able to insure them but their head office would need to see them for a valuation to be obtained. Rather than send both, they decided just to send one, thank goodness …

Several weeks passed and we still hadn’t had the call to tell us that my medal was ready for collection. The reason for this was simple, it wasn’t ready for collection. In fact, it wasn’t ready for anything as it had gone missing in the post. “how can a registered delivery go missing” I asked. The answer was simple: they hadn’t bothered to send it recorded delivery, just through the normal first, or more probably second, class post. My initial response was to feel like my stomach had been ripped out, I had worked so hard for that medal and now I’d never hold it again. Anger turned to despair, followed after a while by a need for compensation. After all, I’d seen the adverts and where there’s blame there’s a claim. I thought this could be a tasty little earner indeed, after all, such medals are unique and irreplaceable.

I told this story to my colleagues at the bank and I was soon put in touch with the bank’s lawyers, a local firm by the name of Booth and Co. I spoke to a lawyer in the litigation department who I was told would be able to help me. I was extremely disappointed to learn that the law does not take account of value in its subjective sense, but merely in its objective sense. In other words, the law would ask how much would it cost to make a replacement medal. It soon became clear that the jewellers were also aware of this advice, and were quick to tell me that they estimated that it would cost around £600 to make a mould from my other silver medal, and then create a replacement using the same quality silver. No mention was made of where they would get the same kind of ribbon from. If I wanted a medal this was the only way to do it, as enquiries had revealed that the International Paralympic Committee did not keep extra medals and were not in the business of replacing lost medals, even at a cost.

The jewellers ended up offering me £1,000 to settle the matter. On the basis of the advice I had received I decided that this was the best I would do. I then had three choices. Firstly, I could use the money to have another medal cast. Secondly, I could spend the money on wine, women and song. Thirdly, I could just waste it. Having a replica medal made did not excite me: it would not be the medal that was handed to me whilst I stood on the podium with my mates having a great time: it would not be the medal that I slept with around my neck that night and for weeks afterwards: it would not be the medal that I had looked forward to showing off to my kids in the future. So, instead, a Fiat Panda was purchased! Several of my friends thought that I had been very lucky and stated that they would gladly swap their medal for a grand, but interestingly none of them have tried to sell any of their medals.

One of those who had bemoaned my luck was MW who lived with his wife in nearby Bingley. He had kept asking me to come over and stay, so I accepted his offer and got Uncle A to give me a lift from work to the train station. The train journey took 26 minutes, and I had found out how many stops there were before I had to get off at Bingley. I counted the correct number of stops and got off the train and waited for MW to greet me. However, MW did not greet me, and after a couple of minutes I started to wonder if I was out of MW’s range with his poor sight. I had my stick with me, but as I was on an unknown train station I didn’t really know which way to go. I stood for a while and listened. There was no sound which gave me a clue as to which way I should go. I knew where the track was, but I didn’t know which way the exit was. I called out MW’s name, but there was no answer, either from him or anyone else. At least if the station was deserted there was no chance of me making a fool of myself. I started to feel around and found the wall away from the track. I decided that as I had been sat at the rear of the train I should go in the direction of where the front of the train had been.

I started to move off in that direction, doing the widest longest sweeps of my stick as was physically possible in order to remove any possibility that I might end up on the track. My progress was painstakingly slow, but eventually I sensed by echo location that I was approaching the foot bridge which passed over the track, so I must be near the exit. However, I had a feel around but couldn’t find the exit.

I decided to wait and see if MW turned up when the next train arrived. He must have got the time wrong. The next train came, but MW didn’t. I was starting to get cold. I thought of asking someone for help, but this wasn’t as easy as it sounds. I hate train stations as the trains are so loud that it is impossible to hear what people are saying, and footfall is difficult to make out, and by the time I had realised someone was walking past me they had already gone. I decided that when the next train came in I would follow any footsteps which I could make out, and after half an hour waiting I put my plan into action. Luckily I managed to make out the noise of a pair of high heels exiting the station, and although I soon lost the trail I had managed to follow them for long enough to find the steps off the platform. When I reached the top of the steps I took a gamble and went left. After a short walk I heard the open air of the street. I stood, waited, and contemplated my next move.

After several minutes I heard footsteps and before I could ask for assistance the person asked me if I needed any help. I told the person that I was supposed to be met by a friend but he had failed to turn up and I didn’t know the area at all. He took me over the road to a phone box and I tried to ring MW, but there was no answer. As I tried to decide whether to cut my losses and try to arrange my return journey the passer-by asked me who was supposed to be meeting me. I told him it was a partially sighted friend of mine who lived locally. He asked me if his name was M, and I said that it was. He asked me if he lived on FD, and I said that he did indeed live there. He said he knew him and would take me there if I wanted. After making a split second decision to take him up on his offer, he led me to his car which was parked in the station car park.

As I sat down in his car and put my seat belt on I immediately started to panic and feel vulnerable. All I could think was that my mum would kill me for getting in a strangers car, he could be a murderer or anything. I clenched my stick in my hands, and my buttocks as well. The main thought running around my head was “just try it on mate and you’ll be pummelled to death”.

Luckily this passer-by was a good Samaritan and he took me to MW’s house. He knocked on the door and MW opened it. After exchanging greetings he asked MW if he was supposed to be meeting anyone at the station, “not until tomorrow night” was his answer.

Several minutes of expletives later I was sat in MW’s lounge swilling vodka and lemonade to calm my frazzled nerves, and after several, the whole experience somehow seemed to have been a lot less harrowing than it felt at the time – funny that!