1994: Bronzed in Berlin – Part II

The Brazilians failed to win a medal that day, and thus I did manage to get some sleep that night, four hours or so.  I woke with great expectations safe in the knowledge that I had slept more than the previous night which had been followed by a personal best.  Warm up was easier as there were only six of us, so a massive backlog was not going to be an issue again.  The first two runners went, nothing to worry about there.  The third runner was DC, an Australian who had won the bronze medals in the 200m and 400m at Barcelona.  Despite his credentials, I was still surprised when he improved on his heat time of over 12 secs to run 11.89 secs, but I knew that I could beat that, and I was going to.  The fourth runner went, and his time was again over 12 seconds, so nothing to worry about there.  And then it was my turn.

Blocks were put down, we tested them, and then stripped off.  This was going to be my day.  All I had to do was find a little bit more speed and hope the Russian didn’t do likewise and I’d have it.  We didn’t do that much wrong in the race, a well guided run, but there wasn’t very much in my legs.  Whether I was trying that little bit too hard, or whether I was trying to relax so much that I over did it I don’t know.  Whilst it is impossible to determine the effect the previous night’s lack of sleep had on me, it couldn’t have helped.  My time of 11.94 secs was very disappointing, but at least it was a medal, and as it was my first individual medal at world level I had to be pleased.  For completeness, SS again ran 11.73 secs to take the gold medal.  The Ozzie, presumably so upset with his pathetic silver medal, and the other pathetic non gold medals he won in the 200m and 400m, was never seen, heard or smelled of at a championship again.

Our celebrations were a bit muted, and definitely not as wild as the Brazilians.  The flowers I was presented with on the podium were given to I for all her hard work in the physio tent, and I sank a couple of beers; one to celebrate, one to help me sleep.  It was hard to know if CD celebrated or not, as many beers were sunk and he spent the evening with his lady friend as per his standard non-celebratory behaviour.  One thing was for sure, and that was that I felt like I could tear up the track in the 200m as my training had been going so well and my 100m performance showed that I was in tip top shape for the 200m.

We had a couple of days off before the next race we were to compete in, which was the 4 x 100m relay.  By that time I had started to get some sleep.  It wasn’t that it was getting any cooler or less uncomfortable, but I must have been getting used to it.  CD and I were to run the second leg.  The other members of the team were the infamous RL, BR and CJ.  The heats were little more than a formality, but we soon realised that we were going to have to find a little extra for the final.  A bit more practice was called for.

On the day of the final we turned up to the track early to stretch our changeovers to the maximum so as to save us as much time as was possible.  At that time, the rules required the incoming athlete and the outgoing athlete to be in the 10m changeover box at the same time, but the athletes didn’t need to hand over a baton, or even to touch.  The perfect changeover therefore consisted of the outgoing athlete’s foot leaving the changeover box immediately after the incoming athlete’s foot entered the changeover box.  The first changeover we were to practice was the first one, with me being the out-going athlete.  From what follows, you’ll understand why I’m not naming the first-leg runner.  Whilst I shouldn’t have reacted as I did, given that I had two practice two changeovers, as opposed to the single changeover that he had to practice, if anyone had a right to be a bit tetchy, it was me, or so I thought!

CD and I measured out our check marker and took up our position in the relay changeover box.  The first-leg runner retreated around the bend and set off at full pace towards the changeover box.  This was never meant to be our only practice, it was the first of several.  The first run usually gave us an idea of where our marker should be, and only rarely did we leave it where it had been for the first run.  If we did think the marker should be left at the same point, we would try it again to make sure it was right.  If it wasn’t right on the first run, we would play around with it until we got it spot on; that was always the way relay practice worked.

My teammate charged around the bend.  CD looked back as I waited for his command.  When the flying Brit was 10m away from the mark, CD turned to face forwards and said “ok”, which was the signal for our arms to swing back and await the incoming call.  As our lead-off man sped through the mark, a large cross made with white physio tape in the middle of the lane, he called out my name.  CD and I set off at full blast, but  it immediately became obvious that CD had lined me up facing slightly the wrong direction, resulting  in a shoulder charge which nearly knocked CD off his feet; our arms became tangled and we were at risk of serious injury, one way or another.  I must admit I was slightly miffed with CD lining me up wrongly, and probably more so due to generally being unhappy with his night time activities, but I was prepared to grin and bear it.  However, my teammate’s reaction soon made me lose my cool.

“For fuck’s sake!  What are you pissing about at!  I’m not knackering myself out just because you’re fucking it up!”

It was like a red rag to a bull.  He only had a couple of runs to do, I had four to do.  All he had to do was get himself around the track on his own, I had to set off from a standing start with a guide runner who was probably still pissed, certainly not sober enough to drive anyway.  As he came back bitching like there was no tomorrow I didn’t have to ask to be guided towards him.  I stormed towards him, grabbed him by his vest and lifted him up onto his tiptoes and explained my feelings to him on this and several other points in no uncertain terms, and explained what the consequences would be if he continued to abuse me in that way.  After venting my spleen for a handful of seconds I was dragged of by a couple of my teammates and coaches who couldn’t believe their eyes and/or ears.

Eventually he went back to his mark, now (probably correctly wining and squealing about my thuggish behaviour).  He did his runs, and just to make sure I made him do a few more runs than I had wanted to do myself, but I was going to make a point.  The rest of the changeovers went well, and we went into the stadium for the call up procedure; perhaps unsurprisingly, the two of us kept our distance!

When the race got underway the adrenalin was obviously still pumping around my colleague, as he ran an absolute stormer!  Our practice had paid dividends as we nailed our changeover and I set off down the back straight fuelled by 100% adrenalin and aggression.  I felt really strong and really quick.  There was none of the lethargy that I had felt in the 100m final.  I knew that my country’s medal chances were in my hands.  The other three lads were all reasonably quick, but I was the fastest by some way (which in itself was unusual as I was the most disabled) and I was the only one in the team who had ever medalled in individual sprints.  If I didn’t do it, we wouldn’t win a medal of any colour.  As I approached the last 30m of my run I knew that I had run to my best, perhaps even faster than I had ever run before.  Rather than tiring in the final 30m as was usual the power just kept on flowing.  My arms kept pumping, my legs kept driving, and the GB medal prospects kept rising.  If I had to point to a time and a place when I was at my fastest, I’d struggle to recall a date when I felt better over the 100m.   However, the continuing theme throughout my athletics career was that when things started to go really well a spanner was usually not too far away from the spokes.

It was probably this extra speed at a continuing intensity combined with the scorching temperatures, and CD’s lack of condition through alcohol and sex fuelled evenings which finally caught up with him.  As I approached the changeover box CD suddenly cried out.  At first I thought he was shouting to our third-leg runner to tell him to set off, or maybe he was just excited and enjoying the ride as much as I was.  But neither of these were true.  CD had suffered a tear of his hamstring and, rather ironically, his groin.  He did still manage to make it into the changeover zone – to be honest, I’d have dragged his lifeless corpse into the changeover zone if necessary – and amidst his screams he shouted at our colleague to set off, but his championships, and with it my chances of medals in the 200m and 400m, were well and truly over.

The out-going athlete must have ran a good leg as RL took over with a definite chance of a silver medal.  I cannot remember if CD put his pain aside to commentate for me, or whether I forced him to commentate to me, but he managed to describe to me the scene as RL started to be reeled in by his pursuers.  As the line approached, RL’s body started to give up on him.  Again, it was probably a combination of a lack of preparation for sprinting and the weather which was his downfall, and down he went, base over apex, hitting the track with an almighty thud.  However, as the best athletes always seem to do, he must have known exactly where the line was as he landed on the other side of it.  As my Grandma L used to say, it’s better to be born lucky than rich.  Although he had been overtaken by one of the chasing duo he had managed to hold one of them off, and another bronze medal was mine.

The post-race scenes were strange and strained.  I was full of despair as CD’s injury meant that my championships were surely over despite me being in probably the best form of my career.  We must have looked a peculiar sight walking off the track, me physically supporting CD whilst he tried to guide me off the track.  Our first-leg runner still wasn’t talking to me, and our third-leg runner was ecstatic to have won his first ever medal.  Meanwhile RL was being stretchered off the track at the end of the home straight.  I was just glad we hadn’t won the gold medal as it would have been a very anti-climactic lap of honour!

After the walking wounded had collected their medals, and the two combatants started to withdraw hostilities, the physios got to work on RL and CD.  RL’s hamstring tear was a bad one, and he spent the rest of the championships with little or no mobility, so the celebrations and libations had to be brought to him.  CD was also badly injured, and there was no way he would be able to guide me again.  CD was very very upset when the consequences of his injury finally dawned upon him.  He sat on the edge of his bed and burst into tears with the realisation that I was in the best shape of my life and now I wouldn’t get the chance to compete in the 200m, the 400m or the 4 x 400m relay.  I sat next to him, put my arm around him, and told him not to worry, after all, he had saved me from 4 rounds of the 200m, three rounds of the 400m, and two rounds of the 4 x 400m relay, so he’d done me a favour really.  But he knew that I didn’t really mean it, if truth be told I was fuming with him, but maybe not in the way that he would have thought I would be fuming with him.  I wasn’t fuming because he had injured himself, as after all, we all get injured from time to time.  The fact was that I was fuming because if he had thought then he would have known that this was the inevitable outcome of his behaviour.  There is just no way that you can treat a major championships like a week on the lash with the lads and expect to compete in 44 degrees centigrade with little or no sleep and do it to the best of your abilities.  If he hadn’t suffered a major injury he was highly likely to have let me down in some other way; a slow start here, a missed call there, a misjudgement in a heat, or just cramp.  In the long run it doesn’t really matter to me now, and now when I think of CD I do so very fondly and with a great deal of gratitude for the job that he did.  He was only 17, he had a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, and I could have handled it differently.  However, if I was in the same situation I would still have been left with the same dilemma.  I could have told him his behaviour was not on, which would probably have led to him curbing his behaviour a bit, but he would probably then not have guided me again in the future.  A stronger management would not have gone amiss, but this was pre professionalism.  The balance of power was most definitely with the guides: I needed them much more than they needed me.  At the forefront of my mind from my first run as a blind athlete to my last I was always afraid that my guide would quit and leave me up a certain tributary without a certain implement.

For the next couple of days my mind turned towards socialising as there seemed no chance that I would compete again.  Team meetings were always good fun, but the usual jokes were supplemented by regular intrusions by one of the GB athletes with a learning disability; let’s call him X.  It wasn’t that we made fun of X, it was just the things he came out with were so off the wall that it was difficult not to be amused.  At no time did I feel that he was being abused by anyone in the team, and we all liked him very much.  One particular incident was when X came along to our team meeting to ask one of the guides if he could borrow his Walkman.  G, TH’s guide runner, asked him if he would be safe with it as it was an expensive one.  X said that he was.  G made sure that he knew that he would be very cross if he didn’t look after it, and X said that he was ok with that.  Five minutes later X returned to the team meeting with the Walkman in pieces saying “why did you lend me this Walkman man, its rubbish and doesn’t work.”  No matter what any of us said X swore that he hadn’t touched it and that G must have given it to him like that.

Meal times were also fun.  Being in no rush to go anywhere if you weren’t competing, they often turned into long chats over coffee and much hilarity.  One such occasion was when one of our new athletes, SC, asked us about the drug testing procedure.  This was his first championship, and it was clear that he was exceptionally nervous about drug testing.

“What happens when you are asked to do a drug test?”

NT was the first to answer.  “You get asked to go into a room, you’re given a bottle and asked to pee in it, quite simple really”.

“What if you can’t go” asked SC.

RL saw his opportunity.  “You have to shit in an ice cream tub”.

JW chimed in.  “They can even get you to do that if your pee is a bit cloudy as well”.

“What if you can’t do that either” asked a shocked SC.

The goal was open, the keeper was out of the area and all I had to do was to smack it into the back of the net.  “Well S, you know those knickerbocker-glory spoons…..”

“Bloody hell” exclaimed an astounded SC.  “There’s no way I’m going to win a medal now”, and you know what, he was spot on.

Pretty soon the management realised that they needed me to compete in the 4 x 400m relay as I was the only fit B1 athlete, thanks to RM being injured.  Without me, due to the requirement to have at least one B1 athlete in the team, they would not have a team at all.  Every stone was overturned in search of a guide runner.  The first guide they suggested was probably the fastest 100m runner in the GB squad, let’s call him Y.  However, there was one major drawback with this plan; Y was competing himself in the championships in the 100m in the learning disabled category.  There wasn’t even a chance of me letting him guide me to breakfast, never mind down an athletics track at 20m an hour plus.  He and his fellow learning disabled athletes of that era simply didn’t understand what being blind meant, and I felt sure that he would not be able to undertake what was after all a highly skilled activity.

As a post-script, as I was told by numerous teammates, at a later Paralympics, Y spent a lot of time laid under a caravan pretending to be a cheetah …..

The management didn’t see it my way and continued to try and get me to have a go with him, despite my forthright expressions of fear.  This attitude was all the more disheartening as it was coming from management who themselves were visually impaired.  The attitude seemed basically to be that anyone can guide, it’s a piece of cake.  But this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Eventually they realised that I wouldn’t put my health and safety at risk for their entertainment, and so the backup plan was put into action.

The second victim was RM’s guide called G.  G was a really nice bloke, but he guided RM in the 5,000m and 10,000m and was not known for his sprinting abilities.  I knew that it was a nonstarter but the management thought they knew best.  Therefore, I had to prove to them that I was correct.  G met me at the warm up track and after we went through a full warm up we attempted to do a 400m at my pace.  After about 20m it was obvious that G simply had no speed at all.  I ran very slowly for 200m with him attached to me, and although he could have run it faster on his own he simply couldn’t do it with me attached to him.  This again proved that just by holding a guide rope and having to run at someone else’s stride length made you run slower.  G dropped the rope, totally exhausted at trying to sprint with me for 200m only.  He admitted that there was no chance that he would be able to guide me in a race.

This left us with only one option.  The call went out to the organising committee for a stand in guide runner.  Each organising committee had to provide a squad of guides for those athletes from the less developed countries who turned up without a guide.  The athlete I was introduced to was called Mario, Super Mario to me and my teammates.  He was about 5 feet 8 tall, but built like a brick outhouse.  His English was very good, but his overly excited continental enthusiasm at being given the chance of a lifetime to run with an athlete of my calibre was, to say the least, slightly unnerving.  If I had to pick an actor to play him in the story of my life, I would have no hesitation in casting Sacha Baron Cohen!  Nevertheless, he was my only chance to compete in the 4 x 400m relay.  I hadn’t bothered to look for a spare guide runner for the 200m or the 400m as I knew that it was pointless.  In events where performance is measured in hundredths of seconds, and where the difference between first and nowhere is usually less than 0.2 secs, it would need a miracle for even an experienced guide runner to enable me to run to my full potential.  However, the relay was a different matter.  A 400m of 56 or 57 seconds by a B1 athlete wouldn’t be good enough to get through the first round heats of the individual event, but it just might be good enough to allow my teammates to challenge for medals in the relay.  In short, it was worth a try.

Super Mario and I, along with some of the coaches and management, went down to the warm-up track at the Olympic Stadium and, after a prolonged warm-up, we gave it a go.  After a couple of runs during which Mario became accustomed to my stride length and running action, we turned up the speed and the length of the runs.  By the end of the session, I was able to run at about 95% full speed without losing synchronisation, and we had even safely navigated our way around a full bend, coping well with both the entry to and exit from the curve.  Flat out speed still resulted in a loss of synchronisation, but setting off at 95% in a 400m was perfectly acceptable.  More than that, it was so leisurely that it was enjoyable.

In fact, it all went so well that we agreed to take part in a 100m demonstration race.  The movers and shakers in blind athletics had been ramping up the pressure on the powers that be to take a quantum leap into the modern era and dispense with 100m runners having to race one at a time.  I was asked to take part in this race to show that blind athletes could do the 100m as a normal race, as was the case with the 200m and the 400m.  It was obvious to me and to those who supported the proposition, that if we could run the 200m and 400m as a normal race with bends to negotiate, then why not the straight 100m?

Mario and I practiced a couple of block starts, and everything seemed fine, as long as I didn’t really go for it we seemed to keep synchronisation perfectly well.  The athletes we were to compete against were a couple of Yanks and one of the lesser-known Spaniards.  We ran this race about an hour before the relay, so it was good race practice for us as a pair and good call-up practice for Mario who had no experience of such procedures.

Being a demonstration race, Mario was given a bit more time than usual to set up the blocks, which was useful as he hadn’t done that before either.  Our starts in our warm-up paid dividends, as Mario and I got a good steady start, both reacting in perfect unison at the sound of the gun.  After a steady relaxed acceleration phase, all I did was to stride out steadily, nice and relaxed all the way, just concentrating on keeping synchronised with Mario.  We crossed the line well clear in a shade over 12.0 secs.  All in all, it was a thoroughly satisfying experience.  It meant that we should hopefully have no problems in the 400m relay, and it reinforced my view that I was in brilliant shape, as the time was less than 0.1 secs slower than I had run in the 100m final, and I had hardly broken sweat.

However, as a marketing exercise, the demonstration race fell flat on its face.  One of the American athletes had let go of the guide rope and, rather than pull up as one would have expected, he continued to run, darting erratically from lane to lane, causing havoc to those who were trailing in my wake.  Another of the Yanks had pulled a hamstring amidst the chaos, and the fourth runner was completely out of his depth and thus finished a long way behind me.  All in all, the finish resembled a long distance race rather than the hoped for spectacle of four athletes and guides crossing the line within milliseconds of each other. But at least I looked good and Super Mario took his overly excited nature to a whole new level!

Our confidence buoyed by our victory, Mario and I reported to the rest of our 4x400m team in the call up area, enthused about our collective chances of winning a medal.  Mario and I were to do the first leg as it would be easier for me to do the full lap completely in lanes like a normal race, thus avoiding any need for sudden lane changes to overtake slower athletes.  As we entered the arena, the intensity of the sun seemed to have reached a new level.  Those in the team with the best sight noticed that the electronic scoreboard showed the temperature of 44 degrees centigrade, a temperature that would seem to become the norm at many later championships.  However, after removing my knee length shorts, removing my soddened t-shirt and my hat, it soon became clear that the starting officials had some sort of technical hitch.  15 minutes later and we were still stood behind our blocks, absorbing the energy sapping power of the sun, with no breeze at all and my water bottle had been taken away by the officials.

Eventually we were called to our marks and we settled down awaiting the gun.  It went, and so did we.  I tried to relax as I had done in the 100m demonstration race and it seemed to be working really well.  We turned the bend with good rhythm and strode out down the back straight.  As we approached the second bend Mario gave me the correct call and I started to turn.  Although Mario got the call right, he forgot to lengthen his stride to cope with running the extra distance around the bend, and within two strides we had totally lost synchronisation.  Pretty soon we were 180 degrees out of sync.  This meant that as Mario’s left arm came forward so did my right arm, well it would do, what with being tied to his left arm.  The problem was that at the very same time that my right arm was going forwards, so was my left arm, such movement being the natural corollary of my right leg going forward.  For all intents and purposes, I was cross-country skiing with my arms, whilst my legs were trying to run.   This had happened to me quite a number of times in training, but never in a race.

There were two possible methods of coping with this cross-country skiing situation.  I could try to get synchronisation back by putting in a quick hop, which would have the effect of taking two steps on my right leg, which would throw me out by 180 degrees, thereby correcting the problem.  However, this was a high risk manoeuvre, being very tricky at the best of times, and after 250m of a 400m race it was courting disaster to attempt it.  The only other way of dealing with this problem was to try to lessen the effects of skiing by just holding my right arm as motionless as possible, letting Mario run off me in effect.  Being risk averse, and embarrassment averse even more so, I chose the second option.  The problems with this running action were twofold.  Firstly, it slowed me down dramatically, not surprisingly given that in effect I had foregone 25% of my forward propulsion.  Secondly, the twisting action caused by using two levers on one side and only one on the other, bracing my right arm against its natural tendencies, coupled with the build-up of 400m induced lactic acid in a breathless cauldron was almost unbearable.  However, pride and a burning desire for more glory and gold, silver or bronze ware, drove me on.  I refused to let this slight hindrance stop me from finishing in as fast a time as my twisted frame would allow me.

By hook or by crook, we entered the changeover box, not as quickly as we might have hoped for, but at least we had safely passed the virtual baton on to our second leg runner.  As the overwhelming and unstoppable urge to be sick consumed by aching limbs, I knew the chance of a gold medal had completely evaporated in the preceding 60 seconds, but there was always the chance that the boys could pull something out of the bag, and pull something out they did.  Three storming runs by my comrades in arms and a third bronze medal was mine.  I felt a tang of guilt that I didn’t even attempt a lap of honour, if only for Mario’s sake as he was so excited, but the medal ceremony more than made up for Mario’s disappointment.  He absolutely revelled in it.  Never had there been a prouder honorary Brit than Mario on that day.

All that was left was the last night celebrations.  Several of us volunteered to go to the local supermarket for cheap beer.  On the way we found a discarded shopping trolley and ended up bringing it back completely full of beer.  We took the lift to the 15th floor and wheeled the trolley to the team manager’s room and started the party.  After a couple of hours we took the party down to the open air disco.  It had been a successful championships for most of us and we all stayed up all night, drinking with athletes of all nations, after all, there would be no chance of sleep, what with the Brazilians having won another medal on the final day.  Whilst our celebrations were not as exuberant as the Brazilians, we did make a serious dent in the German stores of beer and a great time was had by all.  Even my warm-up track combatant colleague and I properly made up after our handbags at 12 paces incident!

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