1993 Part IV: why didn’t he keep his mouth shut!

Celebrations after the 100m had to be put on hold for at least a couple of days as I still had loads more races to get through, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to throw away my chances of more medals just for a quick hit of alcohol.

The 200m was going to involve the same athletes as had competed in the 100m, plus a couple of 400m guys who had dropped back in distance to the 200m as well.  As a general rule, because the 200m was made up of both 100m and 400m runners it was always more competitive, so it was going to be tough.  I cruised through the heats in about 25.1 secs.  Although this time was nothing out of the ordinary it was the way that I did it that started people talking.  I blasted around the bend in lane 7, and after easing off a bit for 20m down the straight I basically jogged for the last 60m or so, chatting with CS about how far clear I was.  My team mates were buzzing with how easy it looked, and predictions were being made about how low they thought I could and would go in the next round and the final.  The main inquisitor was RL, and knowing what I know now he was probably trying to get inside information in order to win himself some money by betting on me.

I had been drawn in lane 1 for the semi-final, and the heat looked like a good one for me.  If I had run a bit faster in the heats I would have got a better lane draw, but that’s always the problem: a balance must be struck between conserving energy and securing a good lane draw.  Warm up had gone as well as could be expected; I was soaked to the skin, but I had managed to get my muscles warm so I couldn’t really complain.  CS set up my blocks and we tried them out to make sure they were in the correct position.  We didn’t do a practice start, but I was happy with my settings.  The starter called us to our marks, and we settled down on our blocks.  The gun went, and CS and I flew out of our blocks in perfect unison, but unfortunately we did not fly out in the same direction.  CS took the correct direction, just running on the outside of the line between lane 1 and lane 2, whilst I tried to take a short cut across the infield.  The feel of grass under my feet provoked a rather rude enquiry as to just what exactly was going on, and CS to nearly suffer a dislocated shoulder.  My initial reaction had been to slow down just in case I was going to crash into someone or something, but my competitive instinct kicked in almost immediately and I jumped back onto the track.  As I attempted to accelerate back up to speed and catch up with the quickly disappearing competitors CS had to crudely barge me to keep me in my lane as by this time I had lost all sense of direction.  After 30m or so I had regained my directional sense and was starting to get up to full speed.  Adrenalin must have been blasting through my veins as I flew down the home straight, for once hardly tiring at all.  I had picked off one of my fellow competitors, but I hadn’t managed to make it into the single automatic qualifying place for the final.  It would all depend on my time.    24.85 secs was at that time my fastest ever 200m as a blind athlete, but as it was the fifth fastest time overall I would not be running in the final.  I had missed out by just 0.01 secs.  If I had managed to scrape through to the final, and if I had managed to take the correct route, I’m sure I would have won a medal, but it was quite clearly not meant to be at that time.  I would have to wait for another day until I would win a 200m medal and do myself justice in the process.

At least not qualifying for the final gave me a bit of a rest, and I was extremely grateful for that small mercy as the next event looming large on the horizon was the 400m.  I had prepared reasonably well for the event, although nothing like how prepared I would be in later life, but it was a daunting prospect due to the horrors of the timetable.  The programme had set the heats for the morning, with a semi-final straight after lunch, and the final only an hour or two later.  I wasn’t really that bothered about how close the final was to the semi as there was little or no chance of me getting through, as a flat out heat would mean that 3 hours recovery would probably not be enough for me to perform to my optimum in the semi.  Nevertheless, I was willing to give it a go.  Yorkshire men are not renowned as giving up easily, and I wasn’t about to break tradition.

On the day of the 400m the weather changed.  Driving winds were added to the steady downpour to make pace judgment vital.  I found it very difficult to judge the pace correctly, as the howling wind blew directly into our faces down the back straight, which meant that by half way round the final bend in my heart I was completely knackered.  I struggled down the home straight with the wind pushing me onwards to scramble over the finishing line in a time of 56.5 secs.

I was disappointed with the time, but I drew consolation from the fact that I had given my all, as could be judged by the fact that I laid flat out on the track for a good five minutes before I could scramble to the side for my usual 40 minutes of trying my hardest not to vomit.  The only thing that can possibly make feeling that ill any worse is being told that you have to do it all again in just a couple of hours’ time, and that is what happened as I had just scraped into the semi-finals as the second slowest qualifier.

Once I was able to stand up, I staggered to the dining hall where I sat and pushed some rice around my plate, knowing that whatever I did manage to swallow would surely re visit me shortly.  Of all the things that I miss about athletics two things clearly stand out that I do not miss even slightly:  warming up, especially stretching, and trying to eat a meal prior to running a 400m.  You know that you need the energy, but it’s just so difficult to force anything down due to feeling so sick.  As usual, myself and CS analysed my chances of getting through to the final.  I thought I had absolutely no chance, but CS, as all good guide runners do, spent the meal time trying to convince me that I was in with a chance of winning the event, never mind just getting through to the final.  This kind of attitude of my guides always rubbed me up the wrong way.  Why couldn’t they just let me wallow in self-pity, and why did they always have to be so enthusiastic?  All I wanted to do was go back to bed with a couple of pain killers for my aching back and legs.

Having managed to swallow a couple of grains of rice, a drink or two and some bread, we wandered off back to the muddy field to warm up for the next round of torture.  I say warm up, but basically it was just a matter of trying to get used to the pain from my hamstrings.  It was always the case by this stage of a championships, hamstrings so tight that touching toes was possible but it hurt like never before, so it was avoided at all costs.  I had convinced myself that I only had this one 400m left to go on the day as I was only faster than one of the other qualifiers for the semi’s, and thus 6 others were faster than me.

Whatever my motivation or thought processes which led me to concentrate on such negative facts it always had the effect of relaxing me.  Despite weeks and months of training where my focus was always on giving every last bit of effort to help me secure my dreams of gold medals when it came to the races themselves I always reverted to the same thought processes:  it didn’t really matter, who cares if I don’t win, I’ve always got next year and the year after that.  I don’t think that at that stage in my career I would ever have been positive about my chances unless I had the best time by a mile, enough to cope with a bad run or a massive improvement from my competitors.  Even though this mental approach would not have been recommended by any professional psychologist, the fact was that I always performed at or near to my best at championships, which to me meant that I wasn’t doing too much wrong.  What I could have achieved with a positive attitude prior to stripping off my track suit who knows.  But one thing was for sure: as soon as my track suit came off and I got ready to start the race the vast majority of my negative thoughts left my mind and I became the ultra-competitive running machine.  Maybe it was this balance between being very negative whilst warming up and then suddenly switching to ultra-positive which protected me from burning up too much energy before it was necessary but still allowed me to perform when push came to shove.

It was still very windy and wet when we were called on to our marks for the semi-final.  We set off as one, as was now becoming the norm, and as we ran I could hear the footfall of my competitors around me and knew that we were not doing too badly.  However, by the time we reached half distance I was beginning to struggle.  No matter how much I was hoping that I would not make it through to the final so that I could get out of this painful activity the competitive side of my mind wouldn’t allow such feelings to stop it from pushing me on.  I struggled and worked as hard as was possible for my aching limbs, but as my legs and arms got progressively heavier I started to slow.  The crowd, again made up purely of my brilliant team mates and supporters who braved the conditions, tried their best to cheer me on, but I had nothing left in my legs.  I could tell that at least one athlete was in front of me, and by some way I thought, and knew it was close between myself and the other guys.  As I crossed the line I knew I had not made the automatic qualifying position, and presumed that that was the end of the 400m for me this time round.  I bent over, hands on knees, and then managed to make it to the edge of the track where I laid flat out on my back, eyes tight shut, gasping for breath.  CS knew I had given my everything as usual, and was pleased but disappointed as like me he felt we hadn’t made it through to the final.  Several of my team mates eventually wandered over to commiserate with me, and found it highly amusing that my face was exactly the same colour as the running track.  I laid there, in a little puddle (not created by me!), in just my shorts and vest for 20 minutes or so, not caring what time I had run, just looking forward to a shower and a lay down on a comfortable bed.

I could hear a bit of a commotion near to the finishing line and I hoped that it wasn’t news of a competitor being disqualified, thus elevating me into one of the final positions.  There was no way on earth I would be able to do that again in less than 90 minutes time.  I heard MW dashing over to us to convey the news.  No athletes had in fact been disqualified, but it didn’t matter, as my time of 55.5 secs meant that I had qualified for the final.  When would this pleasure ever end?  I had the energy to swear, and to get up onto my hands and knees and throw up.  Then I laid back down and cursed my luck.  The slowest qualifier: someone up there really didn’t like me.  I would have to give my all again and would probably still come last and finish up with nothing for all my efforts.  Why couldn’t I just give up now?

CS was ecstatic, partly at the thought of a potential medal, and partly at the thought of putting me through it all over again.  Everybody in the team was also pleased, especially MW who knew how I reacted to running 400’s, and he found it highly amusing.  He just kept on giggling as I laid there in my puddle which was getting quite warm now, and he kept patting me on my head and shoulders, content that it was someone else who was suffering and not him.  This is the kind of camaraderie which exists between those who find 400m just beyond their bodily limits.

As the slowest qualifier for the final I was given lane 1.  This would mean that if as I predicted I finished last I wouldn’t hear any of my competitors at all, so at least I wouldn’t know just how far I had been beaten by.  Warm up was non-existent, just a couple of jogs and strides and I was as ready as I would ever be.  By that time the wind had really picked up.  It was blowing an absolute gale so after the first 50m or so the wind would hit me until we had got to 250m.  Trying to battle against the wind was futile, the only thing to do was to relax into it and save as much energy as was possible.  However, I was so tired and apprehensive about having to put my body through that pain again that I didn’t care about tactics.  I could hardly get out of a jog in my warm up, so worrying about tactics was the last thing on my mind.  If I made it to the finishing line that would be an achievement.  Everything is relative, and for me running three 400m races within 4 hours was something I had never done, and just finishing them all in reasonably good times would be something to draw upon in the future.

I vaguely recall being introduced to the crowd, all 12 or so who knew me personally anyway as it happened, and then limping to my blocks.  The gun went and CS and I ambled out of our blocks and started around the bend.  Forget setting off fast, I wanted to finish the race after all.  I couldn’t do with the embarrassment of slowing to a walk in the home straight, that would be too much to bear, especially if I was miles behind the others.  So damage limitation was most definitely the order of the day.

The wind hit us as expected half way round the bend.  It was really disorienting: not only could I see nothing but now I could only hear the wind screaming in my ears.  Occasionally I could hear CS trying to encourage me on, but at that time I didn’t care how fast he wanted me to go, I was just interested in getting around.  There was no way I was going to put any more effort in, I was going along quite nicely and that was all I cared about.  By the time we had hit the end of the back straight I had heard no other footfall apart from our own, and I quite vividly recall feeling that this was potentially going to be very embarrassing as I was surely miles behind.  Maybe I had been taking it far too steadily in an attempt to ensure I completed the course, and maybe that was why CS had been shouting at me.  I decided that I’d better put in a bit of effort, so from about 190m from the finish I tried to accelerate.  My legs responded as best as they could, but there was no immediate response, so after 20m or 30m I eased off the extra effort and just settled for relaxing through to the finish line.  Who cared how far I was beaten by, I had given my best and it just wasn’t good enough.  There would be other championships and hopefully I’d be fitter by then.  As long as I didn’t get beaten that far I truly didn’t care where I finished, or in what time.

I could tell that we were approaching the straight as the wind had started to get behind us, and I started to hear things other than myself and CS again.  The first noise that registered with me as we hit the straight was the vast amount of noise that the crowd were making.  It must be a really close exciting race up ahead I thought, and just kept on working hard but relaxing through to the line.  Milliseconds later a thought hit me: it was horrible weather, so the only people in the crowd would be the GB team, and it wasn’t like my team mates to get that excited about other countries’ athletes, which obviously meant that the other three athletes were line abreast across the track with little old me bringing up the rear.  I recall thinking that I couldn’t wait to hear a description of the race from someone as it was typically my luck to miss out on what was going on in the most exciting race of the championships.

A further millisecond later another thought hit me: perhaps, just perhaps, the crowd may be getting excited because I was in with a chance of a medal, but surely not.  I decided that my original thought was the correct one: it must be really close as they were going absolutely mental.  A second or two later CS seemed to be getting a bit excited as well.  “come on, come on” he started shouting out.  I must admit I was a bit annoyed that he was concentrating on the race up front when he should be concentrating on me, but as long as he was enjoying himself I didn’t care.  I just kept focusing on working as hard as I could without busting a gut and tried to relax through to the finishing line, and it seemed to be working quite well as I didn’t feel like I was slowing or tiring that badly.

My second thought began to re-surface: maybe he was getting excited because I was in with a chance of a medal after all, but that can’t be what’s happening, can it?  Then, one of those pivotal moments in an athletes career happened.  It will stay with me forever, and how I wish that it had never happened.  CS shouted out, at the top of his voice, and most excitedly “come on, come on, you’re going to win!”  It was like one of those cartoon moments where the character’s eyes pop out of their head with surprise.  You could quite literally have knocked me over with a feather.  Surely this couldn’t be happening, CS must be mad.  But then my ears searched the surroundings for supporting evidence, and suddenly loud shouting in foreign voices came into focus just behind me.  I could hear no noise coming from in front of me.  Bloody hell, he was right!  Within two strides I went from a laid back relaxed athlete who was not feeling particularly tired to the exact opposite.  My arms and shoulders became tight and difficult to move, and my legs became heavy and stuck to the track.  My fairly flowing stride quickly became short and quicker.  All I had to do was get to the line, but suddenly it seemed an impossible task to make it to the end of the race.  My stride shortened drastically, and in an attempt to keep my forward momentum I started to lean, desperately in need of the finishing line.  As the line refused to come to me, my lean became more pronounced and my form more erratic.  It was a close run thing, but eventually Mr Newton and his gravity won the battle and I crashed to the ground.  So much for doing everything to avoid embarrassment!

CS had bravely tried to keep me on my feet by taking my weight through the guide rope.  The effect of this made me go down left shoulder first as my right hand was held in the air.  As my weight became too much for CS to bear, my hand slipped from the rope as my back slapped onto the soddened track.  My right arm smacked with great force onto the concrete path which surrounded the inside of the track, and for a couple of seconds all I could focus on was the pain in that wrist.  I had broken that wrist when I was 13 playing rugby, so I was concerned that I might have broken it again.  Once I realised it was not broken I returned to my current predicament.  Yet again I was laid flat out on my back, in a puddle, feeling like immediate euthanasia would be a blessing.  The only thing different from usual was that this time I had adopted this position before the race had finished.  I knew this was the last race of the day, so I was blown if I was going to move in any great hurry, after all, if I did move, I would only adopt this same position a few yards further down the track, so why bother?

I heard a set of feet walk over to where I lay.  It was the Irish track referee, who was well known to our team.  He asked me if I was alright, and I replied that I thought I was.  Just as I was expecting him to ask if I didn’t mind getting up and finishing the race he said “at least you’ve won the bronze”.  CS and I couldn’t believe it, and I think I almost broke out into a smile.

CS deserved a rest and so KA, who was at the championships as one of the coaches, took me on my warm down, which basically involved slowly walking two laps on the track and discussing my performance and how I could improve.  The next time I would come across KA in a coaching sense would be in 2002.  If only I had realised in 1993 the knowledge that this man carried around with him I am sure my performances throughout the nineties would have been greatly improved.  By 2003, when he influenced how I trained, prepared and even ran my races, although I was willing to listen and do everything which he asked of me, my body was not able to give KA everything which he asked and which I tried to deliver.  This is one of the few regrets I have from my athletics career.

The medal ceremony, although very damp and miserable in one sense, was a very pleasurable experience.  I ached from head to toe, and my sprained wrist was heavily bandaged, but I didn’t care.  It was now all worth it.  The bronze medal in the hardest of events for me meant so much.  I would learn many a lesson from the experience, especially the benefits of relaxing and taking no notice of what is going on around you.  I would also learn to warn my guides not to come out with such outbursts in the future, and let them know that if I was going to win I could wait until after the finishing line to find that out.  The Guinness flowed that night, but only to reasonable levels as we still had the relays to take care of on the last day.

The last day arrived and the weather finally relented and mild and dry was the order of the day.  It didn’t really matter though as my kit was soaking wet, and my spikes had retained most of the water from the previous day as well.  Whilst we had both the relays to compete in, others in our team also had finals to deal with.  The marathon lads were out in force.  Due to the predicted scorching temperatures of 15 degrees centigrade the marathon was to be run at the ridiculously early hour of 9:00 am.  Two of our apartment mates were competing in the race, so they had to rise at 4:30 am in order to get their pre-race meals down and digested by race time.  They were up and off down to the track before I had even started my daily routine of waking CS from his drunken stupor.  Our pre-race routine was exactly the same as usual with one slight difference.  On the way to the track we took our usual short cut through a copse of trees, but whereas normally this passed without incident I managed to stand in a massive pile of poo.  No amount of dragging my feet along the grass could get rid of it from my trainers, and the smell followed me around all day, much to my great annoyance.

When we reached the track the talk was all about the finish to the marathon.  My good friend MF had been leading all the way and was a minute or so clear of the second placed athlete when he followed the lead motorcycle into the college campus for the final few hundred metres.  A turn left, then a turn right, then another right and the bike stopped.  MF stopped alongside and asked what was going on.  The driver told him that he was lost and didn’t have a clue where the finishing line was.  As MF had got to know the area fairly well through his early morning runs he set off on his own to try and find the finish.  It didn’t take him long to find it, but unfortunately for him several of the other athletes had found it before he had.  Luckily, unlike many other sporting events around the world, common sense prevailed and he was in fact awarded the gold medal.  Any other decision would have been to make a mockery of the event.

Other problems occurred on that day, notably the women’s 3000m race.  The red hot favourite was RP from Russia.  RP always won, whatever the distance, and so interest in the event was the kind where you kept asking how far is RP clear, etc.  However, there was a twist in the tail.  After 7 laps of the race RP took up the lead and committed to a blistering sprint finish for the final 200m of the race.  This took her 30m clear of the other girls, and as she crossed the line she raised her arms into the air to be greeted by the clanging of the bell.  The only people in the stadium who thought that she had a lap to go were the officials.  The other athletes, although knowing it to be a mistake, had the benefit of hearing the bell whilst they were approaching the finishing line and so carried on.  RP, after arguing with the officials, set off after them once it became clear that they were not going to change their minds.  She caught them up and was back challenging.  Despite her heroics, the efforts of winning the 3000m race meant that she was forced to settle for minor honours in the 3,400m race.

The relays went well for us, a bronze in the 100m relay and a silver in the 400m relay.  Although we were hoping for a gold in the 400m relay we were without NT who had competed in the marathon, so we were quite happy to settle for silver behind the very strong Spanish team.  I was personally pleased with my haul of two silvers and two bronzes.  I would definitely have settled for that prior to the championships.

While some of us were busy winning medals in the relays, RL had been busy borrowing money and placing a bet on the St Leger.  As a keen racing fan RL borrowed a small fortune to place on Bob’s Return which duly won the final classic of the season at 7-2, thus giving him a fair amount to blow on the final night.  The rest of us had to make do with copious amounts of beer, RL treated himself to a skin full.  It was probably well deserved, as his body had taken the usual battering from his jumping exploits.  He managed to do his usual of jumping too early and landing on the run way and suffered the associated injuries, and also gave one of the judges the shock of his life by taking off at a funny angle and landing with his legs either side of the judges waist.  It was probably the case that RL had heard a lovely Irish voice and was aiming for that person but got his take off angle wrong.  It was at least an original chat up line though.

During the last night I met up with MF and caught up on his marathon experience.  He descried his misfortune in great depth, and I for my part threw in my misfortune at stepping in the pile of poo on my way to the track.  MF seemed to take a great deal of interest in this event, and asked where exactly I had stepped in it.  I described the route we had taken, and the trees where I had stepped in it.  He burst out laughing and confessed that he had been taken short whilst waiting to start the race and those trees were the only reasonable hiding place as the toilets at the track were not open at the time.  He didn’t even offer to clean my trainers for me.

One of our number, who shall remain nameless, had an interesting last night.  Having danced himself to a standstill he took a Russian girl up on her offer of returning to her room.  Activities of a certain nature were entered into, but the poor Brit thought that something wasn’t quite right, but couldn’t quite put his somewhat drunken poorly coordinated finger on exactly what.  Eventually he sussed it out, there were two girls in the room with him, and double the enjoyment.  I think he may have enjoyed it more if he had realised earlier, but he didn’t complain.  Whilst the rest of us sat on the coach waiting to go to the airport and tried to piece together the vague recollections of the night before, the Brit in question was found wandering around outside the Russian quarters, stickless and clueless, with a large smile on his face!

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!

1993: return to work

1993 was a big year for me because it was the year that I was invited by the Inland Revenue to start to make contributions to the nation through a long forgotten concept to me of income tax.  The reason for this was that the bank had finally found a position for me.  After 28 months on sick leave I was to hand in my £38 a week benefits book and become the first blind employee of the bank.

The bank had identified a position on their flagship internal help desk where they thought I would be able to do a job with the help of the technology which was available to me.  The Help Desk was situated in the Yorkshire bank computer centre behind the Yorkshire Bank branch in Chapel Allerton in Leeds, so I would have to move to Leeds, and I would have to go on a one week refresher course to remind me of the job I was supposed to have been qualified to do when I left the Bridlington branch.

However, I was extremely sceptical as to whether this plan would work out.  Under normal circumstances it was only the best people in the bank who managed to be selected to work at the help desk as they were the font of all information within the bank; they were the trouble shooters for the organisation.  If somebody rang up they didn’t just hope you knew the answers, they expected you to know the answers, sometimes without even explaining the problem fully.

Most of the queries came from the person within the branch with the lofty title of In Charge of Data Processing (the ICDP).  I had done my ICDP course in the summer of 1990, but due to me not being able to see the reports which were an integral part of the job I had only ever done it for about 3 days, and to be honest, I was terrible at it.  When I went on the refresher course it was all double Dutch to me, but I kept on smiling politely and saying that I was sure it would all come flooding back to me, but the truth was it was never there in the first place for it to come flooding back.  If the help desk operatives did not know an answer then they could always refer to the manuals which had every bit of information required for every operation in the bank, so if I didn’t know I needn’t worry, or so I was told.

I was told that the bank didn’t want to cause me any distress re adjusting to working life, so they only expected me to work for three days a week until I was ready to step it up to four days, and then eventually, if I felt I could cope with it, they would like to think that at some point in the future I would be able to work a full five day week.  Well, being 23 years old and an international athlete this was music to my ears.  Just to make matters even better, they would pay me full salary whatever hours I worked.

I was introduced to my colleagues to be.  Apart from my manager, PE, all my colleagues were female, you could almost smell the estrogen in the air.  They were all very pleasant but somewhat over powering at first, and it didn’t help that I don’t think that any of them had ever met a blind person before, so I could sense their eyes burning into me no matter how small the task I was trying to do.  It took me weeks before I dare eat a yoghurt in front of them; I don’t think either I or they were ready for that spectacle.  I knew these feelings would subside as I got into it, and in the end I got on well with them all and they were very helpful.

The plan was that I would get a feel for work again at the help desk for a couple of months and then they would find a permanent position for me within the bank to utilise my management potential, as they were still aiming to treat me as a management trainee.  However, despite the positive sounds, the only job they had identified mainly involved answering the phones, and they were supposedly looking at utilising my abilities in their developing telephone banking operations.  I don’t think they intentionally wanted to give the impression that I was only good for answering telephones, I just don’t think they understood my abilities.  Looking back, it’s not that surprising; 1993 seems like a different age compared to how things are now for disabled people.

An average minute in my working life for the first 6 months or so went as follows.  The phone would ring.  I would answer it with the following Stetford bank clerk’s response of “good morning/afternoon help desk” with all the fake enthusiasm of a millionaire octogenarian’s young bride on their wedding night.

The caller would respond with “oh, I wasn’t expecting a man”, and then soon get into their problem, which could be anything from a complete computer failure to questioning where they got their toilet rolls from.  As soon as they had told me their problem I would say “if you could just hold for a minute I’ll find the answer” and I would put them on hold as promised.  I would then immediately shout out “could somebody help me please” and one of my colleagues would rush to my assistance.  I would then relay to them the problem as I remembered it, and more often than usual they would want more details which I would then have to get from the caller before placing them again on hold.

As I had to type the caller details into my computer, as well as the question and the response that I gave them, I needed to use a headset so that I could type at the same time as speaking to them.  My calls would then be printed out and checked by my supervisor.  The phone and the headset that had been provided for me did not have a hold facility, so all I could do was to put the phone on mute so that to the caller it sounded like they were on hold, but I could hear every word they were saying.  This was soul destroying.  It’s bad enough to suspect you are bad at your job, whether or not this is because of disability issues or not, but to hear your clientele telling all within earshot just how bad you actually are cuts deep.

From what nearly every caller candidly said whilst they were on hold, or rather what they thought was being on hold, they were amazed that a man had been given a job on help desk as everyone knew that men were rubbish at the ICDP job.  They could all tell as well that I didn’t have a clue about any of their queries if their frank comments to their colleagues were anything to go by.

“Eh, Tracey” a caller once called out to her colleague in her branch, “you’ll never believe this.  They’ve got a fella on the Help Desk and he’s bloody useless, he doesn’t have a clue.”

At first I tried to ignore it and not let it bother me, but as such comments became commonplace I got more and more frustrated with feeling inadequate.  If they had been particularly vicious with their comments, I would slip it into the conversation that as I was blind I was having to get some help with reading the manuals, and you could almost hear their jaws hit the desk.  This was especially so if I also managed to slip into the conversation a response to something they were saying whilst they thought they were not able to be heard.  My favourite way of doing this was to say something along the lines of “thank you for your patience while I placed you on hold, but the reason the idiot, as you referred to me, couldn’t find the answer to your problem was because it is the first time I have come across this problem in my short career here on the Help Desk, and being blind makes it a little bit awkward for me, but thank you for your patience”.  I probably shouldn’t have done that, but I’m only human.

After a few months I had begun to remember some of the responses to the usual queries.  However, these consisted mainly of asking “have you tried switching it off and on again?”!  There were a few other responses I had learned, such as if the ICDP could not get the cash at the branch to balance at the end of the night there were a couple of suggestions I could make, but if they didn’t resolve the problem I had to pass the call on to a competent member of staff.  I had remembered a couple of error codes and how to deal with them, and a number of regularly occurring problems with filling in forms and inputting data into the computer, but I simply didn’t have the tools to deal with any bigger issues.  In short, after many months I was nothing more than a glorified answer machine.

There was another job which I was given to do to keep me busy, probably to keep me from annoying more branch staff than was absolutely necessary.  This involved copying computer discs to send out to the branches.  These discs were not the three and a half inch floppy’s that I used in the late 90s, or even the slighter bigger forerunners to those little beauties.  These were discs that were about nine inches square, and the disc copying machine was the size of a small cupboard.  Very state of the art at the time, but not at all suitable for use by a blind person.

I had to stick the relevant master disc into the correct slot (the master discs helpfully having been labelled with Braille), then place a blank disc into the other slot, and then start the copying process.  Sounds simple enough, but when you have a desk full of discs and no way of determining which are the yet to be copied blanks and which are the already copied blanks (apart from stacking them neatly in separate piles) then it is a recipe for disaster.  The only way I could cope was to avoid any distractions, such as talking to other people, which isn’t a good way to help the hours pass at work.

The other problem with the system was that the machine often hung whilst copying.  If this occurred without the operator being aware of this, the disc which was sent out to the branch would be useless, and the operator’s name would be mud.  Fail-safe devices were available though.  The operator was informed of a hung machine through a series of lights being displayed, but this was obviously of no use to me, and so I had to come up with a work-around.  My solution was to sit and count the clicks that the machine made whilst copying.  If it successfully got to the required 132 clicks, which took about 3 ½ minutes, then it had copied correctly, if it didn’t then I binned that attempt and started again.  I wouldn’t say that it was mind numbingly boring – talking was a sure way of losing count – but if anyone had asked I would have told them so …  as long as the clicking had finished!  Thinking about it, my colleagues probably didn’t need to ask if I was bored as I’ve always been useless at hiding such feelings.

To make it interesting I developed a game – always important in office jobs I have found.  There were two copying machines, one of which was slightly faster than the other.  The game was to load up the slowest machine, start it going, and then see if the faster of the two could catch it up.  The days really did fly by after I had invented this game I can tell you.

The undisputed highlight of the working week was Friday lunch time, as we would either go down to the head office in Leeds for fish and chips, or we would go to one of the local pubs for a pub lunch.  On one such occasion at the Mustard Pot in Chapel Allerton, I ordered my usual cheese burger and chips.  Half way through I stabbed into where I knew the chips to be on my plate and transferred the food to my mouth.  As I bit into my chips I was greeted by the sour taste of a slice of lemon.  I had a simple choice, spit it out and let everyone know what I’d done, or eat it and hope no-one saw me.  The avoidance of embarrassment always being at the forefront of my mind, I opted for the latter, and as no-one mentioned it I thought I must have got away with it.

However, a few weeks later, I did the same thing.  As the strategy had served me well, I ate it as before.  I was becoming accustomed to the taste and it wasn’t that bad, as long as you ate it really quickly.  Another stab and another piece of lemon.  How unfortunate I thought.  Never mind, at least I won’t get scurvy.  A third stab and a third piece of lemon was greeted by hysterical laughter, after which the girls let me in on their joke, them informing me that they noticed me eating my lemon the previous occasion and that they had been waiting for a suitable opportunity to strategically place all of their lemon slices on my plate to see what I would do.  I very rarely eat the lemony surprises nowadays, either asking someone to remove my lemon for me or opting to spit it out should I manage to find it with my fork.

The girls in the office were great and didn’t complain, but I still felt like a burden, as everyone else seemed to be doing the majority of my job for me.  No wonder they hadn’t wanted me to work every day.  To add to my frustration, my prospects of a long term career at the bank were looking bleak.  No progress had been made on finding me a permanent position, and thus I was still temporary staff, being paid a fair wage for passing on messages and copying discs.  For the first few months I didn’t mind though, as after all, beggars, and especially blind beggars, can’t be choosers.

Apart from the job itself, the only thing that did annoy me was the ruling that due to my special situation I did not qualify for the usual relocation expenses and cheap mortgages.  So I was left living with my Grandma M in Cross Green, near East End Park in Leeds, who at the time was a mere 83, with a wage in the region of £8,000 a year.  I think me and Grandma M did rather well living together in that small house.  M loved to fuss, and was always asking questions about what did I want, what I was doing, what I had been doing, what I was going to do, and was forever reminding me not to be late, etc, the sort of things grandmas do.  At times it drove me crazy, and at times I know I drove her crazy and acted like a spoilt brat, but I loved her to bits and knew she was only doing her best to look after me.  And to give her credit she did do a good job of looking after me, even walking me up to the off license on a couple of occasions when I was thoroughly fed up with work.  My granddad had died about 10 years earlier, so you may think she would have been glad of the company, but I think she used to look forward to the weekends when I would return home to Bridlington and she could get a bit of peace again.  She also must have found it very difficult to be at home for 48 weeks a year, as I now realise that at that time she would otherwise have gone on holiday 7 or 8 times a year at least, so she gave up a lot for me.  I would return to live with her in 2005 for the best part of three months, and we would fall back into step like I’d never been away.

Racing fans will know that throughout the summer Monday night means Windsor racing night.  So every Monday I would return home from work to find Grandma waiting with a daily express to read the racing page to me before I put a few bets on.  It was either that or sit and watch soap operas with her at full volume, what with her being a bit deaf.  I thought that betting might be bad for my pocket, but at least it didn’t make my ears bleed.  I would watch the betting shows and racing results on Teletext through my computer in my bedroom, whilst listening to the soaps on my portable telly at a sensible volume.  When I had won or lost a fortune I would go down and watch a bit of telly with her, but she would always reckon she had seen it before or I would sit there cringing in case anyone swore or worse still someone might get their boobs out, which was always followed by a torrent of outrage about how such behaviour could be allowed on her television.

Breakfast was always ready when I got up, my trousers and shirt would be on the clothes horse in front of the fire warming up for me, my packed lunch would be bursting out of the box when I left the house, a coffee would be ready for me when I came in, and my tea would be on the table at any time I liked, even if it was 11:30 pm when I returned home from Hull on track nights.

However bearable home life was, work life was starting to get very tedious.  It was clear that I was never going to be fully competent at the job, due to the failings in my support structures, and the progress on finding me a job that I would be good at was non-existent.  It appeared that the bank had hit a brick wall in their task of finding me long-term employment.  As a result, my commitment to the bank started to wane over a period of months.  Whether I did my job or not didn’t seem to matter to anyone: the girls on the Help Desk could answer calls quicker and didn’t get distracted by having to help me from their other jobs if it wasn’t their turn to answer calls on any given day.  In short, I think everyone was happier, including me, if I wasn’t there to do my job.  Looking back, I believe I was suffering from mild depression at the time; I hated going to work, I hated being so dependent upon others and there seemed no end to it.  Starting work again was supposed to make me feel better about myself, but all it did was make me feel worse because my limitations were so exposed.

As these feelings developed, a slight sniffle or stomach ache was all that was required for me to take the day off, and it was amazing how many times I had a slight stomach ache if there was any sport on the telly that day.  I didn’t even have to put on that fake “I’m not feeling very well” voice that anyone who has ever worked in an office will recognise.  I could almost sense the relief in their voices when I told them I wasn’t coming in, and I’m sure on occasions I could hear the cheering in the background.  With me out of the way the girls were free to talk of all things below the waist which for the most time they refrained from discussing in front of me.

But at least I had my athletics to keep me going, and thank goodness I did …..

Poor Old Postie

A short piece that I had intended to post prior to Christmas …

As I stepped out of the front door at work today on my way home, a moron in a performance car slammed his foot down.  The resultant noise drew from me what is fast becoming an automatic response over which I have no control:

“W*nker” I blurted out, with an unimpressed aggressive scowl.

At that very moment, a bemused looking postman, who was entering the building,  had been sidestepping me in order to avoid being wiped out and carried down the steps – I can only imagine what he must have thought!

If I had known he was there, I would have explained the target of my abuse; but I didn’t know he had been there until my PA told me, which was after he’d disappeared – poor fellow!

Naked urban tobogganing – now there’s a sight!

I awoke this morning to the sound of the bin wagon coming down our street – that’s right, I’d forgotten to put my bin out!

I quickly jumped out of bed and put my dressing gown and slippers on. I sprinted down the steps and grabbed the bin liner from the kitchen bin and rushed to the wheelie bin outside.

On finding the bin, I noticed that it was covered in ice. I crushed the kitchen waste into the bin, grabbed the handles, and started to tip-toe down the steep slope that is my driveway, with the wheelie bin out in front of me.

After only a couple of tentative steps, I concluded that the drive wasn’t that icy, thank goodness, so I stopped worrying about slipping – what a mistake!

Suddenly, my feet went from underneath me and I fell onto my back, still holding tight to the bin; if I can fall over in a nightclub and not lose a drop from my pint, I can certainly keep hold of a wheelie bin!

Whilst the drive was icy, my dressing gown somehow stuck to it …. I, on the other hand, kept on sliding, pulled onwards by the weight of the overflowing bin, our joint momentum dragging me beyond the end of the slope and out into the road ….

What a sight I must have been ; a naked middle-aged man, wearing some kind of cape with sleeves trailing in his wake, tobogganing down his drive whilst holding on to a wheelie bin!

After covering up my modesty, and pretending that both sets of cheeks weren’t on fire (for different reasons), I straightened up the bin, and hobbled in the general direction of the steps at the side of the drive and back to the safety of my house with as much dignity as I could muster (which wasn’t that much to be honest!) ….

At least I’ve probably brightened up one of my neighbours’ day!

1992: my first Paralympics, part 6

After the medal ceremony and JW’s race I went back to the village on the bus with the rest of the team and some of the management who had hung around. I can still remember being squashed in like sardines as it was the last bus back to the village, and being continually congratulated by everyone who saw the medal hanging around my neck. I’m sure the grin on my face stayed there for hours. It was such a good feeling. When we returned to the village we ate and showered, and then went down to the beach with a few bottles and drank until the early hours. It was too late to go into the city, but it was nice to relax on the beach and get pleasantly merry.

The next day was the final day of competition, and for us the only event of interest was the marathon as all the track events had finished. Great Britain had three athletes taking part in the blinky marathon races. SB (not the same SB as ran in the relay!) was taking part in the B2 race, along with our apartment mate MB, and MF was taking part in the B3 race. MF was also an apartment mate of mine, and he had managed to develop a novel way of entertaining himself during the championships. He had two main ways of filling the hours. The first was going on long runs, and the second was reading the Daily Sport. Many a happy hour was spent in MF’s room with him reading out the problem pages and articles in his high pitched Wolverhampton accent. I wasn’t aware that many of the battery operated gadgets advertised in that publication even existed, but MF seemed to know loads of people who had tried them. Apparently, the gadgets boasting about enhancing certain male parts definitely didn’t work he said, and I was left wondering just exactly how he knew.

MB on the other hand had different things on his mind. MB had run the previous year at the European championships, but he was still a bit wide eyed and innocent when it came to the extravaganza that was the Paralympics. We had all been warned about the danger of over eating in the all-singing, all-dancing 24 hour dining area. Our teammate JW hadn’t taken any notice, but he was a thrower so it didn’t really matter. All JW appeared to eat was the ice cream bars which filled the freezers which stood along one end of the dining hall. But MB, being a marathon runner, should really have taken more care. If JW had to carry an extra couple of pounds across the throwing circle it didn’t really make much difference, but MB had to carry any excess weight for 26 miles, a tiny bit further than JW had to. Every time we saw MB he seemed to be carrying yet another tray of food back to his table. We kept on warning him about being a fat lard arse but apparently he thought we were just joking.

He came to see me a couple of days before the Marathon and I asked him how he was doing. He told me that he had started to get a bit concerned about his weight, but he couldn’t figure out how to translate his weight in kilograms back into stones and pounds. He had come out to the championships at around 9 stone, but now his weight, I was sorry to have to inform him after he had told me his weight in kilograms, was roughly 10 stone. He was so shocked he nearly forewent his fifth meal of the day.

MB may have thought that we were joking when we had warned him to take it easy with the grub, but he took us deadly serious when we told him what equipment he would have to take with him on the marathon. We started off by just telling him that he would have to make sure he took his accreditation with him in order to get himself on the bus, through the security to the warm-up area and to get himself marked off on the start list, and to make sure he remembered his drinks which would be deposited around the course by the officials. This was all good sensible advice, but as he received this information as if we were explaining the meaning of life to him we couldn’t help ourselves but to take it a little further.

MB was told that he would have to wear his accreditation with him on the race, as he would have to show it to the marshals as he proceeded on or he’d be thrown off the race. So he’d better think if he was going to wear it around his neck, tie it around his wrist or have it hanging from his waist band. He swallowed our little joke hook, line and sinker. It then progressed to telling him that he’d better take his passport and 25 pesetas for the pay-phones in case he got lost on the course, which was a distinct possibility due to his poor eye sight. Obviously that was the reason why he had been issued with a bum bag with his kit. MB duly turned up at the start line with bum bag and accreditation ready to do the business, until the official charged with making sure he was alright put him straight on one or two things.

The race started in the early evening and finished in the city centre later that evening. The Olympic race had finished in the stadium, but some of the best able bodied marathon runners in the world had found it difficult to climb up to the stadium in the last couple of miles, so the organisers decided it would be unfair on the Paralympic athletes, and probably impossible for the “wheelies”. So we all went down to the city centre to welcome the lads to the finish, but it was so crowded we were stood about 10 deep down the final couple of hundred metres or so. Never the less, we were pleased to hear the announcer call out MF’s name first as he sped down the finishing straight to claim his gold medal. This was soon followed by SB’s name, making it a glorious double for team GB. MB finished in a respectable time, and in a reasonably respectable position, considering the build up he had had.

As everyone had now finished it was time for serious partying to begin. We returned to the village, and despite the village being dry, it was amazing how many people had managed to smuggle in copious amounts of the falling down water. We all decided to go on masse down to the disco. We were having a great time and JW had been putting it away rather well. He was bursting for the toilet and so decided to go against a tree behind a bush on the side of the pavement. Having managed to turn the arid earth into a mud bath he then decided he would climb the tree. Half way up he suddenly realised he was a bit too drunk to do this, and after a violent struggle gravity finally mastered him and threw him to the earth. He hit the ground with a damp muddy splat. I don’t suppose it was the first, or come to think of it the last time, that JW laid in a pool of his own urine feeling a bit sore.

After JW had wiped himself down we went on our way to the disco. But RL was fed up with walking and decided that a different form of conveyance might be quicker, if a little more dangerous. RL had managed somehow to procure a bicycle from somewhere. The first we knew about it was as he shot past us on his transportation, flew across the road between screaming dodging athletes and straight towards the curb. The phrase arse over tit was developed for this specific moment in time, and whether he was drunk or not, he jumped back up as if nothing had happened. Undoubtedly he was used to hitting things at speed, so I don’t suppose he even felt it.

I found the disco a bit too noisy, too busy and too lacking in alcohol, so the following night I decided I would prefer to go into the city. There were too many of us to all get in one taxi, so we caught several. I ended up in a taxi with MF and CI. CI had been competing in the Cerebral Palsy sprints and was gagging for alcohol. She was very clever and specialised in languages. Although her cerebral palsy affected her speech quite badly once you had spent time with her it became quite easy to understand her. Unfortunately, our taxi driver had not had the opportunity to spend time with her. Therefore, we had the farcical situation of CI having to tell MF what to say in Spanish, and he tried his best to repeat it in his high pitched Wolverhampton drawl. Needless to say the driver didn’t have a clue. We ended up by resorting to “Ramblass, Ramblass”, where we managed to meet up with a couple of the others. It was just what I was looking for, a bit of street life, a few beers and some good conversation. It was all very continental and all very nice.

Events such as the Paralympics allowed us as disabled athletes to find out a bit more about other disabilities, and that night was one example. I couldn’t figure out whether I was getting more used to CI’s speech through the night, or whether I found it easier to understand her through increased alcohol levels. However, CI informed us that as her alcohol levels increased the tightness in her muscles in turn relaxed, which resulted in better coordination and better speech. She joked that a CP athlete would be much better taking alcohol than steroids as the effect is so noticeable. I also think it would be much more interesting to watch, especially if the other effects of alcohol were also replicated; fights would break out, the air would be blue with the language, by the end of the race everybody would love each other and be everybody else’s best mates, and everybody would either be being sick or dying for a kebab – pretty much like a run-of-the-mill middle distance race really.

The final act of the championships was the closing ceremony. We were all very excited about it, and had stashed a couple of beers about our person to help the party go with a swing. Unfortunately the organisers misread what would go down well with the crowd. They had put together a mixture of classical music and Spanish folk music. It was all really bad, so bad that even the local crowd was booing. The athletes, who were sat on chairs in the middle were quickly losing interest and were huddled in groups having a laugh, totally ignoring the music; some even started playing cards!

Eventually the music started to increase in tempo, people started to get to their feet and to enjoy themselves. I decided I wanted a bit of exercise, so myself and MF went onto the back straight and I lifted the little fella onto my shoulders before sprinting up and down the straight to the cheers of the crowd, MF giving me directions so as to not kill us both. After a while I started to tire and so we returned to the group of our friends.

The music was starting to get very loud, and I was struggling to hear what the people around me were saying. Somebody tugged at my arm and shouted something in my ear which seemed to have the word dance in it. As I thought the voice sounded feminine I immediately said yes and was immediately dragged off. However, it wasn’t the usual method of guiding. The person rather than giving me their elbow instead was pushing me from behind. I presumed it was either a person who didn’t know how to guide, or a blinky who was using me as a battering ram to make their way to the front of the stage. Occasionally I broke into a bit of a dance, swinging my legs from side to side and clapping my hands. I didn’t care if I looked a fool, I might never get to visit a closing ceremony again so I was buggered if I wasn’t going to enjoy it to the full.

I remember it seemed to be taking an absolute age to get to the dance area, but I was having so much fun I didn’t really mind. Occasionally I bumped into somebody so hard my straw panama nearly fell from my head, eventually, the person behind me stopped pushing me forward and sat me down on a seat. I thought that my guide must have been unable to locate the dance floor, but I found out much later, from my parents upon returning to England, that I had been leading a conga of some hundred or more people around the stadium. My mum and dad reported seeing my straw panama dodging in and out of the thousands of athletes about twice around the track before taking my seat again as if nothing unusual had happened. Typical I suppose. A full blown conga in flow and I’m the only one who didn’t manage to grab anyone’s arse.

We sat down just in time for the start of the fire work display. I could slightly make out bits of lights as the explosions lit up the sky for 20 minutes or so, but the real memory was the feeling of the blast hitting my chest. The fire works boomed in the sky, and my chest reverberated with every single explosion. Again I thought my hat was going to be knocked from my head, but again it held firm.

The fire works ended and the torch was handed on to Atlanta. At the time I didn’t know if I would make it, but I knew I would have great fun trying. And if I did get there, I would surely wreak my revenge!

We still had two days until we left for the airport and JW had other things on his mind. He must have been fed up with me because from leaving the village to go to the closing ceremony until getting on the plane I didn’t see sight nor sound of him. MF had to look after me for the final few days whilst JW took care of some unfinished business from Caen the previous year ….. JW also helped RM to pack his gear whilst I struggled manfully alone. Apparently he had been seconded in a part exchange deal; RM got JW, I got peace and quiet for a few days. I think I did rather well out of the deal!

Yorkshire TV had commissioned a documentary on the athletes competing at the games from the Yorkshire region. Having only lost my sight recently and having the relationship issue with JW our performances were featured heavily in their programme. Several of my friends were moved to tears when the programme was aired, although it concentrated too much on the human side of the championships rather than the sporting side of it for my liking.

There was some bad news however when I returned home from Barcelona. MD, who had done some guiding for me over the previous 18 months or so and had accompanied me to my first BBS UK Championships had been involved in an accident. I had known MD since I was 13 or 14, and trained in the same group as him since I was 15 or 16. As the story was repeated to me, whilst JW and I were winning medals in Barcelona, on his way to work on his motorbike one wet and windy morning, MD had been blown by the wind into the back of a stationery milk van. His left leg was badly damaged and his left arm paralysed. According to reports, at one point it was touch and go whether he’d pull through. I believe MD spent 12 weeks in Hull Royal Infirmary, during which time I visited him with my medals to cheer him up. I remember trying to lift his spirits by telling him that he now had the opportunity to become a Paralympian as well; little did I know that he would be so determined that he would end up qualifying for Atlanta.

When the award season came round I received an invite to the Yorkshire area sports awards which were held at the Harrogate International Conference Centre. We were treated to a very posh but very small lunch with a small amount of wine. The awards were to be given out by the secretary of the rugby football league DO. I can remember what he looked like as he always did the challenge cup draw on BBC Look North and he always wore what looked like a painted-on smile at all times. I always thought he looked like an awfully nice guy, but somewhat bemused by anything other than Rugby League. This impression was confirmed when I was asked to go up to collect an award for taking part and winning medals in Barcelona. JW led me up in the usual way, me holding onto his elbow and walking slightly behind him. When we got to the presentation area he grabbed JW’s hand and heartily congratulated him saying what an excellent athlete he was and how he should keep up the good work, etc. JW let him go on for about 30 seconds or so before he told him he had the wrong person, and in fact he should be saying all this to the lemon who was stood to his side holding his elbow.

All in all, the year was a brilliant one from a sporting point of view. I had returned home from a major championships with two silver medals in hand. I had received exposure on a local level, and I had received the plaudits of the award givers. However, I still had the feeling that I had only won relay medals, and as there were only four teams in each I had to question their worth. I suppose it was that which gave me the drive and desire to carry on and win medals of my own.

1992 Barcelona