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‘I can do greatness’ – Russell has eyes on the prize at London 2017

February 1, 2017 in Interviews

“I have to prove to myself that I cannot be defeated.”

It’s a bold statement, but Janieve Russell is simply sharing her ambition to one day dominate the 400m hurdles.

Jamaica’s 2012 world junior champion took another step on that path last summer, finishing seventh in the Olympic final in Rio.

At 23, she is aiming to improve on that placing at this year’s World Athletics Championships in London.

“I’m trying my best to stay injury-free because I know if I can stay healthy, I can be great,” she told me.

“I want to create history for my country. I want Jamaican fans at home and abroad to expect good things from me. I want to be on the podium like my track idols.

“London will be very different to Rio but I’m very excited. I think it’ll be awesome.”

Upgrade

The first glimpse of Russell’s potential came to light on her international debut at the 2008 Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) Games, where she won silver in the under-17 long jump.

“I found my switch to hurdles challenging but I love challenges”

A year later at the 2009 Games, she upgraded that to gold, as well as winning bronze in the high jump and golds in the 4x100m and 4x400m relays.

Her burgeoning talent was confirmed three years later at the 2012 World Junior Championships, where she won gold in what has become her main event, the 400m hurdles.

This saw her become only the second Jamaican woman to achieve this honour, the other being future Commonwealth gold medallist Kaliese Spencer.

Focus

However, the impact of competing in multiple events began to take its toll on Russell with a succession of injuries, and it was this that made her decide to focus on the hurdles.

“I noticed I was getting numerous injuries, more than what I am experiencing now,” explained the former pentathlete and heptathlete.

“There aren’t many programmes in Jamaica designed for multi-event athletes, they tend to focus on specifics things like sprints, hurdles and the quarter-mile.

“I found my switch to hurdles challenging but I love challenges. I feel it suits me. I can do greatness. I’m comfortable.”

Progress

Since committing to the hurdles, Russell has made steady progress, culminating in reaching the final in Rio.

She might not finished among the medals in Brazil, but she says the whole experience of being part of the Olympics was a huge learning process.

“In high school I was always watching the Games as an athlete but not thinking I would be there like them”

“As we know, before the rainbow there is always rain!” she laughed.

“I was very excited to be on the Jamaica team. Being the youngest in the finals in terms of experience, I took away the attitude of never giving up, no matter the situation or outcome – just keep pushing.

“The Olympics taught me you will have some people who will stay by your side, and some who will leave. But no matter the outcome, turn it into a positive.

“I have to prove to myself that I cannot be defeated.”

‘Dream come true’

Even now, though, she admits to still finding it slightly overwhelming to line up against some of her more high-profile rivals.

“In high school I was always watching the Games as an athlete but not thinking I would be there like them – I was always supporting those competing,” she said.

“When I started the 400m hurdles, I wanted to be as great as [2008 Olympic and 2009 world champion] Melanie Walker and even better. I wanted to achieve as much as [1996 Olympic champion] Deon Hemmings.

“All of this is a dream come true.”

Inspiration

Jamaica’s former Olympic gold medallist Walker and Omar McLeod, the current men’s Olympic 11om hurdles and 6om hurdles world indoor champion, have both shown Team Jamaica are capable of producing world-beaters in disciplines other than their usual strongholds in the shorter sprints.

“To come out on top in London in front of all those fans would truly be a blessing”

Russell said: “Melanie Walker has inspired me greatly because I know she is also multi-talented, she can do sprint hurdles and the 400m hurdles.

“To see someone with so much heart go out there year after year, to perform so well, pushes me to say ‘I can be great too’.

“I just have to believe in myself. As long as you are willing to work hard for something you want – which I am – as well as listening to my coach, I believe I can emulate what my compatriots have achieved in their events.”

London calling

Having already lived one dream in Rio, Russell’s sights are now set on the 2017 Worlds at the London Stadium, which of course hosted the 2012 Olympics track and field programme.

To step onto the podium, perhaps as champion, particularly in a city that’s home to so many Caribbean supporters, would be a huge achievement for her.

“To see all the preparations, dedication and faith I’ve put in over the last two years of being injured pay off, and to come out on top in London in front of all those fans would truly be a blessing.

“The preparations are going well. I am working towards small goals, building up to my season. Every race I run, I want to improve and to maintain my consistency.”

Russell surprised herself by reaching the final and finishing fifth at the 2015 Worlds in Beijing. Don’t bet against her being in the medals in London this summer.

‘Rio was one of the scariest experiences ever’

December 13, 2016 in Interviews

Representing your country at any major sporting event is bound to generate nerves, but for Team GB wheelchair racer Ben Rowlings the 2016 Paralympics took that to another level. 

“Rio was one of the scariest experiences ever,” he told me. “To go to my first [Paralympic] games, with all the expectations and hype around it, was a really weird feeling.

“If I’m honest, was overwhelming, waiting under the stadium and hearing the crowd erupting from the race before was scary and something I really wasn’t ready for.”

Rowlings competed in the T34 class 100m and 800m events, but sadly wasn’t able to add to the three bronze medals he won at this year’s IPC Athletics European Championships in Grosetto, Italy.

Nonetheless, the 20-year-old from Shropshire was overwhelmed by the warm acclaim received by Team GB’s Olympians and Paralympians on their return home.

Inspirational

“The reception I’ve had since I’ve got back from Rio has been overwhelming, I never thought it would have the impact it has,” he said.

“You get to do some amazing things like going on the pitch at Wembley at half-time during rugby matches.

“I didn’t care who had beaten me, I had medalled at my first major championships for my country”

Then, on the flip-side, you have kids coming up to you telling you that you’ve inspired them to get into sport or try something new, and that hits home and makes everything worthwhile.”

Rowlings, who has cerebral palsy, was once one of those kids, waiting to be inspired to find a sport he could excel in.

Initially, he thought it might be swimming, but a severe condition chlorine allergy left him sneezing every time he went into the pool.

This led him to try wheelchair  racing, and the switch paid off.

Quickest

Coached by Job King at the Coventry Godiva Harriers club since 2011, he showed consistency in 100m, 200m and 800m, moving up the world rankings and competing at meets in Dubai and Switzerland.

As the hard work continued, Rowlings made it into the Team GB lottery-funded World Class Performance Programme in 2014 and raced at that year’s IPC European Championships in Swansea, coming third in the T34 800m final..

“It was a race that could do so much and define my season,” he recalled. ” I can’t remember much, other than the gun sounding and going out hard, the quickest I have ever pushed.

“The rest of the race is a blur, all I know is I crossed the line having won bronze and that it was the best feeling ever.  I didn’t care who had beaten me, I had medalled at my first major championships for my country.”

Training

Rowling is currently training hard, and looking to build on the experience he gained in Rio this summer as he aims for more medals.

“There are days when my body just aches and you just don’t want to move, but you have to just get up and go”

“At the moment I’m in my off-season so I’m doing lots of miles, anywhere between 15-20 a day, with lots of hours in the gym on top.

“As we get into the season, the mileage will come down as we get ready to sharpen up for the the major events, but I’ll be training 2-3 times a day six days a week all year round.

“Day in day out it’s just time management trying to manage training 2-3 times a day, working part-time and recovery is tough.

“There are days when my body just aches and you just don’t want to move, but you have to just get up and go.”

London, then Tokyo

With the experience of Rio 2016 now under his belt, Rowling is setting his sights on next year’s IPC World Athletics Championships in London.

“I’m just taking it one season at a time, so in 2017 we have the Worlds in London and that will be huge, racing in front of a home crowd.

“But looking forward I want to make the squad for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, and once I’m there perform better than I did in Rio.

“I have a massive point to prove because I didn’t race as well as I know I could have in Brazil.”

You can follow Ben Rowlings on Twitter @BenRowlings and on Instagram @benrowlings.

Review – I Am Bolt

December 5, 2016 in Opinion

Feature length documentary ‘I Am Bolt’ culminates with Jamaica’s spring king winning an unprecented ‘triple triple’ of golds at 100m, 200m and 4x100m at three successive Olympics in Rio, but winds things back to where it all began in rural Trelawny 30 years ago.

“For his height, they say Usain shouldn’t be running so fast, for where he’s from, they are saying he shouldn’t be who he is,” says manager and best friend Nugent Walker, referring to the fact that Bolt grew up poor.

Directors Benjamin Tuner and Gabe Turner capture the humble roots of the world’s fastest man, with contributions from his parents Wellesley and Jennifer, and clips of a young Bolt, his face bearing the mischievous  grin now familiar to billions of people around the world.

They trace Bolt’s journey from when he burst onto the athletics scene as a skinny young boy, through to him beating his chest as he crossed the line at in the 100m at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, onto London 2012 and finally to Brazil this summer.

Along the way there are flashbacks to key events such as the World Junior Championships for U20s in 2002, at Kingston’s national stadium, where Bolt, aged, 15, won the 200m in front of his hard-to-please home crowd. Bolt still regards it as his best moment ever.

Inspirational

If  you are able to make the Jamaican crowd chant your name at 15, you know you have real potential – and the film shows how Bolt has realised that youthful promise.

The film-makers have no doubt created an inspirational documentary, one which captures the hard work behind Bolt’s seemingly carefree attitude, but it’s not perfect.

“Is success hasn’t come as easily as his laid-back persona sometimes suggests”

In a sporting context, questions are left unanswered, such as the drugs scandal that looms over athletics, and the problems Jamaica has had in this regard.

The issue of doping does come up, but it’s at the expense of the former American drug cheat, and once Olympic and world champion Justin Gatlin, stumbling over his words, and angrily responding to a journalist’s probing question on his doping history.

With exclusive access to Bolt, his team and those closest to him, the film-makers missed an opportunity to address the shortcomings in Jamaica’s drug-testing regime.

This could directly impact on Bolt if relay team-mate Nesta Carter alleged use of a banned stimulant at the Beijing Olympics is proved and the 4x100m squad are stripped of their gold medals because of it.

Lifestyle

“Work for what you want” – Bolt is captured reminiscing about his father’s message to him as a young boy, and it’s advice he has respected and adhered to.

Training hard twice a day under the tough auspices of long-time coach Glen Mills, altering his lifestyle and diet – all in hope of being regarding as the greatest athlete ever – Bolt is truly shown as his father’s son. His success hasn’t come as easily as his laid-back persona sometimes suggests.

The film also shows Bolt using his rivals’ words as motivation, such as an interview Gatlin gave to TMZ.

“What makes me strive is the fact that they talk all the time,” Bolt says. “When you talk and tell me what you’re going to do, all it makes me want to do is work harder, big up to yourself, Justin Gatlin.”

And yet, it’s often overlooked that Bolt has often not been at his best going into major championships, and Rio was a case in point.

‘Gigantic task’

With his season and training regime disrupted by injury in the build-up to the 2016 Games, the film reveals Bolt to be plagued by doubts and sometimes struggling to find the motivation needed to succeed at the Olympics once again.

He is shown seeking advice from friends including four-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Johnson and Australia’s 200m Commonwealth champion John Steffensen.

“The documentary ends with Bolt joining some exalted company in a humble setting that takes the audience back to his origins”

If was as if  Bolt felt that there was nothing left prove. As coach Mills puts it: “He’s faced with a gigantic task, it will be like starting all over again.”

Ultimately, it wasn’t his coach or friends, but arch-rival Gatlin who finally awoke the sleeping beast.

The world gets a rare glimpse of Bolt looking frustrated and annoyed as his medical exception from the Jamaican trials has members of Team USA, including Gatlin and Mike Rodgers, making insinuations and casting aspersions.

Famously relaxed by nature, and as an athlete with a completely clean drugs-testing record, he uses their disrespect to ignite the fire within ahead of Rio.

Saviour 

It’s clear from that scene onwards that Bolt finally has all the motivation he needs to defend his own – and his sport’s – reputation, and cement his unbeaten Olympic legacy in Brazil.

A medium close-up shows him to be visually angry over the negative spin of the Americans. He shakes his head, stares into the camera and says: “It’s not going to be the same.”

In that moment the audience can see that the man viewed by many as the saviour of athletics – with all its corruption and drug issues – is ready to show the world how a race should be won. It’s safe to say that Gatlin and Rodgers had no idea what they had done…

Job done in Rio, and retirement now beckons for Bolt after the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London next summer.

But, as the documentary shows, he has already joined some exalted company in a ceremony in a humble setting that again takes the audience back to his origins.

The sprinter sees his portrait join those of Jamaican national icons Nanny the Maroon and Marcus Garvey on the wall at his old school, William Knibb Hill Memorial High.

It captures the love, appreciation and esteem that Jamaicans hold for their finest-ever athlete – one for whom ‘I Am Bolt’ delivers a fitting visual portrait.

For more information about ‘I Am Bolt’ visit the film’s website.

‘We had this look in our eyes like this is our day’

December 5, 2016 in Interviews

“You’ve got to believe in yourself because if you don’t believe it’s going to happen and you don’t make it happen, it won’t.”

Nicola White is recalling the advice her mother gave her long before she won women’s hockey Olympic gold in Rio de Janiero.

White lives by those words and is honest when discussing the turnaround that led her from failing to make her first England trials at the age of 15 to becoming Great Britain’s hero as her late equaliser to make it 3-3 in the final against reigning Olympic champions the Netherlands forced the game to a shootout decider.

White and the GB hockey squad ensured hockey became compelling viewing in Rio. When it comes to discussing the team’s journey from London in 2012 to Brazil four years later, White’s steely undercurrent and strong motivation becomes apparent.

“My journey wasn’t particularly perfect,” she admits. “I had my first England trials when I was 15 and I didn’t make it. I didn’t get my second England trials until I was 19 and I was quite a latecomer really because under 16’s and under 18’s is crucial for the development. To come in at under 21 level fairly late, I was really lucky.

“One of the things that we worked really hard since London was our culture. There’s 31 of us that train and it was sometimes hard to agree on something and get the best out of ourselves, but we improved our values and we embraced it.”

Competition 

Her and the team’s success is a result of perseverance and dedication but it is also a tale of competition. “Everyone in the squad had a responsibility to do their best,” she says.

“We wanted to make a difference and it created this massive bond of trust within the team. I think one of the most amazing things was stepping onto the pitch having built this culture. The competition for places was so high and we used to play high-paced games on a Thursday within the squad.

“The coaches would send out the game plan on a Wednesday night so we knew what we had to bring and what we had to do.

“Everyone brought their best games, and it ensured this amazing standard of hockey and brought out the best in us all.

“These little things impact hugely because when you get into an Olympic final, the pressure is massive but you know how to deal with it.”

Golden moment 

White is still overwhelmed by the team’s stunning success this summer. When it came to Rio and taking on the Netherlands, who were vying for a third Olympic gold in a row and huge favourites, there was a determination among the GB players.

The game was drifting away at one point, but Britain’s never-say-die attitude led by an indomitable White performance, paid off when she made it 3-3 in the final period.

Goalkeeper Maddie Hinch then pulled off some stunning saves in the shootout as the GB girls achieved history.

White remains refreshingly low-key about her golden moment. 

The forward says: “I knew we had eight minutes to go and we were losing against the reigning champions of the world.

“Holland are historically a really good team and I was so glad we played them because they were the elephant [in the room] and people thought we couldn’t beat them when it came to the crunch.

“All I remember is we had a short corner and I was just on red alert, and I’ve never been on red alert like that before and I thought if we can get this level, I knew we would hold on and it would go to penalties.

“The ball just fell and I put it towards the goal and I thought nothing else of it. Everyone’s faces were the same as we had this look in our eyes like this is our day. We just had this confidence about us.”

Overwhelming 

Looking back on the summer heroics, White admits the feeling of winning an Olympic gold medal has only just recently sunk in.

“It’s a real cliche, but it’s pretty much a dream come true for me and my team-mates. I’ve started to come back down to earth now but at the time it was just so overwhelming.

“I had so many emotions going through my head when we actually won it. It was just sort of flicking from happiness and emotion and I had happy tears, but it was an amazing experience.

“The girls who took the penalties were confident and I knew that if we stuck to what we did, we would win.

“We all knew, as much as we were nervous at the time, that if anyone was going to win it, it would be us. We are so used to that feeling of being under pressure in penalties that we thrived on it.”

Support

The support of her family has been key for White, particularly in picking her up from that England trials rejection aged 15.

“My mum has supported me massively on my journey. I remember she used to tell me a lot when I was young that you’ve got to believe in yourself because if you don’t believe it’s going to happen and you don’t make it happen, it won’t.

“That’s probably what’s stuck with me the most. Her telling me that if I keep working and don’t give up in the first hurdle, it’ll all pay off, and she was right.”

Spotlight

With success comes greater attention, and White agrees that more interest from the media and general public in hockey can only be a positive thing for her sport.

“We have gained lots of media attention as a team,” she says. “That’s really good for our sport, and I think the biggest thing is how much the sport has grown.

“I guess the legacy started at London 2012, when we won bronze, and has grown since our gold medal.

“When we go around the country, people tell us how they didn’t watch hockey before but now they love it.

“People have warmed to us and that’s probably the biggest change because people are now talking about it.

“When I say ‘I’m Nicola White, I’m one of the hockey girls’, they’re like ‘we love you’! Previously they would have been confused as many people didn’t know about us, so it’s nice to now hear them say that.”

Mindset

As a seven-year-old in Shaw and Crompton, Greater Manchester, White dreamt of being a hockey player.

White and the rest of the GB women’s hockey team

“I was lucky that my school played hockey because a lot of schools didn’t,” she explains. “I was lucky to get involved with it at such a young age, and that my teacher was involved in the pathway to internationals.

“She was in the county and regional set-ups, had the best hockey knowledge and knew where to go and how to make it happen. She guided and started me off.

“Skills-wise you’ve got to have a certain talent to be good at any sport. What I’ve realised on my journey is that your mindset is just as important.

“It’s all good and well having the talent but you’ve got to apply yourself. Every day you have to wake up and want to give it your all, and it’s that commitment, that desire and hunger that’s needed to be successful.”

Women in sport 

As a youngster, the GB hockey star idolised female athletes such as Kelly Holmes and Tina Cullen, and says she has seen progress in the amount of media attention women in sport receive.

“I think there’s more of an acceptance that women are successful and need to be given as much credit as the men get, and it’s a major thing that’s been highlighted probably in the last decade.

“Women haven’t had as much recognition as they should have had. People are pushing for more equality. Tennis now offers the same wages for men and women, and things are becoming more equal.

“That should be the norm and moving forward, I think it will be. It’s being driven by the successes we have had in football, hockey, rugby union and other sports.

“I love it and I’m so proud because that’s all we ever wanted. We just want people to accept us for what we’ve done and give us the recognition.”

Tokyo 2020 

White regularly refers to her competitiveness in her downtime when playing other sports like tennis and golf with her two brothers, but the main objective is to get prepared for another four years of gruelling build-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Preparation is well underway, and White says it will be harder to stay at the top of the tree in 2020 because everyone will be aiming to knock GB off their perch.

“We have to not just be happy with the gold we won, but say to ourselves that we can win it again”

“It sounds so scary thinking about how we will be back in four years time,” she says. “No doubt we will be looking for a gold medal because you cannot go from this success to not target another gold medal.

“I remember our coach Danny Kerry, after the Olympics we sat in a room in Rio and he was talking about success on success and how much of a difficult challenge it is and that’s what we are accepting.

‘As much as the journey is hard to get to the top, it is much harder to stay there. You’re now at the top and everyone’s chasing you, so it’ll be about rebuilding the culture, replacing the players who have retired with new players.

“There’s nothing holding us back now so we have to relish it. We have to use it and not just be happy with the gold we won, but say to ourselves that we can win it again. That’ll be the challenge but we are aiming to go for it again.”

You can follow Nicola White on Twitter @NicolaWhite28 and on Facebook @NicolaWhiteGB28 

Women’s hockey on the rise after Olympic success

November 29, 2016 in Multimedia

University of the Arts London’s women’s hockey president Dhalyn Warren discusses the rising participation in her sport after Team GB’s gold medal success at the 2016 Olympic Games.

Women’s hockey has seen a surge in interest since Britain beat favourites the Netherlands in the final in Rio, including plenty of interest at university level.

Warren also reflects on the university’s use of London 2012 Olympics venue Lee Valley, explains what her role entails, and the talks about the benefits hockey brings to players both on and off the field.

Produced and edited by Daniel Racheter and Shannon Gambling.

Watch the full interview here:

YouTube Preview Image

‘I was naive about Paralympic sport – I thought it was easy’

November 21, 2016 in Interviews

Athletes across the globe dream of one day having the opportunity to showcase their talents to the world whilst wearing their nation colours,  but for table tennis player Aaron McKibbin, that dream has already become a reality – twice.

At the London 2012 Paralympics, McKibbin fulfilled that ambition, but his adventure had the happiest of endings as together with GB team-mates Ross Wilson and Will Bayley, he clinched a bronze medal in the men’s team class 6-8 competition (moderate to severe limb impairment).

“It was a bit crazy, we didn’t expect it [to take a medal home],” he explains.

“We went in pretty blind; we were young. And being a home games, which was an amazing experience, we didn’t really know what was going on. It felt like a dream!”

Rio 2016

Fast forward four years to the Rio 2016 Paralympics, and the 25-year-old was part of the team that repeated that medal-winning feat, but he admits to a feeling of disappointment at only managing to finish third again.

©Supercharge ParalympicsGB

“We were so close to beating Ukraine in the doubles, and if we’d done that, we were most likely going to win the match and play Sweden in the final for gold,” explains McKibbin.

“On the other hand, to take a bronze there meant so much more than in London. The teams we beat along the way were so strong, and we saw our draw and knew it was going to be a tough ask.

“We beat Belgium, the former world champions in the first round. Then we beat Spain, the London 2012 silver medallists in the quarter-final, and then lost to the gold medallists in the semi-final.

“Finally, we had to beat China, the current world champions, who had the Rio 2016 gold medallist in their team.”

Tokyo 2020

After two consecutive bronze medals, looking forward to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, McKibbin has his eyes on an upgrade.

“I’m very determined [to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics],” McKibbin emphasises.

“I reached the quarter-final of singles in Rio, and my aim is to be competing for a singles medal at Tokyo 2020.”

Should McKibbin qualify for Tokyo 2020, it would be his third Paralympic Games – something he admits he never thought possible.

“My aim of going to London was simply because I had a dream of playing on the world stage and at a home games,” says the Londoner. “I didn’t even know about Brazil until after London 2012!”

European Championships and PTT Open

Whilst Rio and London are McKibbin’s biggest successes so far, they are not the only ones – he has also won medals at the 2015 European Para Table Tennis Championships and China PTT Open.

“They can’t compare to a Paralympics or World Championships. They are the most special competitions you can play in.”

“To win medals at any competition isn’t easy; the standard is getting harder and harder,” McKibbin says.

“Winning the China Open was possibly my most pleasing result outside of the Paralympics. I beat the world number two from China in the final and I had to win the competition to seal my qualification for Rio.”

While McKibbin clearly enjoyed those other triumphs, he admits neither comes close to the experience of Paralympic success.

“They can’t compare – things like the Paralympics or world championships are the most special competitions you can play in.”

Transition

Winning medals playing table tennis was not always McKibbin’s goal, however.

As a youngster, he dreamed of success on the tennis court, until he was forced to quit at the age of 14 because of his bilateral talipes – the medical condition more commonly known as club foot.

“It was was pretty hard, I couldn’t achieve what I wanted,” he admits.

“I was very naive to Paralympic sport – I thought it was easy and not serious”

“I fell out of love with the sport as no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t able to compete with the people I used to beat. My dream as a child was to play at Wimbledon so, once I knew that wasn’t a reality, then it [the decision to quit tennis] was sort of made for me.”

It was not until his first international table tennis tournament in Romania that his ambitions to compete at the highest level were reignited.

“I wasn’t really expecting much. I went because I was offered and thought it would be a cool experience,” he says.

“I was very naive about Paralympic sport; I thought it was easy and not serious. But once I arrived and saw how high the level was, how professional it was, I made my decision [aiming to compete at London 2012].”

Challenges

McKibbin eventually moved up to the National Table Tennis Centre in Sheffield to train full-time in a bid to make his Paralympic dream come true, and he admits the step into the unknown was a tough experience.

“At first I didn’t [find it difficult to leave London for Sheffield], I just made the decision. I needed to go and that’s it.

©Wikimedia Commons

“But then I think after a while I did. I had never left home before, and I was suddenly living 170 miles away from my family, looking after myself, while not knowing everyone that well being so new to the team.”

Several successful years later, McKibbin faces new challenges, such as balancing his time between playing table tennis and studying for a part-time Sports Science degree at Loughborough University.

“It’s hard as I have to drive to Loughborough two times a week, so it’s a lot of driving. But it’s something I must do as I know I a need a degree for my future,” he explained.

“The key is being organised. I have my year planned out; I’m in good contact with my tutors and lecturers. I’ve started back full-time training now, and it is hard after a long day of lots of physical work to come home and focus on learning.

“But I will find a way. I’m not the first to do it and sure won’t be the last.”

Next generation

At 25, and with several international honours to his name, McKibbin is in a good position to give advice to the next generation of future Paralympians – and his key message is the importance of a strong work ethic and mental resilience.

“It will take a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice but, if you have a dream, you should go for it and never let anyone tell you otherwise,” he explained.

“There will be lots of ups and downs, but it’s the down periods that make you learn the most about yourself. Enjoy the lows because they make the success taste that much sweeter!”

Aaron is on Twitter @Kibsta91. Featured image ©Supercharge ParalympicsGB

Wheelchair racer Lawson insists his best is yet to come

November 16, 2016 in Interviews

After a training crash which left him paralysed, motocross racer Simon Lawson admits he struggled with a “void” that needed to be filled.

The Cumbrian found a fresh outlet for his competitive nature in endurance wheelchair racing, and was delighted to be selected by Team GB for this year’s Rio Paralympics.

“It feel like it’s definitely been my best year to date,” he  told me. “I’ve set new personal best times, plus being selected to represent our country in the Paralympics was a massive highlight.”

“Wheelchair racing was the sport I chose to fill that void in my life, and so far things are going great”

Lawson, 34, finished 14th in the men’s marathon in the T53 class (for athletes with full use of their arms but limited trunk and lower body movement) in Brazil.

He followed that up with races in Berlin, Chicago, Scotland and New York – in the famous Big Apple marathon, he crossed the line in sixth place.

“New York came at the end of a very busy six-week period, and I think it has got to be one of my best results of the year.

“I didn’t win and it wasn’t my fastest time, but I exceeded my expectations in that race and I managed to get my best position against the best athletes in the world.”

“Berlin was also a good race, finishing sixth again but only six seconds behind the winner and Rio Paralympics gold medalist Marcel Hug. So I think I proved to myself and the other athletes what I was capable of.”

‘Hard to let go’
simon-lawson-motorcross

Lawson competed at national level in motocross before an accident in 2001 left him paralysed from the chest down.

“It’s never easy leaving anything you love doing. I obviously had no choice but to quit motocross because of my injury, but it still was hard to let that go,” he admits.

“Wheelchair racing was the sport I chose to fill that void in my life, and so far things are going great.”

His job at Jack Horseman Motorcycles in Carlisle keeps up his connection with two-wheeled machines, but it’s his three-wheeled racing chair that has taken him to the highest level of disability sport.

Personal parade

After that impressive 14th place finish in Rio, Lawson was excited to take part in the Olympic and Paralympic celebration in Manchester.

But he was even more thrilled when he discovered that the people of his hometown Mayport had organised a street parade to mark his return from Brazil.

“That truly was amazing, I was blown away by the parade! They closed off the main street and let the local schools have the morning off to come and cheer for me. What a reception.

“It was even more special than the Team GB parade in Manchester because this was local and personal and just for me.

“I couldn’t believe how many people turned out and supported me. It will be a moment I will remember for the rest of my life.”

Pride

Of course, taking part in the Team GB event was, Lawson stresses, another very special day.

“It was such an honour to be part of it. Parading through the streets of Manchester with thousands of people cheering and waving GB flags.

“I aim to be at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and hopefully this time bring home a medal”

“It gave me a massive sense of pride and also a lot of motivation to continue in my sport and represent my country again.”

Now that the racing season is over for the wheelchair racer, you would think that he deserves some off time and a break from the sport before the tough training regime starts again next year. Wrong.

Lawson said: “I’ve had a short break from training and racing, but now I’m starting my winter training programme to get ready for 2017. I’m aiming to work on my weaknesses and develop my strengths.”

Funding

Despite the progress he has made in 2016, Lawson didn’t do enough to keep his lottery funding for 2017.

He admits it is a blow, and knows that being self-funded next season will be tough. But he sees it as “extra motivation” to prove people wrong and is determined to get good results and use the prize money to help out with his costs.

“I plan to compete in the Abbott World Major marathon series, races in Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York, plus some track races and races in this country between the major events.

“I aim to be at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and hopefully this time bring home a medal.”

You can follow Simon Lawson on Twitter @_SL74. Image courtesy of timeandstar.co.uk

St Mary’s on track for more success as Worlds head to London

November 15, 2016 in News & Features

The clock is ticking and the race is on to qualify for the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London.

Next summer, elite competitors from all over world will descend on the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, reviving memories of the 2012 Games.

But can the magic of that hugely successful event – and the medal haul they generated for Team GB – be recreated five years on?

With London at its multicultural and vibrant best for the Olympics and Paralympics, the achievements and record-breaking moments of 2012 still feel fresh in the mind.

As does the joyous spectacle and bouncing energy, the pride and joy that filled the Olympic Stadium – compared to the rows of empty seats and lack of atmosphere at the Rio 2016 Games.

From the athletes to the fervent crowds and army of ever-helpful ‘Games Makers’, London showed how the Olympics should be, and for the world to see.

Great show

At St Mary’s University’s Endurance Performance and Coaching Centre (EPACC) in south-west London, staff are confident that the 2017 IAAF and IPC World Athletics Championships can match will have a similar feel-good factor.

“Seeing the likes of Farah and Bolt training here just gives them so much inspiration”

“It was fantastic, I have never seen a crowd like London,” said Rowan Axe, an assistant at EPACC. “I don’t think you will ever beat what we had, the home support was just fantastic.

 “London in particular, it’s so multicultural, they just get behind everyone, whether they be a British or American or whatever, the crowd is behind them.

“And for athletes, competing in front of their home crowd provides inspiration. Next summer is going to be brilliant – London always put on a great show.”

St. Mary’s has played an important role in the achievements of British athletics, with the likes of Mo Farah and Jo Pavey among its success stories in recent years.

Endurance

“For distance it’s right up there,” said Axe. “I think we produced around 40% of the endurance squad selected to represent Team GB for the Rio Olympics.

“That’s a testimony to the Centre, and looking ahead to the Worlds in 2017, I think there will be a similar number of EPACC-supported athletes competing for Britain.

“Andy Vernon in 5k and 10k, you might have Adele Tracey for the 800m, the list can go on. I think the Centre is helping to produce the great endurance athletes that we need. The continued support from the London Marathon is crucial to enhancing those athletes to get to that next level.”

As well as helping to hone British talent, EPACC’s reputation for sporting excellence has also seen it play host to some of the world’s greatest athletes.

Like Farah, Jamaica’s nine-time Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt  has occasionally trained at the EPACC in preparation for major events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Ambassador

“It’s a huge benefit to both British athletics and endurance running if it inspires student athletes to try and get to that level. If they can see those calibre of athletes  it inspires them to push themselves,” Axe said.

“A lot of these students are still very young and have a long way to go. But seeing the likes of Farah and Bolt training here just gives them so much inspiration.

“We need to get the profile of athletics out there a bit more, but hopefully it will continue to grow, and we will get more people watching it”

“It’s great that Farah is a huge ambassador for our university. A lot of these students look up to him, and it definitely gives them a lot of fuel to achieve some success.”

According to Axe, the EPACC has played a big role in the Somali-born runner’s feats, which this summer included defending his London 2012 5,000m and 10,000m titles in Rio.

“Farah used the Centre to his advantage, he progressed year on year, looking to take that extra step, and that is ultimately what to took him to the Nike project in America.

“But without the support that he had from the Centre, he might not be the athlete he is today. It definitely helped his career.”

Right direction

However, even Farah’s success and with the 2017 Worlds on the horizon, Axe believes British endurance running still needs plenty of nurturing and support.

“In the UK, you go to some of our track meets around the country and there will be very little media coverage, there won’t be any big-name sponsors, it lacks a bit of that environment.

“I think they we need to get the profile of athletics out there a bit more, but hopefully it will continue to grow, and we will get more people watching it.

 “It’s definitely going in the right direction, it is getting there.”

Medals for Team GB at next summer’s eagerly-awaited athletics extravaganza in Stratford can only help that process.

‘I decided to text my coach and quit. It was my lowest point’

November 8, 2016 in Interviews

Ryan Crouch admits he came close to giving up the sport he loves last year, having grown frustrated as health problems took their toll on his confidence and abilities.

The two-time cerebral palsy world swimming champion recalls: “In December 2014, I had health setbacks that forced me out of the pool. After a few months not training, I decided to text my coach that I would be quitting. It was the lowest point of my life.”

But after taking a break and clearing his head, the Essex-born Paralympian realised he needed to be back in the water and doing what he’s does best.

“In April 2015, after a few other issues outside of the pool and health aside, I decided I missed swimming too much. Added to this, I was asked to compete at the Cerebral Palsy World Games and it was an opportunity I simply couldn’t refuse.

“For the first time in a while I really had something to focus on, and just four months later I found myself in the England cerebral palsy team and took two golds in Nottingham.”

Missed out

Fast forward to this summer, and Crouch found himself lining up in the 50m freestyle final in his classification (S9) at the 2016 Paralympics, having won his heat.

He finished down in eighth place, but just getting to Rio has fuelled his desire to compete again on disabled sport’s biggest stage in Tokyo 2020.

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Crouch wins his heat in Rio

“Rio was like something I have never seen before, the Brazilian fans were incredible, so loud and so passionate. My parents being there and watching me take on the world was so important for me.

“They have always been so supportive of my dreams and ambitions as a swimmer.”

The only sour note in his Paralympic experience came when the 22-year-old missed out on selection for the relay team.

“It was a big blow not being selected for something I’ve always wanted to be a part of,” he says about what is still clearly a subject that rankles with him.

“The most important thing for me is I was happy with my individual 50m and 100m freestyle performances in Rio, and it has given me a taste for more international success.”

Hero

As well as the family and friends who have backed him all the way, another person who Crouch hopes will cheering him on towards the 2020 Games is his hero James Hickman.

“The disappointment of missing out on my home games added fuel to the fire for Rio”

He’s never forgotten how the five-time world champion took time out to offer him some encouragement when he met him as a boy.

“I was just 11 years old at the time,” he told me. “I was training at Harwich & Parkeston Swimming Club, which was my club at the time, and he came to have a talk with us.

“I remember him sitting me down individually and giving me the most inspiring chat about his experiences and his journey.

“But the most important thing I learnt from James was to maintain the love for swimming.

“He gave me a motivational CD to play in the car too, and it really did all start from there. That is when my Olympic dream started.”

Tattoo

Having missed out on the London 2012 Paralympics, Crouch, who has a mild form of cerebral palsy, celebrated his Rio adventure with an Olympic rings tattoo – a permanent reminder of his call-up to compete on the global stage.

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Crouch’s tattoo

“The disappointment of missing out on my home games added fuel to the fire for Rio, and it’s a tattoo I said I would always get if I ever made it there.

“It’s the biggest and best achievement of my life so far, and one I want to remember forever – the tattoo is the perfect way to depict it.

“My other tattoo ‘Forever Young’ is dedicated to my late cousin and grandad who supported my dream so much and were sadly taken too early.

“Every time I step into the pool, it’s for them and they are always so close to my heart.”

Coaching

Crouch dedicates a lot of his time to coaching others, and believes it is a major part of his progression as a swimmer.

“When I look back to before I started coaching, I was very young and didn’t understand the sport like I do now,” he explained. “These last five years of coaching has really opened my eyes to it all.

“Swimming can be a very lonely sport, like any individual sport, so the high points are something I cherish a lot”

“I love helping to improve and inspire others, it’s what gets me up in the morning, knowing that I am making a difference, and I definitely see my future in coaching in the long term.”

Having sampled one Paralympics, however, he’s hoping he’s got plenty more to offer as a competitor at the highest level.

“Of course I am aiming to compete at the next Games but for me, it’s about breaking down my aims into the short term,” he said.

“That includes maintaining my love for swimming and to go to the World Championships qualifiers in July next year and consequently make the team for Mexico.

“Keeping that burning desire for swimming deep inside of me is so important for me and any swimmer. Swimming can be a very lonely sport, like any individual sport, so the high points are something I cherish a lot.”

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