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Chapter 10 - Athens (First Part)

by hailfabio 

Posted: 03 March 2008
Word Count: 5460
Summary: Build up to Athens Paralympics

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Chapter 10

Athens 2004

ĎLast night I dreamed I ate a ten-pound marshmallow, and when I woke up the pillow was goneí Ė Tommy Cooper

Sometimes dreams arenít what they seem, when I graduated from University I thought my athletics results would take off as I would be able to concentrate 100% on athletics without the stresses and strains of University work, and I would be able to train at more suitable times, not just fit training in around University and work. Sometimes things donít work out the way you think they will, despite the fact that I was able to manage my time much better and I could train at sociable times of the day and get suitable rest between sessions. I had a tough year in 2003 though and struggled to improve, especially in discus, it was very frustrating. I did miss University even though it was a hard grind for me, I think itís important to have other focuses in life apart from athletics and maybe I was trying too hard and focusing too much energy into athletics post-University.

I did manage to pull some form together later in the year at the Cerebral Palsy Nationals, where in set a big new world record of 33.49 metres Ė over a metre and a half more than the mark I set in Lille. It was an emotional landmark for me because 33 metres was Normanís personal best in the club and I always told him that I would beat it one day, just a shame that Norman couldnít be there to see it but it was special that his wife Margaret was there to see it. Norman died late in 2002 after being ill for a while with asbestosis, the news came as a real shock as I hadnít known he was ill, I regret not being able to see him one last time before he died, but I know he watched me throwing that 33 metres and was probably saying what a lucky sod I was.

That performance gave me a boost going into winter training, every winter is so important to me as it feels like Iím starting afresh and Iím build the new version of my ready for the following season Ė almost like how Formula 1 teams develop a new car for the start of every season, Iím developing a new me. The winter coming up was the most important of my life, but thatís the way I think about every winter anyway, however I seem to have a built in mechanism that ups the ante in the build up to a Paralympics, I manage to find new levels of commitment, focus and desire. I started my training in November with two weeks of circuit training, I started off at 40 seconds per exercise with 20 seconds rest in between, Ray told me that I was probably the only athlete in the world that could go back into training at that level. The first session I did I had to go outside to be sick in between sprints after I had done the circuits, mum decided I had done enough by then.

Iíve always been very passionate about disability sport and have been interested in coaching and trying to get more disabled people into sport, especially young people. Me and mum had spoke for a while about setting up a club for disabled people to come and do specifically field athletics Ė throwing to be exact. I got my finger out and did my level one coaching qualification and that meant I could coach along side my mum, the course was very basic and I flew through it, one of the course deliverers told me that I had a natural coaching instinct and I could pick up technical errors very quickly Ė I put that down to the way Ray has coached my, he always made me think about every aspect of my training and understand why I do everything that he asks me to do, Ray teaches his athletes to be almost self-autonomous while still needing to be driven in the right direction.

With my level one under my belt we could start trying to get a club going, Gateshead Harriers were happy to support it and allow us to use the harrierís training time at Gateshead Stadium. Mum invited some kids from Percy Hedley School to come and do some throwing and training, one of the reasons we were doing this was because there were lots of sports clubs for disabled people but they were basically recreational and incorporated lots of different sports, we felt there was a need for an athletics specific club where disabled people could train seriously for the sport. I myself even though I had success at a young age, I still saw myself as a role model for other disabled people and young people in general, by having the opportunity to train along side me, me and mum hoped that some of my good habits and enduring desire to work hard and never be beat would rub off on the kids Ė I suppose itís quite unique that kids as young as 14 could train with a Paralympic champion week in week out, I just trained as normal and pushed the kids to their limits, within reason of course. The first time that we did circuits I think most of the parents couldnít believe what we were getting their kids to do.

As Iíve said before in this book, athletics and in particular the physical training has given me so much in terms of confidence and improve my disability, in general I find that too many disabled people are unwilling or scared to discover what they can do, and instead they focus on what they canít do, which in my opinion in the wrong way to look at it. This is one of the first things we tried to address with the kids at our club, and quite often we found that if my mum asked one of the kids to do an exercise they might say they couldnít do it, and then they would see me doing it and think God, heís more disabled than me and he can do it, and then they have a go Ė one good example is a lad called Scott who got involved with the club through having the same physiotherapist as me, he said he wouldnít be able to do squat thrusts as part of his circuit, then he saw me doing them and the next thing you know heís doing them.

With the group we trained on Tuesday and Thursday nights at Gateshead Stadium, as well as benefiting the kids and helping mum to develop her coaching skills, I really think it gave my training an edge Ė Iíd never trained as part of a group, Iíd always trained on my own which had suited me, especially in the gym, but I have got an ego like any other sports person and Iím ultra competitive so I revelled training in a group atmosphere and also training amongst the other groups at the harriers. Iíve always been of the opinion that integration between disabled and able bodied athletes isnít practical and doesnít benefit either group, but training along side the other able bodied athletes at Gateshead Harriers gave me a new sense of belonging and purpose, and I felt that we were equal, I hope the kids felt that way too. I recall times in my youth when it might have felt awkward or embarrassing for a group of disabled people doing physical activity in amongst able bodied people for fear of being stared at or laughed at, especially where kids are involved, but there was none of that at the harriers, everyone was so warm and open, it was a great environment to train in.

Another benefit of training amongst the harriers was being able to see how other people train and pick up new ideas. For me, Iím a very insular person and I donít mean that as a self put down, I just mean that when it comes to training or anything important in my life I look to the people that I know well and I trust, and I believe in what they tell me, I believe that it is the best and I donít take much notice of what anyone else says. Of course, that is probably why I am a good athlete, but it is also why the people I trust need to be damn good. Mum is very good at picking up new ideas and adapting different training exercises for people with different levels of ability, so for mum it was a great opportunity for her to expand her coaching knowledge and introduce able bodied training methods to people with disability. I know for a fact that the able bodied groups learnt from us as well and over the weeks and months I could see that they started doing some similar things to us and we had started doing similar things to them. Sharing ideas and methods is a key part of athletics, and whilst you do not want to share your key success secrets with your competitors, I canít see the points in hiding your knowledge from other coaches and athletes that arenít in direct competition with you like so many coaches do Ė however I guess the problem is that a lot of coaches are in direct competition, they are competing for athletes, to get onto teams and to get jobs, itís a dog eat dog world and thatís why many coaches are reluctant to share their secrets.

One thing that you canít teach or coach someone is to train hard, itís either in you or itís not, it is an overused clichť but thatís because itís true, the hardest part of being a coach must be seeing athletes that have all the ability in the world but never fulfil their potential because they havenít got that innate ability to work hard in training. I fully intend to coach properly when Iíve finished competing but Iím not sure how I could cope when faced with that situation, because no amount of encouraging, shouting or talking can make an athlete work consistently hard. Iím always being praised for my work-rate in training, itís nice that I get that recognition and Iíd be lying if I said I didnít get a little boost from it, but at the end of the day itís a part of me and training hard is what makes me tick.

During this winter I really felt stronger and fitter than ever before, I mean Iíve trained hard all my athletics life and been lucky enough to have been very fit but I felt like there was something extra there in the winter before Athens, I was totally over my post University blues and had no distractions or obstacles to my 100% focus on athletics Ė this was my destiny and my future. I was throwing, jumping and sprinting longer and faster, and making massive improvements, I just had to keep up the good work and keep my feet on the floor, after all, Paralympic gold medals arenít won with a few months of quality training, they are won with 12 to 24 months of quality training.

Instead of going to Villamoura as usual for warm weather training, I headed out to Paphos is Cyprus with the rest of the GB team as that was the BPA holding camp ahead of Athens and the BPA, with good reason, wanted the Paralympic sports to make the most of it. The training camp wasnít over Easter, so Ray was unable to go, as being a maths teacher he couldnít get time off work, but the good news was that Ken would allow my mum to go as my coach/carer, maybe the things Iíd been saying over the past four years were finally starting to sink into Kenís head. Thatís what I was hoping because I had turned down the chance to go to Cyprus the year before because I totally disagreed with the staff that Ken was taking Ė my mates think Iím crazy when I turn down going to these hot exotic places, but thatís because they think itís a holiday with a bit of training thrown in here and there, they donít understand that itís more like a boot camp.

As usual, travelling to Cyprus was no picnic, things always seem to go a bit nipples up when I go abroad with sport. Mum and I flew to Heathrow from Newcastle, which was no problem, itís always at Heathrow where things start going wrong, instructions were to leave our equipment and bags at Heathrow to save the pretty much impossible task Ė in my case anyway Ė of getting it all to the hotel and back. It took an absolute age, one - to find the place, two Ė to get all the stuff up in the lift, three Ė the guys behind the desk just looked like they wanted to go home after a long dayís work and were slow and stop, then I found out I had to pay per item Ė what a rip off airports are. Anyway, once we sorted that out we had to find our way to the hotel, which was in Slough Ė yes, of ĎOfficeí fame. It was getting pretty late by now and we went to catch the shuttle bus, we waited over half an hour but no bus, it was after 10 oíclock at night and we were both starting to get tired and pissed off, we left Newcastle in the afternoon and so far it had taken us over five hours to get down to London, nightmare.

We even tried to get a taxi as we didnít foresee a bus turning up in a hurry, we got to the front of the taxi queue and were about to get into a taxi when he told us it was a fixed charge of £40 to go anywhere, I said that we were only going to a hotel in Slough five minutes away but he said it didnít matter, it was still going to be £40, so we said stuff that and told the taxi driver that we would wait for the bus and pay £5 instead. It was getting ridiculous Ė itís why I hate Heathrow and I hate London, well I donít hate London as such, I like it when Iím where I need to be in London and I donít need to go anywhere, itís just getting into and out of London thatís not much fun Ė I do hate Heathrow though, the place is just a shambles, it amazes me how so many planes take off and land amid ensuing chaos.

Iíd just bought myself an ipod, mainly as a present to myself for Athens, and I had gotten through most of the Stone Roses by the time the bus eventually came just before 11pm, at one point I really thought we would be camping out in the airport overnight. So we arrived at the hotel in Slough, tired and battered from a long day of travelling, only to be told that we werenít even booked in, it was the final straw, the receptionist wasnít very helpful at all, we tried to explain that we were probably sharing rooms with other people that had already booked in, but eventually we had to find out which room Paul Williams was in and phone him up, he was still waiting up for me as I was sharing with him, it was well after 12pm when I got to bed and I had to be up at 5am for the morning flight to Cyprus Ė great preparation for a training camp.

Iíd heard lots of good reports about the Coral Beach resort in Paphos, where we were staying, and it didnít disappoint, it was a tremendously plush hotel right overlooking a big bay into the sea, it was very similar to the Radisson resort that we stayed in at the Gold Coast. Another thing that was similar to Australia was the heat, I donít really mind the heat normally but it was searing, you could almost feel the sun burning your skin and it was so bright that it hurt your eyes, I donít particularly like wearing sunglasses or hats so it took my eyes a while to adjust. Like most of the fabulous hotels Iíve stayed in, the food was unbelievable with pretty much any type of food you like available for breakfast, lunch and dinner, us athletes had to be careful though because we were being weighed before and after every training session and tested for dehydration every morning. The weighing thing wasnít a problem for me because all my life Iíve ate like a horse and never gone up and down in weight, so at the evening meal I tucked into a bit of everything that was on offer, mostly meat as Iím very carnivorous, I couldnít resist the deserts either, much to the annoyance of Danny who was trying to be good.

The morning dehydration test was much more of a problem, at first I thought it wouldnít be a problem, all I had to do was pee into a little pot I thought, but when I went to try it I realised that it was going to be harder than I thought and my coordination skills werenít quite up to it, I ended up with a tiny amount in the pot and peed all over the bathroom, not good. Like always though I wasnít beaten, between me, my mum and Danny we found a way round it, obviously I didnít want Danny to hold the pee-pot for me Ė weíre good mates but not that good, and it wasnít very practical for mum to come to the room at 7am when we had to take the sample as soon as we got up Ė but I could manage to pee in a bigger pot, so we got a beaker-type thing and then Danny would pour my pee from that into the proper pot, thatís when you know youíve got a good mate when heís prepared to handle your piss, lovely stuff.

Of course it was the normal result for me, drinking gallons of water and still coming back as dehydrated even though I felt fine Ė Iíve never been into sports science and all that crack, I guess itís because I never grew up with it and with the upbringing of my parents and the coaching of Norman and then Ray, I was ingrained with basic values of endeavour, honesty and trust and other such values and I was taught to take responsibility for my own destiny, Iím not saying that sports science doesnít share some of those values but I think maybe it can end of getting athletes too bogged down in the tiny details of things that possibly donít make significant differences when it comes to performing, and I find sports science can make us take our eyes off the bigger picture. I certainly feel there are lots more factors to consider in disability sport when it comes to testing and monitoring athletes, in my case my athetosis means I have a high metabolism so water passes through my body more quickly, it doesnít necessarily mean Iím dehydrated, but the scientific test says I am. I suppose at 24 I was already an old fart who was very sceptical of all this kind of thing and reluctant to change my ways since theyíd been bringing me success for so long, but at the end of the day if sports science can help you to improve the it is a good thing, so long as you donít over rely on it and put it into context with everything else that goes into a performance.

There are only so many hours I can reasonably train for and my approach is to fill that time with stuff that is going to have the biggest positive impact on my performance. Iím probably a bit old fashioned in that sense, but Iím still not adverse to different ways of thinking, and what the dehydration testing taught me was that drinking water was no good for me, which is when I started drinking Powerade as that stayed in my system longer. Looking back to then, I was coming up to my 24th birthday and was as fit as you like, I thought I was indestructible and though all this sports science stuff was just a load of old crap that I had to put up with. Now though since Iíve had some injuries and the body isnít as robust as it was, I recognise that sports science has a role in performance sport, even though I think too much emphasis is often placed on it.

Apart from my dehydration problems the camp was going very well, I knew I was in good shape and my training was reflecting that, the heat wasnít causing me much of a problem either. There was a pretty good team spirit in the team, particularly amongst the throwers, despite the strict restrictions placed on us such as not being able to go down to the pool between 12pm and 3pm, and not being able to sunbathe, and the hotel being dry (no alcohol), we were still able to pass our down time well Ė Danny beat me at pool regular, but then again I do play with my hand instead of a cue, I got him down to the black once but I couldnít hit the damn thing even though it was over the pocket. There was plenty in the hotel to keep us occupied, I got my own back on Danny playing Sega Rally, his could beat me for love nor money and he was really getting annoyed about it, but what he didnít understand was that I was obsessed with that game when it first came out and played on it constantly on my Mega CD console. Danny hammered me at table football but I was convinced the table was sloped against me, that was until we swapped sides and Danny hammered me again. We did get in the outdoor pool now and again, after 3pm of course, and it was cold as most outdoor pools are, Paul Williams, Danny Greaves and Kenny Churchill main went in the indoor pool, only because the thought the girl on the reception was fit Ė tarts that they are, I had a look but I didnít think she was that fit but then again I have got high standards, which is probably the reason behind my singleness.

Mike and Barbara did what they do best, find a bar Ė Iím only joking, they have been a God-send to me at times over my athletics career, but they did find a nice bar near the hotel where we could go to when appropriate. It was just nice to get out the hotel now again and maybe have a cheeky shandy or two. The bar had all the English football on the TV, so I managed to catch a few games and keep up to date with what was happening in the Premiership, very important stuff for me Ė I was particularly disappointed that I couldnít be at St. Jamesí Park for the game against Chelsea, though I watched it at the bar, it was a cracking game and Alan Shearer scored with a 35 yard volley, the game was so good that I was late for my massage which didnít go down too well.

There was only one wheelchair accessible bus on the island, much like Lanzorote, the company that had the bus was owned by a guy called Andreas, he was very friendly and nothing was too much for him, he seemed to work 24 hours a day for the entire time we were there, he had a good sense of humour and we became good friends over the two weeks I was there. Having one bus for the whole team meant having to be prompt when going training, Iím not the best time keeper in the world so I had to try really hard not to miss the bus.

Like I said before it was a pretty strict camp, which I donít mind all, we are there to do a job and itís important to stay focused and professional, but I donít like not being trusted or given the respect I deserve Ė one day whilst waiting to get on the bus the team manager questioned me wearing a sleeveless top, telling me that I should be covering myself up from the sun, even though I had a ton of sun block on, it really angered me and I felt like a school kid again. I know in any sport you need authority and discipline but I found it ridiculous, especially for someone with my experience and self discipline Ė people might say my discipline is bad because I like a drink now and again, and I like a bit of a sun tan, and I maybe misbehave sometimes, but I donít think many athletes can boast the same level of acute self discipline that makes me demand the best of myself in every single training session. Like Iíve said many times, I know when I can misbehave and when I canít and I think the fact that I do Ďmisbehaveí when I can keeps me sane and helps me to retain my strong inner drive.

Decathlete Dean Macy was also in Paphos at the same time as us with his training group, Dean is someone Iíve always admired, I like the way he competes and his attitude towards sport. It made me even angrier that Iíd been told off for allowing my arms to get a bit of sun, while Dean Macy and his training partners were stripped to the waist and their coach even helped them to put sun block on before they trained. Macy was very nice and down to earth, and it was interesting to kind of see how the other half live, as we were all fairly stressed and constantly worrying about breaking the strict code of conduct, Macy and his group operated in a relaxed environment and even chilled out with a beer in our hotel at night time. It frustrated me a bit because I saw myself as an athlete of the same level or even higher than Dean Macy and I was being treat like a kid, but I guess that was down to the fact that I was there with UK Athletics while Macy was there with his personal coach and training group Ė probably the sponsorship he got covered the camp. Watching Macy and his group train, I probably a bit jealous of the respect and trust they afforded to conduct themselves accordingly without having to be constantly told what they couldnít do. I wasnít bitter, that was just the way it was, without wanting to sound arrogant, I was probably frustrated because I felt I was at a certain level where I could be given a little slack, although I understood why the less experienced athletes needed the firmer hand. I guess itís pretty much the same now, though Iíve learned to accept it more in my older and wiser years.

In my opinion, the whole point of us being in Cyprus was to experience the kind of conditions that we were going to be competing in Athens, and in my mind the best way to get used to and acclimatised to a different climate is to spend time out in the conditions, not holed up in an air conditioned hotel room. However Iím no sports scientist so how do I know whatís best for me, despite all my moaning about the camp it was actually very positive and I got through a lot of quality work, I was throwing very well and was confident that it would set me up well for the rest of the season, not least for when I returned in August.

On the last night of the camp things were relaxed a bit, and after going out to the bar for a meal with a few of the team, me and a few athletes headed off to someoneís room to watch DVDís and drink some red wine Ė well I say some red wine, but it turned into three or four bottles of red wine and I woke up pretty rough the next day. We didnít fly until later in the day and so it was just a case of waiting around the hotel for a few hours, which was no fun for me as I was feeling fairly awful and was trying to hide that fact from everyone Ė I am such a lightweight, I know that, but Iíll sick to me age-old excuse that itís because I drink through a straw. With the help of Danny and mum I managed to conceal my hangover from Ken Kelly.

It turned out to be a very long day for me Ė UK Athletics had booked the latest and possibly cheapest flight to Heathrow, so me and mum had to fly up to Newcastle the next morning, meaning we had to go through all the rigmarole of leaving our stuff at Heathrow and getting to the hotel in Slough. Once again we got to the hotel late at night, this time were booked in but there was no room for us because the hotel was full, something to do with a cock up at central reservations Ė it could only happen in London. After waiting for nearly an hour in reception, we were informed that we would have to go to another hotel and they were going to order us a taxi, it was closing on 12 oíclock and I was so tired and extremely unhappy. Things werenít about to get any better, the taxi turned up and it wasnít a wheelchair taxi, it was becoming a nightmare, the car was an estate and the driver insisted that he could lift my wheelchair into the back of his car, I said no way but he wasnít going to listen to a stupid disabled person, in the end he was so determined not to be proved wrong that he got another driver to help him lift my wheelchair in the car, the other driver had to come with us to help get it out at the other end Ė no wonder I donít like travelling, but itís the only way to get anywhere.

It was after 1am when we finally got to bed, getting about four hours sleep, it hardly seemed worth leaving the airport, itís one of the worst journeys Iíve ever endured, I was absolutely knackered when I got home, and I had a competition in two days at Cannock. The competition was just a Cerebral Palsy Sport Grand Prix but it was a Paralympic qualifier so I wanted to do well and I still needed the qualifying standard in the discus. I had one day to recover before mum drove me down to Birmingham, which isnít an easy journey either and of course we got lost trying to find the hotel to complete the misery of my wretched preparation for this competition Ė there must be more speed cameras on the road to Cannock than anywhere else in the country Ė and even worse than that, some clever person decided it would be a good idea to set off the fire alarm and get everyone out of bed at 3am in the morning.

Despite all of this I was still very confident the next day, the adrenalin of the first competition of Paralympic season was enough to override any tiredness or fatigue I may have been feeling. It was a decent day for throwing, fairly overcast with not much wind going around, there were lots of competitors from all over the country Ė probably more than Iíve ever seen at a CP Grand Prix Ė this would have been because it was the first opportunity of the year to qualify for Athens. My discus was first up, I had a tough task to qualify in the discus with the minimum standard being a metre further than my personal best, but Iíve never been so determined to do something in my life than I was to qualify for discus, I was convinced I would do it.

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Comments by other Members

Richard Brown at 19:06 on 04 March 2008  Report this post

Very interesting - a real insight I feel. The style is what you might call conversational but that's fine. Your voice comes through clear and strong.

There's a fair bit of editing to be done (I noticed a few occasions when 'me' turned into 'my' and other things) but that's a job for later.

The accounts of travel were exhausting just to hear about so the reality must have been ( as you graphically depict) nightmare-ish. You're obviously not short of grit and determination! (but then that's doubtless what made you such a successful athlete)

I look forward to the next section.


BobCurby at 16:51 on 23 May 2008  Report this post
I find this a poignant and gritty tale of determination. There are one or two classic cliches, but we all suffer from them. You write it as I am sure you speak, it's a natural narrative.

Keep it going.

BobCurby at 17:59 on 31 March 2009  Report this post

I just took a little time to re-read that episode in your life. Heathrow to me is a nightmare, and I am only slightly walking impaired, I do have to admire not only your courage in going through it, but your candid description of it too.

I'm sure you'd find Stanstead a lot more capable and friendly - though they don't have the hotels or shuttle buses that Heathrow has.

I think this has the makings of a good 'reader', I hope it does sell and make you enough money to sponsor your love of sport.


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