September 4, 2019
When and why did you get interested in sport?
Both my parents loved sport, in particular football and Newcastle United. I met Kevin Keegan when I was three
and went to my first match aged five, which was Kevin’s testimonial when he flew off in a helicopter. For a while I believed that would happen at the end of every match! I was a member of the Junior Magpies and regularly played and went to matches. I was drawn to sport because I loved being competitive and trying to win.
When did you set your sights on becoming a Paralympian and what did it take to achieve this?
I started going to a weekly sports club at Percy Hedley School from about ten-years-old, where I was introduced to the Club Throw. The coach was Norman Burns, a Paralympian who competed at Seoul and Barcelona. The first time I really became aware of the Paralympics was when Norman’s cousin Michael brought his silver medal from Barcelona to the club. From then on, I wanted to be a Paralympian. My parents drove me all over the country to compete and regularly to Nottingham to see my coach Ray Knight. Within a year I won silver at the Cerebral Palsy World Games and the year after I was winning gold at the Atlanta Paralympics, aged just 16.
What has been your sporting highlight?
The Beijing 2008 Paralympics was the first time I competed in front of a full stadium. There were 80,000 people and the atmosphere was incredible. Despite throwing well, I found myself in fourth place with one throw to go. I threw 34.37 metres to go second and take home the silver medal. It’s still the furthest I’ve thrown in a major competition. It’s even more special because it was the last time my dad watched me compete. He was diagnosed with bowel cancer shortly after and we sadly lost him in 2010. To know he was there when I did my best-ever performance gives me a lot of pride and comfort.
What has been your biggest challenge and how have you overcome it?
Without a doubt it was battling a hip injury for many years up to the London 2012 Paralympics. It first flared up in 2006 and steadily got worse. In 2009, I was told by a specialist I needed a new hip and that it would continue to deteriorate unless I had surgery. However, the chance to compete in a home Paralympics was a once- in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I put off surgery. The hip did deteriorate, the pain and mobility got progressively worse, and I was having to take more painkillers and have injections. They were the two toughest years of my life and I got through it thanks to the support of my family, my physio, chiropractor and doctor – and by having a very stubborn attitude. I was picked to be the male athletics team captain – one of my greatest honours – but my performance was very disappointing. I think my body just didn’t quite last out. It’s easy to say in hindsight I perhaps should’ve had surgery but I’m happy with my decision. London was still amazing.
You’re currently looking for sponsorship and support to get to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. What help are you looking for and how can people get involved?
I’ve never been one to ask for help, but as I begin my journey towards what could be my last Club Throw at the Paralympics, I’m appealing for a bit of extra support. I need a new electric wheelchair, which is essential for my daily life and training. There are many other costs, such as travelling to competitions and vehicle maintenance. I’ve had, and still have, some amazing sponsors but finding financial sponsorship is becoming increasingly difficult. I’ve set up a page with Pledge Sport where people and companies can donate as much as they wish and get rewards in return. The website is: www.pledgesports.org/projects/tokyo-2020- vision/
Who or what inspires you?
My parents are my biggest inspiration and role models. They gave me a fantastic upbringing and instilled a positive mentality in me. I love to be challenged and that’s what inspires me most. You never know what you’re truly capable of unless you push yourself.
Why did you establish SMILE Through Sport?
I wanted to give something back and help create more opportunities for disabled people to participate in sport in the North East. In founding SMILE Through Sport in 2013, the idea was to use my profile to inspire the development of grassroots disability sport by encouraging participation and educating people. Six years on, we have delivered sport sessions and education programmes to thousands of new participants and worked with hundreds of organisations. Our workforce is growing, and we are gaining a reputation regionally and nationally.
What is the charity’s mission?
Our mission is to provide and encourage high- quality disability sports opportunities while inspiring individuals to participate, ultimately improving the perception and culture surrounding disability sport. We use the power of sport to inspire, educate and engage.
You’re also a web developer. What attracted you to this career?
I studied web and database development as part of my degree and I was also able to secure a part-time job that could fit around my athletics training. Getting my first job was exciting and nerve-wracking. As someone born with a severe disability, I grew up not knowing if I would be able to work, so it was a proud moment for me. I revelled in the challenge and really enjoyed my time at Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
Apart from Tokyo 2020, what does the future hold for you?
I want to continue my work with SMILE Through Sport to help it grow, and to expand my speaking, coaching and tutoring work. With the IPC and the Agitos Foundation, I’ve recently started delivering Proud Paralympian workshops and will continue to be an advocate for Paralympic sport. I also hope to make time to write another book to follow my 2008 autobiography and develop the skills I need for my future career, whatever that may be. Like every challenge, I’ll face it head on.