This weekend was the official British Paralympic Association launch event. With less than 60 days to go until competition starts in Rio, we’re into the final leg of four years of hard work. It’s got me thinking about how I got here and why I do what I do
My Paralympic focus began in 2008. It seemed a crazy dream to try and get to the 2012 Paralympics in London; little did I expect to be here for another four-year cycle and heading for Rio de Janeiro. Since I began training in 2008, a handbike has become an extension of my body; when it’s missing, I feel like part of me is missing. It seems wrong that a bundle of carbon and aluminium – a material thing – can feel so profoundly part of me. However, since I fell off a cliff whilst rock-climbing and became paralysed from the chest down in 1993, over-sized pieces of equipment have provided me with mobility and the opportunity for adventure, be it a wheelchair, a handbike, a sit-ski, a kayak…
My first ever handbike experience was in a spinal injuries hospital. I tried out a clip-on handbike that fits onto the front of a wheelchair. I hated it. It didn’t support my upper body and I found myself just wobbling around, not able to put any power down, and actually going slower than in my wheelchair. But I knew that I wanted to cycle. I felt sure it offered a ticket to something fun and free, so I had a unique handbike made, a giant Harley of a machine: a tandem, hand-pedalled at the front, leg-pedalled at the back, both riders in a recumbent position. It is a monster of a bike, weighing in at around 30kg, and almost four metres long (it’s currently in the Glasgow Museum of Transport!), but it was my freedom machine. In the beginning there were just short rides, on regular roads and lanes, but gradually my imagination took off. With whoever was willing to ride it with me, I pedalled into forests and over mountains, from the Cairngorms of Scotland to the Himalayas of Central Asia, from the Outer Hebrides to the length of New Zealand. The bike opened up a world of adventure. Trundling slowly through wilderness, lugging my wheelchair on its back, it enabled some of the life-changing journeys I had dreamt of.
Hand-cycling wasn’t really a developed sport back then – but in the last twenty years it has exploded (well, relatively …amongst people who can’t walk or ride a regular bike!).
My virgin experience of a racing handbike was at the first-ever European Handcycling Championships in the late 90’s. I turned up on a handbike a local Scottish frame-builder had made for me. It had a shiny red frame with a small ‘Made in Scotland’ sticker on the back, a purple fabric seat and chunky tyres. The other sleek racing cyclists quickly named it the ‘tractor-bike’ and I seemed to be the laughing stock. I was slow in comparison to them and felt kind of foolish, not to mention that I turned up on my own, my bed wherever I could find a space (the train station platform with a sleeping bag and bivvi!), whilst the others were ‘real’ athletes with coaches and masseurs. A lap of the 15km race circuit on one of their bikes was 10 minutes quicker than on my bike. Yes, training counts for a lot, but the right equipment adds a lot too. I was last in all the races and decided perhaps it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t single-minded enough to commit to racing. I wanted fun with friends, time for adventures.
Ten years later, I was stranded on my stomach in bed for a few weeks with a small sore on my bum that I’d acquired on a sea kayak trip in Sweden with a too-hard seat. Pressure sores are the terror of any wheelchair user – the golden rule is to get off it quick until it’s healed. The chunk of bed rest coincided with the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. It also coincided with someone’s throwaway comment.
“I wonder how good you could be at one of these sports if you just concentrated on one thing instead of everything”.
I’ve always considered myself an all-round-have-a-goer, master of nothing. As I watched the handbikers race on the television in Beijing, a spark fired in my neurons.
“I wonder if you focused, if you could get to race your handbike in the London 2012 Paralympics?”
It seemed impossible: any races I’d entered, I’d only ever come last. As in, really last – the organisers were packing up, and in two races there had been no finish line left to cross! But the idea wouldn’t go away, and by chance I had a more racy handbike already on order. I started training more than ever, though I knew nothing about how to train properly. I didn’t own a heart-rate monitor, let alone know about zones, or power, or threshold, or lactate curves. Blissfully ignorant (oh how many things we’d never begin if we knew in advance what they would entail!), I embarked on this project – my ‘Olympic Experiment’ I called it – keeping it quiet because it felt too scary to tell any one: then I might have to commit and step up to the mark.
Over the next few years I discovered that with good tarmac and a racing handbike, I could steadily cruise at 25-30kmph and if feeling edgy enough, I could fly downhill at ridiculous speeds! In a good climate a handbike resembles a sun-bed on wheels; in a wet climate it’s like sitting in a broken shower, water spraying in all directions. Regardless, I rapidly fell in love: freedom, a pumping heart, flowing blood, the elements sculpting me. When we find our passion in life, it leads us. It takes us on a journey, internal and external, to special places.
So, eight years later, six of those as a professional cyclist (my ‘proper’ jobs in offices part of the distant past), one Paralympics and a silver medal gone, Rio beckons, big and exciting. I’m feeling a focus come over me like I’ve never felt before. It’s not a conscious decision – it’s as if my body is preparing me to be in the best form possible, on all levels, so that I can realise the dream I have: of this time up-grading from silver to gold.
It seems though that there is always at least one athlete I compete against who takes on a goddess-like status, who seems to have gladiator strength and power. It’s an easy habit to diminish myself into the ‘underdog’: something I’ve been all too good at in the past. I’ve been a pro at putting myself on a psychological back foot, seeing my competitors as stronger, faster and more capable, side-lining the hard work and effort that I too have put in. This time though, I feel self-trust and confidence like I’ve never experienced before, that perhaps only come with experience, a solid plan, a great team and a lot of hard work. I’m pushing through training sessions that hurt – a lot – where strength of mind is possibly more important than that of body. As the Spartan Up saying goes “Bleed in training so as not to suffer in battle”.
In these final weeks of preparation, I’m exploring that expression to the full. Bleeding in training means more than just pushing yourself constantly. It also means listening hard, so that we know when its time to quit the battle line and withdraw for the next round. Knowing when to say no, when to quit, when to stand up for what the quiet voice inside you is saying is just as important as knowing when to go out there and ‘bleed’. I’ve got quite good at listening, but not always at following through and acting on what I hear. A few weeks ago I felt quite overwhelmed by everything and found myself saying “I just feel like there’s too much pressure”. Yet I didn’t stop, change or cancel anything – I didn’t want to let anyone down. I just kept going, until I discovered another small pressure sore on my backside after a long, long training ride. I was forced to stop.
So I’ve come full circle: from that moment in 2008 when, lying on my tummy with a small pressure sore, I first felt inspired to dream of racing my bike in the Paralympics; to here and now, lying on my tummy again, in enforced recovery before ramping everything up for these final seven weeks into the Rio Paralympic Games. This time I’m chasing my dream not just of racing my bike in the Paralympics, but of winning the race. I’m bringing all of the lessons with me: focusing on the possibility of my own gladiator strength and power instead of on that of others, knowing I’ve been a Spartan this year and bled hard in training (and in resting!), and the importance of my own inner warrior: listening to and acting on the quiet voice inside instead of over-riding what it tells me. Maybe if we all did that, we’d be capable of more than we dare imagine.