Tuesday, 26 August 2014

My Moment

Michael Johnson once said ‘life is often compared to a marathon, but I think it is more like being a sprinter. Long stretches of hard work punctuated by brief moments in which we are given the opportunity to perform at our best’.

On Monday 28 July at 10:35am it was finally time for me to have my moment. For so long I had dreamed of and worked towards representing my country, competing at the highest level and feeling like a world class athlete. When my name was announced to the crowd and 44 thousand people cheered in reply, it made all of the struggles I had ever faced in life fade away. At that precise moment in time, I had proved to myself that it is possible to do anything you put your mind to.

Lots of things appeared to be going wrong on the morning of my race, but nothing was going to faze me on my day. So what if I ripped my number, as I was pulling on my sprint suit and there was nothing I could do about breaking the zip on my running tights. None of that was going to prevent me from running. I had to have my left knee and right ankle strapped up by the physio team before registering at the England Athletics office and then going for breakfast. In the past eating before a race has been a challenge for me with the nerves usually getting the better of me. However, not on my day. A bowl of cereal, two croissants and a strawberry yoghurt went down a treat. We caught the 8.15 bus to Hampden Stadium and I was still feeling calm. Whilst warming up, my ankle began to throb. I had sprained it four days before by missing a couple of steps in the village. I wasn’t going to let it stop me and told myself the pain was purely psychological.

In first call up I was feeling ready. In second call up there was a misunderstanding and they didn’t allow us to use the warm-up track inside to do a few runs before going out to race. Everybody was in the same position, so that was that. The noise of the crowd didn’t over-whelm me when I went out to the stadium. I made sure I came the day before to soak up the atmosphere. I had prepared, I was ready.

When it comes to athletics and training, I am a very serious and focussed athlete, rarely cracking a smile. However, a smile did creep across my face when my name was announced to the crowd. As I climbed into the blocks and tightened the guide rope around my hand, the nerves swelled inside me and I felt my arms shake slightly in the set position.

I unfortunately didn’t go on the b of the bang, as the last thing I wanted to do was false start. This meant my start wasn’t as electric as I would have liked, but I drove out of the blocks and got up to speed well. For the first time in a race this year, my turnover felt snappy and I was coming off the track nicely. My guide runner and I were running in perfect harmony.

Another smile spread across my face when I crossed the line because I had done it, I had lived the dream and it honestly felt amazing.

The smile quickly faded when I learnt the time, as I was convinced I was going to sprint to a personal best performance. On the bright side I managed to come second in my heat as predicted, behind the athlete who would go on to win silver in the final. There were three heats with the first in each progressing to the final and one fastest loser spot. I just missed out on making the final, as I was the second fastest loser meaning I finished fifth overall in my first major championships. It was gutting not to make the final and not run as fast as I would have liked, but I placed much higher than I was predicted, remembering I was running against T12 athletes who have some useful vision.

In dreams events go to plan. In reality you never know what’s going to happen. I represented England and competed at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games finishing fifth in my first major championships. Nobody can take that away from me.

Dreamed it, lived it, loved it!

Monday, 18 August 2014

Village Life

I had just gotten used to the routine at the preparation camp when it was time to leave. Again on reflection, I wish I was excited about heading to the Commonwealth village, but the nerves of going to a new place over shadowed any other emotion. We flew with Air Estonia from Manchester to Glasgow and when we arrived at the airport we were greeted by traditional Scottish dancing and music. It was a short coach ride to the village. You had to pass through airport style security every time you entered the village and your accreditation was constantly checked.

It never occurred to me that they call athlete villages, villages because that’s exactly what they are! I never imagined the space to be so vast. The place was separated into countries and all I remember is having to pass through the Australian and Welsh quarters before reaching England. The accommodation was made up of lots of houses with approximately 20 people per house. They seemed to be two houses joint together, as mine had two staircases side by side. It was a good 10 minute walk to the dining hall for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The dining hall was something else. It was absolutely massive and no matter what time of day, it was always bustling with people. The food and drink was available 24hrs a day with dishes to suit every taste bud. Despite it being a dining hall for athletes, the dessert counters were a firm favourite with everyone it seemed including me, although I managed to resist attacking it until after I competed. There were some heart sinking moments when they ran out of your favourite flavoured ice-cream, cookies or muffins. Surprisingly, I only put on 3 pounds in weight after 2 weeks of eating too much food. Other than the main dining hall there was casual dining, which served BBQ style food and there were also lots of recreation centres providing drinks and snacks.

Alongside the free food and drink, there was a free laundry service and more importantly a free salon. It only seemed polite to take advantage of the hospitality, so I ensured I got my hair cut, nails manicured and treated myself to a facial too. When telling a friend about the great freebies, she teased that I would come back fat and beautiful!

Another vital part of village life was pin swapping. Each athlete was given 10 pins of their country’s flag to exchange. I was quite late to the pin party and didn’t attach mine to my accreditation until after I raced. Logically, to me anyway, I pinned all of mine down one side of my accreditation so when I swapped I knew which ones were my England pins and planned to put the new ones on the other side. Apparently, this wasn’t how regular athletes proceeded resulting in a fair few comments about my pinage! I didn’t do too well at swapping pins, ending up giving most of them away with nothing in return. However, I did manage to get Australian and Nauru flags, which I was pleased about. I bet not many people got Nauru!

Living in the village was amazing. It was so surreal having the opportunity to speak to people from all over the world, as well as have casual conversations with world class athletes. They called it the friendly games and it truly was. As a para athlete I was lucky enough to have the chance to integrate with mainstream athletes and I didn’t feel inferior once.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Prep Camp

I am not sure if words can describe the last month of my life, but I am going to try. On Wednesday 16 July, I travelled to Manchester for the England Athletics Commonwealth Games preparation camp. Looking back, I wish I was excited about the prospect. However, when you can’t see going to a new place is always daunting and even more so when you don’t really know anyone and you are unsure of what to expect. The initial plan was to keep Calvin, my Guide Dog with me throughout the experience, although I quickly found it difficult to take care of my own welfare, never mind having to worry about spending and feeding another being. I therefore had to make the extremely difficult decision to send my companion home in order to reduce my own stress levels. Guide Dogs are unbelievably helpful animals, yet in an unfamiliar environment with nobody to make it a familiar setting, achieving basic tasks such as finding a suitable spending area for your Guide Dog provides additional unnecessary challenges.

For some reason I thought the camp was going to be quite structured. However, I soon learnt that other than mealtimes, how you spent your time was completely up to you. At the start of the camp I made a trip to the team physios, as I had been running through a knee injury since last winter. It soon became apparent that the physio hub was going to become my second home. On average throughout my Commonwealth experience, I was receiving physio treatment at least twice per day whether it was being strapped, massaged or stretched. When you are not a funded athlete, it is impossible to access such an invaluable service and I am so grateful that I was able to receive specialist treatment even for a short period. Due to my injury, I had to take some time off of the track, but this didn’t mean I wasn’t training. I still did pool and gym sessions.

During the camp, we were treated to a fair few inspirational speeches. These included talks from the likes of Kelly Sotherton, Tom Parsons and Andy Turner. Each one highlighted the achievement of being selected to represent Team England, shared their lows as well as their highs and all advised that more than anything, we should all enjoy the experience. The speeches were one of my favourite elements of the preparation camp, as they always enhanced my psychological outlook.

Whilst at the camp, I turned 26. Last year I celebrated my birthday by going to Monkey World. This year I was in the process of living out my dream at the Commonwealth Games. I am not sure any birthday celebration will be able to compete again. Embarrassingly and surprisingly at dinner time that evening, I was presented with a birthday card and cake. It was a pretty special moment having the entire athletics team sing happy birthday to me.

On Tuesday 22 July, we left the preparation camp and headed to the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games village...