In sharing my Paralympic perspectives, and memories, my thoughts turn quickly to Seoul 1988. Seoul 1988 was the first time the Paralympics took place in the same city as the Olympics since Tokyo 1964. In many ways it was also the first modern Paralympic Games and it was also the first Paralympic Games I was fortunate to compete at.
I was sixteen when I travelled to Seoul, full of anticipation, excitement and a massive mountain of fear and uncertainty.
I felt prepared, I had a great build up to the competition. I had been in full time training with the City of Birmingham swim squad under the excellent coach Rick Bailey. Birmingham taught me so much, most of all that it was the people that make the difference, the people, the high performance culture and a one team approach.
We trained in a Victorian 25 yard pool. It wasn’t the cleanest, the roof was held up with scaffolding and its better days were some century ago.
In spite of this though, under Rick’s leadership, from that 25 yard Victorian pool, we got 5 swimmers on the Olympic team and 4 on the Paralympic team: unrivalled.
And his leadership wasn’t just at the cutting edge of world swimming knowledge and excellence, Rick was an inclusive leader before the term existed. This was at a time where disabled swimmers were not able, in reality not enabled, to be part of mainstream clubs. For Rick it was so simple, so straight- forward. As he put it to me, are you prepared to do the same training as my swimmers who are trying to get to the Olympic Games, I answered an absolute yes, his response, “we train at 5.30 every morning and 4.30 every evening, I look forward to seeing you poolside at 5am next Monday.”
And it really was inclusive, not just integrated. Rick sourced a training clock from the U.S. massive digital display so all the swimmers could see it at a glance, audible countdown so I could know exactly when to push off each set.
So, 16 and off to Seoul. A killer 20hr flight, arriving not knowing which leg was which never mind whether I could race or not. And then, my first experience of the village, every nation housed in the same village of the sporting world. As Jesse Owens had so perfectly put it some 52 years earlier at those so difficult 1936 Games, athletes will be able to return home and say they sat and broke bread with the rest of the world. In Seoul, not just bread but kimchi, a bit pokey (strong!) for a kid from the Midlands but an incredible experience none the less.
To the Olympic Park, the same competition pool where just three weeks earlier my team mate from City of Birmingham, Nick Gillingham, had won a stunning silver in the 200 metres breaststroke.
For me, it was 50 metres, 100 metres and 400 metres freestyle. The water felt so slick, so fast, so much like nothing else I had ever swam in. I went fast in every event and faster again in the finals.
And, for the first time for a Paralympic Games, the stands were packed, we competed, we raced in front of bumper crowds. A smart plan by the Koreans, at that time, no chance of selling tickets for disability sports so, they got local school kids, local churches and local community groups to come along and get allocated a nation to get behind. And they did, they so did, Korean school kids roaring us home, lifting me, lifting the entire team to the greatest performances of our lives.
Seoul was a great Paralympic Games, the first modern Paralympic Games, awesome opening and closing ceremonies, all sports in front of serious crowds and for the first time a little, just a little TV coverage. Yes it was two months after we came home, yes it was just an hour but, crucially, it was a start. It was those early camera shots, those brief Paralympic clips shown just before Christmas 1988 which laid another key stone in the road towards Barcelona, Sydney, London and, yes indeed, towards Tokyo 2020.
To Tokyo 2020
Tokyo, a Games which will play out more hours of more sports than ever before. Blasting out in that unique style, that unique voice that only Channel 4 can pull off.
To all of us here at home, sport loving, Paralympic supporting, Channel 4 will be where we live 24/7 in just over two weeks time.
There will be sleep deprivation. Nervous, nail biting nights and mornings but it will be worth every Gold, Silver and Bronze medal moment, every personal best, every performance delivered from our Great British Paralympic athletes.
Paralympic Perspectives I: golden history
Paralympic Perspectives III: Barcelona 1992, six golds at a single Games!
Paralympic Perspectives IV: Sydney 2000, “Bad day at the office”
Paralympic Perspectives V: London 2012, “the greatest Paralympic Games ever”
Paralympic Perspectives VI: Paralympic classification explained