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Paralympic Games – my story

As well as being London Vision’s Development Manager, Jonathan Ward is a Paralympic athlete! He competed mainly in category F13 throwing events, and went to four Paralympic Games – learn more about Jonathan and his experiences of the Paralympics in his piece below:

Paralympics – my story

I can’t hear myself think. The crowd roars. Somebody says something to me. I can’t hear, even more noise from the crowd. I glance around and notice my fellow competitor has his hands over his ears. An official tugs my vest to attract my attention and it’s time to step into the circle and throw. I pick up an orange high flyer, a super-fast spin discus and walk into the circle. I breathe out, trying to relax, trying to connect my body to my mind, block out everything. I stand at the back of the circle, my left foot turns, my left knee. Right foot down, heel turns out, my arms moving fast: the discus is gone. The clang tells me I’ve hit the cage. I’m pretty sure the discus has flown away. Five more chances to get it right. I can’t come fourth again, can I?

Exhall Grange School and getting into sport

It all started in 1978, myself and fellow pupils we returned to Exhall Grange School for partially sighted children to find a grass track had been laid out on the field. It smelled great. I ran my first ever 400m in 90 seconds. It seemed a hugely long way. I putted the shot for the first time and then my favourite, the cricket ball throw. So, athletics had been added to my long list of sports, football, table-tennis, swimming, weight training, cricket. Two years later I stood on an athletics track for the first time. A black cinder track at Mile End. All the blind and partially sighted schools had gathered to compete.

Six weeks later my parents took me to Southend athletics club on my return home from school. I was easily the worst thrower in the squad. Strangely everyone else could see. I’d forgotten that people could see more than me, it took a while to work out the lay of land, who was who, and how it all worked. Even the little things like finding the men’s changing room. I went on to compete for Southend for another 18 years, first as a junior then a senior. In 1990 I was the club’s highest points scorer in the field.

Fierce competition

Back at school there was fierce competition, with many a sports day containing future Paralympic finalists and medallists, including Noel Thatcher, Anthony Hamilton, Mark Farnell, Robert Latham, and Mark Whitely. The competition between us often spilled into all areas, but that’s another story!

Whilst we were busy knocking lumps out of each other or thinking up crazier training routines or competitions, the Paralympic movement was professionalising and evolving. I watched with envy when my friends went off to compete in Bulgaria in 1983, then New York for the 84 Paralympics. The best I got to do at that time was write an article for the school newspaper about my friends’ exploits, but there’s a fair chance I made most of it up! I still have a copy somewhere.

Eyesight classification

In 1985 I went along for my eyesight classification. At that time there were three categories: B1 light perception at best; B2: a visual acuity of 2/60 or less or severely restricted fields and me at B3: less than 6/60 (that’s the top letter of the eye chart). A by product of the classification process was the diagnosis of my eye condition, some weird macular thing that meant I had no central vision – which explained why I kept missing the ball when playing in goal. See Metro Blind Sport for details of the classification system.

It would be fair to say that my athletics did get me in a little trouble in my formative years: groundskeepers really don’t like your throwing shot puts on their best laid lawns! I didn’t always have stadia in which to train and throwing the discus in public parks with members of the public and their dogs wandering around is a little hazardous when you don’t know they are there, and they don’t know you can’t see them. That’s when I started training very early in the morning – something I still do to avoid people and potential collisions. A metal detector was also a crucial part of my kit as it allowed me to find the wayward objects I had thrown.

Off to the Paralympics in Seoul 1988

Seoul was to be my first Paralympics. I remember sitting on the 15-hour flight thinking “what happens if it all goes wrong? Someone has paid a lot of money for me to be on this plane”. But there’s not room for doubt in sport. I binned the negative thoughts and focussed on all the good stuff. Seventy-five thousand people came to the opening ceremony in Seoul. The speeches were long and boring but the fireworks shook the ground they were so loud.

My first global competition was in the discus, and I managed to lose by 2cm to a fulltime athlete from Australia. I went on to compete in the shot, javelin and the multi event pentathlon (winning gold in the shot put and bronze in the pentathlon to add to his silver in the discus). As someone who worked fulltime and trained in local parks. I learnt much from the fulltime athletes from Australia, Soviet Union and East Germany. Seoul was my first Paralympics: but far bigger than that, it marked a shift in public consciousness of disability sport, an increasingly professional approach by competitors, officials and administrators. Seoul was the benchmark of the modern Paralympics.

Moving on from Seoul Paralympics

I went home from Seoul to continue throwing weights around in the gym and a large rubber ball at the sea wall amongst many other slightly crazy things. In dark and possibly smoky rooms, sports administrators and managers beavered away, producing Barcelona 1992. A games where I was to have my bronze medal upgraded to silver as my Hungarian rival became the first Paralympian to fail a drugs test. A story which made the national press at the time, and in some ways highlighting the shift in thought about the games and disability sport.

For me, Barcelona was notable in two further ways: John Anderson (of Gladiators fame) was the team manager and he had placed a ban on athletes eating ice creams from the canteen. I’d been on a quick run to the canteen to pick up a supply of ice cream for my Olympic flat mates-when on return I bumped into John. For discretion’s sake I’d stuffed the ice creams (about 10 choc ices) in my short pockets as we stood chatting in the Spanish sun. I could feel the ice cream running down my legs. My next notable event was that I didn’t get to compete in the discus as I returned home early to the UK for the birth of my twin daughters. To this day I remind them that they robbed me of a medal.

The nineties rumbled on with visits to European and World Championships and, of course, Atlanta. No medals for me in Atlanta despite registering personal best performances. A strange games, for many and disappointingly no ice cream.

National Lottery money

1997 brought a new shift: National Lottery money. I was paid to play sport – not enough to give up work, but more than enough for all my expenses, clothing and if I needed it, treatment. It came at a price. Training schedules had to be submitted, plans approved and performances monitored. If you didn’t perform then funding was cut. I was fortunate: I hit my targets  so my funding increased and in the run up to the Sydney Games in 2000 I was able to work part time for six months with the National Lottery paying the shortfall.

I could afford taxis to the track, new shoes, weight training equipment. I never intended to become a full time athlete – funding came too late for me I was at the later end of my career but some of my younger contemporaries had difficult choices to make. Get a ‘real job’ or get paid for your sport where you are only one poor performance away from not making your mortgage payments. I know many athletes had sleepless nights as to whether to fully immerse themselves in a sport-funded existence.

Sydney 2000

I did come fourth in Sydney after again producing a personal best in the discus. A jarring experience, after working part time and training far more efficiently than I had ever done before. There was some solace to be found with a bronze medal in the shot put.

Australia got the Paralympics right, inclusive, fun, and competitive. The team was voted BBC sports personality team of the year – but I was far too stingy to pay for a replica trophy. I did go the reception at Buckingham Palace, but failed to see the Queen despite her standing right next to me. I also went to a reception with Tony Blair 12 years after getting to meet Margaret Thatcher.

I had one more year of international athletics, visiting Poland and competing in the European Championships. I could have gone to the World Championships in 2000 to compete in the first ever hammer competition, but I decided to get married instead.

Still competing and hot tips for Tokyo

I’m still competing in Masters and league athletics and I’m looking to organise my time in order to compete in the 2022 Masters Athletics Championships. Sport has brought me great friends, fantastic memories, and a huge degree of resilience.

I want to wish all the Paralympians the best of luck in the upcoming Paralympics. Managing performance in a COVID safe way is a challenge I’m glad I’m not facing.  Look out for the F11 (B1) long jump final as jumping 7m plus without any useful vision has to be applauded.

If you are interested in Paralympic history a quick google brings up many websites with detailed histories, pictures and results. If you would like to learn more about blind and partially sighted sport take a look at what Metro Blind Sport get up to or contact British Blind Sport.  If you have any questions for me about how to go to the gym, lift weights or play sport with low vision drop me a line Jonathan.ward@londonvision.org

Check out Jonathan’s Paralympian page.

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