Back from the International Paralympics Committee World Athletics Championship, Nottingham student Thomas Green takes time out from his training and catching up on lectures to talk about his life as an elite Paralympic athlete…
I doubt that many second-year Maths students spend their free time plotting the demise of leading North African athletes, but this is what I plan to do this semester having competed in the ‘club throw’ competition at the IPC World Athletics Championships this January. The ‘club’ is as Neanderthal a throwing implement as it sounds – it’s basically a rounders bat with a weight on the end, designed for those deemed too disabled to throw the javelin. The competition, held in New Zealand, constituted my first major championship, and a respectable seventh-place finish in a very competitive event felt like a just reward for the sacrifices I had made in balancing my work and training leading up to the competition.
The event was won by Lahouri Bahlaz, a 31-year-old Algerian with disconcertingly long arms and an even more disconcerting knack for breaking world records, with a staggering throw of 36.73 metres – a full 4 metres ahead of his closest rival and 11 ahead of myself. As one of the most dynamic and quickly evolving sports in the world, the boundaries are always being pushed back in disabled athletics, but to see the world record demolished so brutally at such close quarters certainly sharpened my focus. Safe to say I will be back in the gym very shortly.
I think that people are only just starting to realise how elite Paralympic sport has become. There was a time, perhaps 15 or 20 years ago, when natural talent could catapult you straight on to the podium, but the time has long since passed when an athlete of my age could compete for a medal in a throws event. Disabled athletics is now truly global, and the training regimes in some countries are ruthlessly intense. For example, last year I witnessed a Tunisian discus thrower being forced to compete, despite requiring painkilling spray between every throw to manage the ripped tendons in his shoulder. I picture this scene every time I have the urge to complain about a coursework deadline.
Much as I would love to be able to dedicate myself this much to my training – albeit with a slightly less sadistic coach – I have never been tempted to give up or postpone my university education. However much its profile grows, I know that I will never make a living out of disabled athletics, so I need to make sure I have the qualifications to get a decent job. I also like that athletics is not my only focus. I know a lot of athletes who give up everything for their sport – their education, their hobbies, and eventually their social lives. They tend to have retired by the age of twenty-five. The truth is that elite sport can be a very intense and lonely place, and it’s good to know that I have something else going for me when I start to feel the pressure. Equally, when sitting in a particularly tedious – I mean, enlightening – nine o’clock lecture, it’s good to know that sooner rather than later I’ll be travelling to a competition to do battle with athletes from all around the world. Perhaps I just have a predisposition to gloating, but I do think it’s vitally important to have a variety of focuses in your life if you wish to excel in any of them.
Balancing these two aspects of my life obviously necessitates compromise. I can’t say I looked over many lecture notes during my month in New Zealand, and conversely, I didn’t exactly get much training done during Freshers’ Week. There are times when this compromise frustrates me, but I’m pretty comfortable with the way I manage my time.
And so now, through the deluge of coursework deadlines, I go back into training ready for the summer athletics season. There aren’t many parallels between Maths and athletics, but being a disabled athlete can be more of an intellectual challenge than you might think. Given that disability affects each person differently, there is no standard way to throw something like a club, and so a lot of my training consists of working out which areas of my body are most powerful, and then teaching myself an action that optimises my strengths. I throw the club backwards over my head, in an action that has proved to be very effective, if somewhat comical. I am currently looking at numerous little tweaks I can make to give me an advantage, one of which is a flick of the arm based on how Alan Shearer used to forearm-smash defenders in the face. Inspiration, as they say, comes from the unlikeliest of places…