After the previous day’s antics and meltdowns, this was going to be a better day. It had to be! A steaming hot bubble bath and a good night’s rest was exactly what was needed to settle in for the final session of the games. The muscles had relaxed, I could finally walk again (even if it was like John Wayne) and I actually was in the right mind-set. It was going to be a breeze.
The World Para-Athletics Championships have just flown by; we turned up on day 1, most of us were brand new to the blocks team and walked in like Bambi on Ice – arms and legs going off in completely different directions, having literally no clue what we were doing and managing to get lost in the tunnels at every single turn. But by day 10, we’ve all got the lay of the land, can basically organise and put out the blocks with a blindfold on and only take a wrong turn when we’re practically sleep-walking. Trust me, it happens…
Truthfully, Sunday evening was more of a procession than anything else. Our team arrived at the usual time for the daily training session, but it was a fairly relaxed atmosphere, giving us time for photo opportunities around the stadium. We actually had time to eat our food and enjoy our team’s company for once, rather than having to run from the track to the workforce canteen, inhale our food and peg it back to the track just in time for the first race. When you’ve just eaten, the last thing you want to do is bend down and pick up some heavy starting blocks and get them off within 20 seconds.
With the Paras, you have incredible access to some of the best athletes and officials in the world. We got chatting to someone during dinner who had a conversation with the technical director of the entire event – he didn’t realise just how many groups had been set up on social media for the volunteers since 2012 and that a huge group of volunteers had actually stayed in contact. We’ve also been lucky enough to get a photo with Liam Malone, whose commentary on Channel 4 has been legendary! We did quite enjoy his bold statements, especially the one where he said he would beat Usain Bolt’s world record.
The ceremonies have all been happening in the Hero Village, so we haven’t been able to see many of the athletes receiving their medals. But there has been two teams of people from the armed forces working in shifts for all 212 ceremonies. Getting to meet a couple of them and finding out how their experiences have been was great, and have even been given the opportunity to talk to the athletes afterwards. Not all the volunteers are inside the stadium, but we’ve all still got the same access to paralympic stars across the length and breadth of the Olympic Park – it’s magical.
Whilst wondering around the endless tunnels, it’s not just athletes and coaches you run into. Sometimes it’s people you didn’t even realise were at the world championships. One of our team bumped into another of the drummers at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics just by chance, and I ran into my classifier who I haven’t seen since February! I managed to get a photo with her, and walked off afterwards with another of our team – I said that I couldn’t work out whether it was a good or bad thing she remembered me, my friend’s response: “Well, you are very… distinctive. No, that’s not the right word. Memorable?” Digging a hole much?!
The session itself was easy enough, but getting ourselves organised seemed to take more of an effort than any of the previous days. I’m surprised our team leaders weren’t tearing their hair out; clearly we were delirious after 10 days of competition and giggling away like teenage schoolgirls in a sex education class, so they had no chance. The sleep-deprivation had well and truly set in and none of us even knew what day of the week it was, let alone the time, or what races were actually happening throughout the evening.
It wasn’t all work and no play. Volunteer cam was a particular favourite of ours, and we were all set for our close up, but the cameramen just didn’t spot us in time. Instead though, we did manage to finally get a selfie with Waspie the mascot which we had been desperate to get, and decided to join in with the crowd and sing everyone’s karaoke favourite, Sweet Caroline.
Our team have bonded so quickly in such a short amount of time. Many of us have met for the very first time in the last 10 days and shared some of the best experiences of my life with these incredibly kind, inspirational people. So of course, we weren’t going to go away without some group photos, especially with the infamous number 9. I will never be able to thank this group of people for making the championships so special. I was nervous on my first day, but there was a whole team there to settle my worries and include me in anything and everything.
It may have taken 4 hours to drive back home to Southampton, and more than two hours of that stuck in circles because of diversions in central London, and weeping on the phone to my mum because I was so shattered, but it was worth it. All of it was more than worth it. I have a whole new outlook on life because of these championships and the friends that I have made for good – I am a better person for meeting every single one of the volunteers and understanding their backgrounds. They all want to achieve something and give back to the community, and I’ve got the volunteering bug now.
Once you’re in this tight-knit community, you’re in it for life. So thank you. For everything.