Shift 8 – The Procession

Bubble Bath

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…

Setting UpTruthfully, 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.

Liam MaloneWith 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.

Armed ServicesThe 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.

Kirsty - ClassifierWhilst 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.

Selfie with WaspieIt 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.No.9 collage

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 Team selfiephone 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.

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Shift 7 – Attempts to beat Mental Fatigue

Messing AroundSaturday night was a rather traumatic evening for me personally, but nothing to do with my volunteering role. Well, maybe a little, but I’ll explain as we go on. This was my third shift in a row (Friday evening, Saturday morning and now Saturday evening) and I was more than flagging. Anyone else who has also managed this feat will back me up on this statement: One shift means your feet hurt, two shifts mean you’re mentally fatigued, but three shifts in a row means your body is slowly but surely shutting itself down. I was at that stage.

Still, we all soldiered on and got on with the task at hand, and this session was going to be a doozy. Most of the races were 100m and 200m for our team and there was plenty of British interest to whet our appetite for the evening. For me, it was an opportunity to watch first-hand some of the stars that inspired me to sign up for the Paralympic Talent Scheme and take up Athletics, and I couldn’t be more grateful.1st Long Jump competition

A little background; I have Cerebral Palsy (but an extremely mild form – I was incredibly lucky to be diagnosed so early) and am a T38 athlete. I watched the Rio Olympics on the edge of my seat and was taken aback by how amazing Team GB were, they are genuinely superhuman. So I applied to Discover your Para Potential, not thinking anything of it at the time, Little did I know that my whole life would change, or that I would even be classified, let alone competing for my local club in Long Jump and already on the start list for the Cerebral Palsy British Championships.

So I was slightly in awe. Not only did our starting blocks team have front row seats to Aled Davies’ world record-winning throw in the Shot Put (his celebration was one of the best things we’ve witnessed ever – it was like someone being knighted! The crowd’s reaction even made the Welsh man tear up!) but we were also the team in charge of setting up the T38 women’s 100m final. My heroes were walking out in front of us.

Selfie from AntThere were three Brits in the final; Kadeena Cox is the poster girl for Multiple Sclerosis in Athletics and Cycling and had already won gold in the 400m earlier in the week, Sophie Hahn who already had the world record in the 100m and was favourite, and Olivia Breen, whose distance in Long Jump I will be chasing for years to come. Hahn was in great form, smashing her own world record, with all three finishing in the top 4. Proud doesn’t even cover it, and inspired me to get back on the track and train harder than before. Georgie Hermitage then took the gold in the T37 100m as well, making it a fantastic night for UK Paralympic sport!

But I do think that in my over-excitable nature, I was all set for a dip in energy. And muscle fatigue. And sleep-deprivation catching me up.

I’m happy to admit that when it’s cold and raining, my muscles don’t react as well as other people’s, so I usually stay as active as possible to prevent cramping up. But when you’ve worked five of the last six shifts, your body doesn’t want to always play ball, and I was suffering. I’d been sat on the floor stretching to attempt to keep moving, but it was clearly to no avail. So much so that being sent home before the final race had even been set up on the track wasn’t a complete shock.

Security GuardWhat was a shock though was getting to Westfield where I’d parked my car (to avoid yet another parking ticket…) to find that I didn’t have my purse in my runner’s bag. Then to realise that the contactless machine wasn’t willing to accept Apple Pay. I was about ready to break down: truthfully, I already had once at the stadium when my entire body had decided to seize up, and after more than 30,000 steps for the day, I really didn’t fancy wondering back down to my Airbnb just to return back to Westfield to pick up my car.

To avoid bawling my eyes out once again, I asked a security guard to take pity on me to help me find another parking machine – one that may actually let me pay via phone. But this lovely guy left his post in the shopping centre, walked me round to another section of the car park, waited to ensure it worked, and even agreed to a photo afterwards despite me looking so teary-eyed and completely shattered.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that not every shift for a volunteer is going to be perfect. We’re all going to have off days where we can’t cope, or something has happened at home that we can’t control whilst we’re away, but it’s okay not to be okay. I wasn’t fine at all during or after the session, but the kindness of volunteers and strangers meant that I Happy Birthday Roderickmade it home (or at least back to the Airbnb) safe and sound and just about in one piece still.

But everyone rallies around you, no matter the circumstances. And to end on a positive note relating to this, it was one of the team’s 21st birthday. Cake was eaten, Happy Birthday was sang and the inevitable group photo was taken. Our starting blocks team are incredibly kind and thoughtful people, but so are all the volunteers, and each different team seems to have the same camaraderie that we have. Another day, another shift, a whole new experience to come in the final shift.

Shift 3 – Volunteers vs Athletes at the 400m

Setting up 400m 2

This was my first evening shift and I had a sneaky suspicion I would be even busier than my previous two mornings – probably the first expectation I have got right since I got here! But the atmosphere was incredible, even before I made it to the stadium.

I have to give a ton of credit to the very happy and smiley people who are greeting spectators over the bridges – their enthusiasm set me up for the day, and I did enjoy ‘high fiving’ as many of them as possible. They are there come rain or shine, morning or evening, and ready for literally anything from directions to photos and so much more – hats off to you guys, because trust me, I would not be ready to deal with the general public so early on in the day!

Once we ploughed our way through the crowds and dumped our stuff wearing our Barbie pink tops as always, the real work began, and today was mainly focusing on the 400m races.  Well I say that; we wereTrainers still running through the tunnels like Usain Bolt (we wish we had his speed!) to get to the 100m and 200m starts throughout the evening. By this point in the Championships, we’re all realising that we should have ordered trainers the next size up… Or at least try and break them in before we started our shifts. I’d say at least 50% of us are now going through a pack of blister plasters, or if we’ve already run out, we’re on the fabric.

It was a mixture of visually-impaired races (giving us starting blocks/lane markers team yet another headache), wheelchair races, cerebral palsy events and more – basically, we’re learning to be a Jack of all trades, master of none, but it’s starting to become a slightly smoother process. As long as we all remember where our marks are. And which lane we’re setting up and clearing. And making sure the cables are tight. And waiting for everyone so we can walk out in a neat line. And organising the cables into a figure of eight (but only for the 100m and 200m).

Apart from that, of course it’s getting easier!

On your marks...With the 400m, the volunteers are also at the finish line so it becomes something out of ‘Wacky Races’ – arms and legs go everywhere, and that’s before the athletes even make it to the home straight! We are basically racing the clock and the athletes themselves, trying to ensure that all the cables, starting blocks and lane markers are off the track before they get to 200m to go.

That really isn’t as easy as it sounds; the athletes stamp the blocks into the ground before they run. For them, it gives them more stability at the start, for us, it just makes it even harder to pick up the 5kg (I could be exaggerating on the weight, but I don’t think I am!) blocks and carry them quickly off the track. And once again, the cables have a huge part to play. These cables must me at least the length of half a basketball team lying end to end, so getting them off and in a hurry can leave cable burns…

It’s worse if you’re in lanes 1, 2 or 3: that’s when you are literally doing your own sprinting start at the side-lines and hurling yourself to ensure you get everything off in time. I would say I have never moved so fast in my life, but you certainly can’t leave anything across the photo-finish line. You may come back with your head served on a platter!

Lane 1 markerBut we did make it through the night fairly unscathed – the training before each session is definitely paying off as we have a different team every time. I’m lucky, I’ve not come across one person (in our team or not) that hasn’t been lovely and genuinely willing to get stuck in and help. That’s the joys of volunteers: we all have the same mind-set. We’re not there for our own personal gain, we want to be a part of something special and make the games as unique and brilliant as possible.

One of the officials I met on the tube was a perfect example of that – she had flown in from New Zealand just for the Para-Athletics World Championships, not getting paid for her officiating but doing it for the love of the sport. These are the people we aspire to be, and despite not being from the same country, let alone from London, she was still able to direct me to the stadium and chat about everything from the route to such a high-level role, to how she got into athletics in the first place. I ran into her tonight at the finish line, so I will try and get a photo with her before the end of the championships.

EveryoneFinally, after my third session was complete (and I could no longer feel my feet!), we had a team photo with everyone, and possibly may have messed around with some of the Markers on Headsmarkers…

It was such a good way to relax after such a confusing session, and also gave us a chance to get to know a few more of the team. The beaming smiles on our faces just show how much fun we are all having and that we are starting to become a tight-knit group. These people are lovely and really make my whole experience, so thank you to every single one of you.

Three shifts down, five to go. I’m not ready for this incredible experience to end yet!

 

 

Shift 2 – Simply the best

 

Panorama of StadiumYou really do forget just how big the stadium really is, especially when you walk out onto the track again. But it’s hard to put it all into perspective when, once again, it was a morning shift and I was far from bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – these 4am starts and over two-hour drives were starting to take its toll…

Nevertheless, most of us had made it to check-in with time to spare (rather impressive for a Sunday morning) but the start of the transportation issues surfaced for a few unlucky team members. One of the women in our group may only live about 7 miles away from the stadium, but the joys of restricted tube services on Sundays meant that Tweet to Clare Baldingthe journey took 90 minutes instead. However, there was a silver lining to another commuter story and our trusty WhatsApp group played a role.

Another of our lovely ladies was stuck at Stratford International Tube Station and would miss the start of training before the session began. But the power of social media was amazing. Not only did she let us know so we could tell our Team Leaders, but she decided to also tweet Clare Balding whilst waiting: next thing you know, she’s being mentioned on Clare’s morning BBC 2 Radio show! Always good news when the volunteers are getting recognition!

You’d think that once you’d done a full session, you’d know exactly what to do for shift 2; how wrong were we all… The previous day had left us completely shattered and then, new starting block set-ups were being thrown at us. We would like to say that we took it all in our stride – in reality, most of us were stressing about putting the lane marker in the right place and wondering if our tired arms would be able to pick up the starting Cablingblocks without putting another part of our bodies out of alignment. And that’s before we even get to the cabling.

The cabling is Satan. It’s as simple as that. Trying to create a figure of 8 with cables that have kinks in them and are at least 10 metres long is difficult enough. But trying to do that as fast as the blocks coming back in and avoiding getting tangled up with the next lane’s cables is nigh on impossible. I’m a lefty as well, so for me, everything is backwards, so my brain is automatically screaming out at me saying I’m doing it wrong, but on the 100m start, there is one set of cables out of the 9 lanes where everyone else shares my pain!

What makes it even more confusing is that each race distance has a different way of clearing the track, and there are certain races that need different set-ups. For instance, the completely blind runners who have guides helping them round the track (T11) need to have the starting blocks alongside each other. Can you see the cogs turning in our brains?!

Starting Blocks TeamBut the training is doing us the world of good – the session was as smooth as we could have hoped for and we finally got to relax and enjoy some of the action up-close and personal. We got to witness the fastest Paralympian in the world, Ireland’s Jason Smyth, race in the heats of the 100m, watch Britain’s Aled Davies smash the Championship record in the F42 Discus and claim gold, and be a part of two different world records being obliterated. It was a magical morning for us volunteers.

Shift 2 selfieAnd it didn’t end there: we were all settling down after the session for our debrief and the feedback was incredible. The official timekeeping company for the Championships, Seiko, said that our team for the morning session were the best group of volunteers that they had seen in 30 years. We were simply the best. We are the dream team!

 

We’ve covered most of the bases by now – surely shift 3 would be a doddle?!

Shift 1 – The chaos has begun

Training Day

So I am one of the fortunate ones – I am a volunteer for the 2017 World Para-Athletics Championships in London (and I will never tire of saying that!) Just three weeks ago, I wasn’t even a part of the event, but there was no way on earth I was ever going to turn down this kind of opportunity.

Our training day just confirmed everything I wanted and more; a volunteer family for the 10-day event, I was going to fit in just fine! The second we all walked in to the lecture hall, the buzz of excitement was deafening with everyone chatting for the very first time – some of the stories I found out were incredible. Three of them had volunteered for the Olympics in London back in 2012, two others had flown out to Rio last year, and someone else had been volunteering for the last 20 years for everything from the Moonwalk to Athletics competitions. The only thing missing was a partridge and a pear tree!

Fast forward another week and it was time to pick up our uniform and accreditations – getting out of Westfield Shopping Centre was like trying to escape the Crystal Maze; no-one made it particularly clear that to get to the stadium, going up a floor was a necessity. So by the time any of us actually made it to the pop-up centre, we’d all been running Accreditationaround like blue-ass flies to ensure we didn’t miss our timeslot, and no-one had warned us of the photo opportunity on arrival. Mine was more like a mugshot. Not impressed in the slightest. And what’s worse – officials actually have to look at that monstrosity to let me in.

The uniform is great and Asics have covered all the bases – we have everything from tops (which are a luminous pink so that people in passing planes can see us) to waterproof jackets (that will come in useful, I don’t know if London can go 10 days without some form of rainfall!) to socks and trainers, all of which we can keep after the event. But as with all new trainers, breaking them in is vitally important, so mine have been making appearances in the office, despite the strict dress code. Not entirely sure bright aqua-coloured trainers fit in with the ‘smart casual’ theme…

So that’s the background, now comes the action!

Our first day was chaotic, incredible, mind-boggling and exciting, and that’s before any of the racing actually began! We have a great team of Lane Markers and Starting Blocks people, but I’m not at my best first thing in the morning; waking up at 4am to drive up from Southampton to get to the stadium for 8am is usually unacceptable for me, especially on a Saturday morning, but for this, I’ll make an exception to the rule. I did have to apologise to my team though for my less than sunny demeanour. I liken myself to Garfield in the mornings…

Starting blocks There’s so many different things to remember before and after each race, and manoeuvring the starting blocks can be a little tricky – turns out, they are a lot heavier than they look on TV – but we’re all hoping it gets a little easier as the shifts go on. On the plus side, our Team Leaders are great and are teaching us as much as possible to make it look seamless. They’ve done this countless many times and know exactly what the officials want us to do, so we are effectively sheep – we’ll follow them and go wherever we’re told for now!

The team dynamic is fantastic and everyone has some incredible stories to tell. I’m one of the babies of the group at 22, so my life experiences are a little mute compared to some of the seasoned veterans of volunteer work, but I can guarantee I’ll learn a ton just by being around these incredible people from around the country and further afield. But it’s one of those situations where even if you have never met them before, they are still willing to help.

Me and DeniseI am more than happy to admit my sense of direction is atrocious – I may have also mentioned that in my interview for this role which probably wasn’t my greatest move – so getting to the stadium and then the right bridge for check-in could have been problematic, but I found another person in a pink shirt and got chatting away. Turns out, she’s been working behind the scenes at the Olympic Park for the last three months and walked with me to where I needed to be, stopping off and showing me all the landmarks on the way. The generosity of the volunteers is incredible, and so far, I still have my bearings!

WhatsApp LogoWe’ve even set up a WhatsApp group for our team so we can share memories and photos throughout the event and stay in contact afterwards. So far there’s only about 8 of us in it, but I’m sure as the days go on, it will grow stronger, and so will the bond between us all. I’ve only met around 20-25 of us from shift one, but there are plenty of others to meet and grill them about their lives. After all, I’m a journalist and therefore a nosy bugger!

Can’t wait to get started for shift 2 now, roll on the morning!

The trials and tribulations of a Paralympic hopeful – Chapter Two

I am in a world of pain. A world of pain I have never experienced before, and wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. A pain that SAS hopefuls pray won’t happen to them in the selection process, and all this pain from sporting exercise. One day I will learn my lesson – I hope from now on I remember padded shorts will forever be my friend on a bike, and use this version of hell as a horrific anecdote of what happens if you don’t.

Rewind one excruciatingly painful week…

alarmHearing your alarm go off at 3.45am is about as pleasant as gauging your eyes out with forks whilst standing on hot charcoal. I’d imagine. I’ve never been particularly good in the mornings, let alone on a pitch-black night in the middle of November, so I was pleasantly surprised I managed to get out of the house and into the car without waking up everyone else down the street. The tricky part was to get my incredibly patient boyfriend awake enough to sit in the driver’s seat and do the four-hour journey up to Manchester for the second time in the space of two weeks – mission successful… just about. Two Red Bulls and a Square bar later anyway!

I’ll be honest, the drive up is all a little bit of a blur to me, mostly because I was seeing it through my eyelids. Clearly a distinct lack of sleep was catching up to me, but I woke up just in time to arrive at the National Cycling Centre. To my surprise, only eight of us were there for testing, but recognised a couple from the Athletics trials so I felt right at home. (Feel free to have a read of the Athletics blog – it explains a lot more about how I got here!)

I’d been to the Manchester Velodrome a few times before, but not in the same capacity, at all. Cheerleading competitions seem to have no relation whatsoever to going round and round in circles on a bike that weighs about as much as my left arm. The actual cycling part of the trial was eventful in itself. Considering I haven’t been on a bike since I was about para-cycling-line-up14 and my lack of balance on two feet – let alone two wheels – is almost non-existent, I wasn’t expecting to become Laura Trott after just one attempt.

Much to my relief, and everyone else’s, we were on static bikes for the day and not let loose on the Velodrome just yet. Baby steps Chachi. Instead, we were introduced to speed and endurance testing – a whole new version of fresh hell! We knew roughly what we were getting into, but jeez, I don’t think I was quite prepared for it.

For starters, it took about 20 minutes to get all eight of us set up on the bikes, and it was the first time I’ve ever been strapped onto a bike. Definitely a new experience, especially when you wanted to get off for a drink or needed assistance in order to fall off after interval training. Four sets of six-seconds flat-out to show your top speed, followed by three gruelling minutes of pedalling as fast as possible. And all this includes changing the gears with my right hand that has no co-ordination and no way of defining which handle I’m moving.

para-cycling-velodrome

Trust me, it doesn’t show just how steep it really is…

 

My body isn’t used to hard-core physical exercise (or exercise in general) at the moment; after just a minute, my legs were burning, 30 seconds later, my knee was cracking with every single rotation and two minutes in I was literally screaming in pain. I’d say that was most probably the longest three minutes of my life, quickly followed by collapsing on the handlebars, and then falling off the bike. I’ve never been a particularly graceful person, but trust me, that wasn’t exactly one of my proudest moments…

Leaving the inside of the track walking like John Wayne also wasn’t pleasant, but still, the comedic value was worth it for everyone else watching. Three and a half long hours pass waiting for my personal classification testing – the minutes elapse, time is killed walking around the local shops and the Etihad Stadium with my ever-patient img_3421boyfriend, and yet we still have more than two hours to kill. Perfect. Eventually, the safest solution is for him to kip in the car for an hour or two in preparation for the drive home, whilst I aimlessly sit around in the café in silence. At least the Rugby is on.

Finally, I’m called into the medical room to determine whether my disability is actually severe enough to even be classified (if not, the morning’s cycling efforts would have been for nothing). Technically, each individual session was supposed to last 30 minutes – Me be awkward as always, mine lasted 75 minutes. Never one to fit in with the crowd and be (in relative terms) normal.

 

para-cycling-zoom

I’m in the red top and clearly suffering with sitting down already!

It turns out that amongst many of the tests I had done, I have no reflexes at all on either side of my body, leaving the physiotherapists completely dumbfounded as to why. But after endless poking and prodding from two different people, it’s official, I have a classification. I would be a C5 athlete (the least severe of the categories) but I thought I wouldn’t even be put in a class. The pain, the genuine screaming, the burning legs hotter than an erupting volcano was all worth it.

My dream is slowly becoming a reality – Tokyo 2020 is almost impossible, but with every step, the closer I will get and there will be light at the end of the tunnel. I have been defying expectations since I was born, why stop that now?

Bruges on the waves: an insight into the ‘Venice of the North’

As the Belgian city bustles with over three million tourists each year, Talia Jones writes about the heart and soul of the city from the calmer waters of the canal routes.

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“…And whatever you do, don’t fall in, yes?” muffles our tour guide through plastic headphones as we tentatively step into the sun-soaked canal boat. That was exactly the confidence boost we needed to hear. Michel had been explaining Bruges’ history and culture for the last three hours in his broken English, adding ‘yes?’ to every other sentence. It was as though even he was not certain of his facts.

We had spent most of the tour lagging behind the guide; amidst copious photographic opportunities of the idyllic surroundings and only two good ankles between the pair of us, my mother and I had firmly found our place as the tortoises of the group. Dipping in and out of headphone range left a constant static ringing through our ears, but we didn’t care – it was her 50th birthday and we were going to enjoy ourselves.

28The boat appeared derelict at best, with rotting wood and an attempt at covering up the cracks with a translucent-looking lick of white paint, so we were grateful when Vincent offered us a helping hand onto the water. Very grateful indeed. He was a gorgeous specimen of a man – exactly the physique and chiselled jawline you’d expect to grace the London Fashion Week catwalk. This was a welcome distraction from Michel’s constant, incessant mumblings.

Unfortunately, the moment was abruptly ended by my inability to fathom where I was going, having to be saved from face-planting into the canal. Not exactly my finest hour.

Picturesque views were at every sweeping corner in the city they named ‘The Venice of the North’; the 12th century hospital still stands with the original brickwork and has been resurrected as a museum almost rivalling the Louvre. Meandering up the river, you encounter a piece of modern art living in the canal made entirely of white steel pipes standing three storeys high – something Tracy Emin would have been immensely proud of creating. And all this before you get to experience the three tallest buildings within the five-mile city walls.

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“Get your cameras out now,” Vincent says, with a knowing grin on his face, “The Church of Our Lady is straight ahead of us.” And he isn’t wrong about wanting to capture this hugely impressive feat of architecture on film – it is a thing of absolute, man-made beauty. The 13th century, gothic-style cathedral has been modified with a Victorian era twist to give the building a more modern interpretation in the historical centre of the city. “Oh, and one of Michelangelo’s sculptures lives there too. I think it’s called Madonna,” he adds, as if this unintentional comment was just an afterthought and not one of the most widely recognisable pieces of artwork in the world.

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The other two masterpieces of Bruges’ skyline are also cathedrals of varying style and stature, but equally outstanding in the dusky lighting. But these startling structures were to be just three of the many highlights of the canal tour. “If you look to your right, you’ll see Marilyn Monroe in the window,” Vincent nonchalantly declares, as if it is a sight you would see anywhere in the world. Marilyn’s iconic pose resides in one of the shop windows and would send shivers down even the coldest of spines.

People wax lyrically about the unequivocal beauty of the autumnal colours dissipating into the narrow waterways, but observing the reddish-green leaves falling around you under the sunset sends you into some zen-like trance. Until the women at the back of the boat giggle like schoolgirls so much that the boat nearly overturns – magical moment gone.

22We had already been given a warning before we even started covering the sparkling water – Vincent had the audacity to ask one of the larger women on the boat to kindly sit on the other side, attempting to even the balance out. He was obviously one who was unafraid of offending people, but we found him oddly charming in spite of this. In fact, all the middle-aged ladies were hanging on to his every word throughout the tour like pre-teens at a One Direction concert.

It was lucky we were so attentive to his stories – we may have only met him twenty minutes previously, but he clearly had an understanding of the females on board, pointing out the best chocolate shops across the city, in between the historical highlights and majestic museums. But it’s the houses on the river that stand out the most. The pastel-coloured, medieval-style buildings that line the canal front astound me. It is like the adult, real life version of Balamory.

Before we knew it, our journey through the centre of Bruges was over and we would have to go back to the rather dull musings of Michel, suffering once more with headphones too big to fit comfortably in our ears and contend with static that would haunt us for the next three days. But half an hour with a dishy-looking man, husky voice and a sat down tour around a city with undoubtedly rich history: Priceless.

19This overwhelmingly stunning city has hidden treasures encompassed within the five-mile radius of handmade bricked wall; from chocolatiers that share melt-in-the-mouth milk chocolate with tourists for free (which, incidentally, we exploited as much as we could) to the obliging natives who direct the clueless among us without a moment’s consideration. Bruges is not just a medieval city; it is a land of unwavering possibilities.

Welcome to the life of a 3rd year University student…

I am happy to admit that being a third year sports journalism student is chaotic, frustrating, time-consuming and draining. But it is possibly the most rewarding thing I will ever do in my career. It will be setting me up for life!

So I thought it would be a good time to show you exactly what our university students do when they aren’t drinking to drown their sorrows! Here is only our 2nd ever fully live broadcast that went on air from Solent University.

Me and my team of five created the last package on celebrating 130 years of AFC Totton, a local football club who have had more then their share of ups and downs. Watch the video, feel free to share as much as you like and comment away!!

Stags bounce back in the New Forest derby

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AFC Totton started with the same line up as the defeat to Cinderford Town last Saturday.

AFC Totton’s comprehensive 4-0 win over local rivals, Bashley Town, have ensured the Stags’ rise up the table after three wins in the last four games despite an uncharacteristically slow performance.

It was a largely uneventful first half, with Totton having most of the possession but nothing to show for their efforts. However, Nathaniel Sherborne was to be a threat from the outset after the goalkeeper had to produce a one-handed save in just the second minute.

Sherborne’s determination paid off on 24 minutes, after his solo run from the half way line brought him to the penalty box and he effortlessly dispatched the ball past Bashley goalkeeper, Rob Gillett to give the stags the lead.

Both teams appeared lacklustre and low in confidence after defeats in their last matches, and it took 36 minutes for Bashley to trouble Totton’s resident goalkeeper, Steve Mowthorpe, who made a routine catch to maintain his clean sheet.

Chances were few and far between after half time until a lay off from Sherborne found Craig Feeney on the penalty spot, and he wpid-img_20150929_235742.jpg the ball into the bottom right corner to double their lead.

It was definitely not Totton’s best performance of the season, but were still managing to create goal-scoring opportunities, and on 71 minutes, Sherborne blasted the ball home from close range, leaving Gillett with no chance to prevent his second of the game.

Misplaced passes from both teams left the game feeling a little disjointed, especially in the second half, but substitutes Jake Rawkins, James Roden and Matthew Brewer, breathed new air into the Totton side.

Brewer, who made his debut on Saturday in the 3-0 defeat to Cinderford, nearly made it four goals to the home side, but for a sliding tackle.

But with five minutes remaining, Rawkins’ curling cross into the box found Mike Gosney who headed the ball into the top right corner and just out of reach of Gillett once more.

Totton will be grateful to leave the Testwood Stadium with the three points in the bag after a good result but an unconvincing performance. The win lifts them one place in the table to 17th, and Bashley rock bottom and in serious trouble already.

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Mike Gosney re-signed for Totton at the start of this season. Pictured with manager, Steve Hillock.

The Stags play Tiverton Town in the FA Trophy on Saturday, but Gosney believes that the squad will have to revise their strategy for the weekend: “We were okay in patches today but will have to improve a lot against Tiverton.

“Tiverton will be a big test for us, and we will have to up the tempo a lot more, but it would be great if we could get a result and go on a cup run.”

AFC Totton team: Mowthorpe, Hibberd, Diaper, Williams, Dempsey**, Simpson, Burgess*, Allen, Feeney***, Sherborne, Gosney.

Subs: Rawkins*, Roden**, Brewer***

Snipers Cheerleading Head Coach is vying for top spot at Nationals with brand new squad

11130226_10153831678254922_6390578610167157099_nSnipers Cheerleading Academy may have only been up and running since Easter, but their coach targets a National title in their first full season.

The squad, based in Hounsdown in the New Forest, are aiming for the same success they had with Southern Sirens Cheerleading Squad, before relations within the team broke down and all members made the transition four months ago.

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Head Coach Sam Youren is taking 7 routines to the Eastbourne competition in just 10 weeks’ time

Sam Youren, Snipers Head Coach, sees their first competition in Eastbourne in early November as a warm up to the National Championships in March, but doesn’t want to pressurise her new team.

“We’ve had a lot of success in the past few years at Eastbourne and I want the team to do well after putting in so much time and effort over the last few months. But I know that it may be a little scary for some of the newest members.

“There’s a lot of good competitive squads going in November, but I don’t see why we couldn’t place in the top three – our stunts are harder, our dance is faster and tighter, we could do really well as long as no-one panics.”

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Lia Jackson raised over £300 alone to help Snipers reach their target

However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the new team, and uniforms do not come cheap for cheerleaders. To kick-start their sponsorship, one plucky parent completed a 10,000ft skydive just two weeks ago raising over £2300 to cover the costume costs of everyone in the squad.

There are other fundraising ideas coming up for Snipers, with bag-packing at their local stores and performing at events being the main options for new safety equipment and training facilities.

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Lia caught in the act on the way down

If you would like to donate to their JustGiving page, please follow this link:

http://www.gofundme.com/y8wa9h6x?fb_action_ids=10154061945224922&fb_action_types=og.shares&fb_ref=fb_cr_n

To hear more on the skydive story, click the link below for video footage: