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?

The trials and tribulations of a Paralympic hopeful – Part One

 

 

alarms4:45am: (Beep, Beep, Beep…) The never-ending, dreaded sound of the alarm in the morning. Except it doesn’t feel like morning when it’s pitch black, and trust me, this was no ordinary day. Today was my first ever paralympic trial, and I had no idea what to expect. Not a Scooby.

I applied for the Paralympic Talent Scheme back in September, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, watching Team GB earn their highest medal haul in history and thought to myself, ‘why not?’ thinking nothing of it at the time. Yet, three weeks later, not one, but three emails confirming my place for the trials made their way into my inbox if I wanted it them, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to turn down that kind of experience.

para-athletics-trackHowever, when I signed up, I was expecting a regional event somewhere fairly local where I’d get to try out a few different sports, meet a few people who may actually make it to Tokyo in 2020 for the GB Squad and I could finally put my sports journalism skills to good use. No. Couldn’t be more wrong if I tried. Instead, I’d be given a 10-12pm session slot half way up the country in Manchester – ridiculously early start it is then…

Whilst I may have been the one getting all hot and sweaty with the gruelling drills, I managed to avoid the four-hour drive each way (thankfully, because I would have fallen asleep at the wheel more times than Garfield says he hates Mondays): That job fell to my fabulously supportive boyfriend – I wouldn’t have been capable of doing half of what I did today without him… or allowing me to kip in the car.

adam-hillsI had no idea what I was walking into or how to react when I arrived at the Etihad Stadium today. I met and spoke to The Last Leg’s Adam Hills (famous for his Paralympic coverage) last weekend, and asked him what to do when being in a room full of ‘disabled’ people. He came back with the best response: “Everyone you’ll meet will be in exactly the same situation as you – no-one knows how to react cause you don’t really round up disabled people often! I had no clue what to do the first time, just be yourself and enjoy the experience.”

He couldn’t have been more right. Most of us were completely new to trials and had been inspired by Team GB; it didn’t matter what we did today, the main aim was to get the most out of the experience and meet people with similar disabilities.

It’s probably time for a bit of context. I am a mild right hemiplegic suffering with Cerebral Palsy. I say suffering – it’s not remotely obvious to the naked eye and I don’t class myself as disabled (I can do pretty much everything… except do buttons up with my right hand…) because I had so much physiotherapy as a baby. But I was unbelievably lucky, I was caught at six weeks old. Most people with CP -including many that I met today – weren’t diagnosed until 18 months, even later. para-athletics-smiles

So I turned my hand to sport, mainly gymnastics, from six months old as a form of physiotherapy to keep my muscles active. Turns out, I may have stood out in the crowd in the warm up alone at the Athletics trials today because of it – my flexibility (which I thought was non-existent) resulted in one of the GB coaches calling over the Head of Paralympic Scouts to watch me lift my leg higher than they had ever seen before whilst sitting in a particularly awkward position on the floor. I’m sure it was a sight to behold… and most certainly something I’m glad I don’t have photographic evidence of!

My first area in Athletics was jumping (mainly long jump for the day) and as it happens, I’m not too shabby at it. As a cheerleader, my jumps are the only thing I can do and do well (tumbles are a no-go with a back like Quasimodo, stunting – not a chance, and I’m more of a show-off than Beyoncé when it comes to the Dance section), and apparently impressed the GB jump coach – I believe his exact words were, “You clearly have a natural talent and ability for long jump. Have you got springs in those trainers?!” Not bad for a person who has no ligaments left in her ankles and rolls both of them on average about five times a week.

para-athletics-talkingOur group of seven were starting to interact a lot more by the time we made it to rotation 2 – sprinting. Of course, I’m not one to keep quiet for very long and ended up talking more than Lorelai in Gilmore Girls, but it was the first time I’d ever had a full-blown conversation with people with CP and I couldn’t help myself; my inquisitive nature kicked in. Or another way to put it – I’m nosy.

I’ve never really been one for running; between the gammy ankles and a distinct lack of stamina, I wasn’t really expecting miracles, but I thought I’d have a crack at it. Maybe sprinting would be better because it’s a shorter distance? Wrong again. Admittedly, it was only 40 metres for the coaches to get an idea of our speed. I’ll give you a hint, I wasn’t about to beat Usain Bolt in a race anytime soon, but there may be a glimmer of hope if I put a pair of roller blades on instead!

para-athletics-action-shotThe throwing events aren’t exactly my cup of tea either. I’m more akin to doing the splits on a crate of fire rather than managing to do anything more than a pansy throw. Still, it was all part of the experience, which I wouldn’t have changed for the world. I’m not expecting anything out of the trial, for me it’s just another story to tell and possibly a chance get some journalism work out of it; a callback for phase two would just be the icing on the cake.

But I’m not done yet. One trial down. two to go. Track Cycling should be interesting considering I struggle immensely with cornering on a bike, let alone balance, and Triathlon may be the death of me, but I promise to write about it before collapsing in a heap.

Three Paralympic Trials, five weeks – what could possibly go wrong?!