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 6 – Mornings are not my cup of tea.

Anyone else suffering with a distinct lack of sleep at this point? There may have only been another two days of competition left but I still had three shifts left to go and needed to be back in the Stadium for 8am straight after an evening shift and with another one later that evening too. I know I don’t cope well unless I have a minimum of 8 hours’ sleep each night, and it was becoming alarmingly apparent to the rest of my team that I clearly wasn’t getting that!

AsleepAnd whilst I was struggling, I certainly wasn’t the only one. We all might not be as perky as we were on our first shift, but we were all in the same boat and still enjoying the experience as much as we did on day 1; even if it was through our eyelids. What was strange though is that with only two more days of action, we were still meeting brand new people in our team who had clearly been working opposite shifts. Walking in on Saturday morning and finding a whole new batch of volunteers is like walking in to a brand new school on your first day – it’s nerve-wracking as hell but also a chance to make some neParking Ticketw friends and learn their inspirational stories.

But truthfully, I’d had better mornings. Waking up to find out you have a parking ticket on your car doesn’t constitute a fantastic start to the day, but I did have exactly the right people around me to give me a boost and put a smile back on my face. None of us knew each other before we volunteered for this, and to have so many selfless, incredible men and women around you willing to do anything to help is a great feeling. The volunteers make this event happen, every single one of us, and it’s a testament to every person’s character that when one of the team is having a rough day, they all rally round.

400 startThe morning itself was fairly simple, which meant our brains didn’t have to be fully switched on (and we were all eternally grateful!). The session was mainly 100m and 400m starts; we’d all like to think that we could set up and clear the track for the shorter distance with a blindfold on this late on in the championships. It should just be tweaking the process to make it visually perfect now, surely? In reality, a new group of people also means coordinating ourselves to look like a team, and trust me, due to the mass sleep deprivation, it was harder than it looked!

Naughty numbersAs there were no confusing race set-ups, our Team Leaders were also trying to get us prepared for what it would be like for the IAAF World Championships in 2 weeks’ time (I am aware of how late this blog is… apologies!) and just how regimented it would need to be with the increased media coverage. Easier said than done with a group of people who had only had 5 hours’ sleep and their caffeine fix hadn’t kicked in yet. We powered on through though with no hiccups – a couple of close shaves admittedly, but no hiccups – and as the coffee finally started to work, the smiles, giggles and endless banter was back in full swing.

It was twinged with a hint of sadness for us though; for some, it was their last shift of the championships, or the last time your shifts would coincide, and that’s when you realise how you’ve made incredible friends in such a short space of time. You may have only known these people for the best part of a week, 8 days at best, but they’ve been with you and shared one of the best experiences of your life. Yes, I’m getting a little sappy (give a girl a minute), but I’m sure we’ve all had that moment of pure joy, meeting people you know will be friends for life but having to say goodbye to ones you may not see again, or at least not until the next volunteering event.

Me, Lilly and LizThese two women are just a couple of the team who have had me in fits of laughter, dancing and singing along to Beyoncé songs during our training sessions and generally keeping me fairly insane – the best way to be by far. I said goodbye to these two and I had a tear in my eye as we went our separate ways at Stratford, but hopefully not for too long. Girls road trip to Southampton still on?

Back to the Airbnb for two hours and it all starts again. Hopefully this time without a repeat of the parking ticket – I can’t afford one, let alone two!

Shift 5 – Frenzy Friday

CablesChaos. Absolute chaos. Literally the only way to describe Friday evening. By this point in the Championships, we had pretty much covered all the bases – everyone who wanted to (and was able to) had taken turns with parading the lane markers out, acting as a weightlifter with the starting blocks and cabled into a figure of 8 more times than Torville and Dean had to perform ‘Bolero’ over the years. We thought we would be home and hosed.

What we weren’t aware of was how much we would have to put the skills we’ve learnt to the test in the space of a three-hour session. And the speed in which we would have to do it. And the amount of concentration that we all needed to give to make sure there were no accidents of world-class athletes injuring themselves tripping over ill-placed equipment. Shattered doesn’t quite cover how we felt.

Let’s rewind a few hours to when we all arrived for the training session…

Full Team photo Shift 5

This was a very happy day for quite a few members of our track team. Today was the last day of school for our teachers, and therefore, six full weeks of unadulterated, kid-free

Team Leaders messing around
These are not the teachers, just our Team Leaders enjoying the sunshine!

bliss. This was their moment, and despite knowing they would be working a volunteer shift on the first night of their freedom, they weren’t about to waste the daytime. I heard three different stories from Friday afternoon, all involving some form of alcoholic beverages. (All names will remain protected to hide the teachers’ identities… for now!)

One story was a fairly mild-mannered tale, celebrating with the obligatory beer after the kids had heard the final bell. Another was slightly more risky, having a couple of glasses of prosecco in the morning break before returning to teaching the year 5 class (*Just a small note – the bottle had already been opened by 11am. It may have been a tough morning for one of the other staff members…!). And then there was one who went all out. Instead of finding a beverage on school grounds, a gaggle of teachers from the same secondary school decided to pop to the local pub for two full hours at lunch, before returning to teach their final class. That’s dedication. And drunkenness!

With a couple of ‘slightly’ fuzzy heads and a care-free attitude in our group, we set to a very busy evening schedule at the stadium. It would be an evening of running through the tunnels like headless chickens, but also with our lane markers – we were armed and genuinely dangerous! But there is one huge part of our role that I haven’t mentioned in these blogs so far; the number nine.Liam with the no.9

To the masses, this won’t mean much, it’s just a number. To the few who were part of the lane marker/starting blocks team, it’s the holy grail, it’s Armageddon! I suppose I should explain: whilst there are two or three sets of 1-8 lane markers dotted around the track at the different start lines, there is only one elusive number nine. Lose it or be late to a race with it at your peril!

Tonight, it was the night of reckoning for one of the guys, Liam. His night to shine. And a chance to clock up nearly as many kilometres as Mo Farah would run on a training day for the worlds in a couple of weeks’ time. It was clearly going to be a very long evening…

We had eve200m set uprything for the Friday evening session; 100m starts which are now running like clockwork (these were the fairly simple set ups), 200m where we were starting to feel more and more comfortable the more we did them – and still had time to recoil with plenty of time – the 400m races which was panic stations at the ready and getting the cables off so quickly you were getting burns on your fingers, and the 800m starts as well. Whilst the 800m only needed lane markers, getting them in the right place and not mixed up with the 400m starts is a feat in itself.

Me and Ash (Security Guard)Honestly? I have no idea how we all managed to survive the night. I’m only 22 and my body was suffering: so much so that I ended up having to sit in straddle on the floor to stretch my muscles out. But wasn’t really paying much attention to my surroundings, or that it wasn’t a particularly normal thing to do. Next thing you know, one of the security guards at the finish line started asking me how I was that flexible and whether I could do the splits (the go-to question anyone who is vaguely bendy has to answer!) which I obliged in showing him. We’d we talking for a few shifts by now, but saw a whole new side to me. And he thought I was a shy and retiring person…

Liam worked wonders with the number 9, it’s just a shame we didn’t clock his 200m time running through the tunnels, we could have entered him for the championships! But we were all starting to bond as a family now. We’d all been on a few shifts by this point and gotten to know quite a lot of the people in our team. At the beginning of each shift, we’d see how the previous session went and hear stories of bloopers from training or learn more about individuals, offering aSelfie shift 5dvice and help to others who hadn’t been in for a few days.

These people are fast becoming my friends and I wouldn’t change them in the slightest. Even if the WhatsApp group has around 100+ notifications each hour!

Shift 4 – Extra sets of helping hands

Training Wednesday night, our starting blocks/lane marker team were asked if a few of us could come in early for Thursday evening’s session to help set up some of the field equipment. Immediately, a dozen of us said, ‘Of course, we don’t have anything else to do!’ not realising what it would entail.

Showing off!I actually enjoyed finding out what some of the other volunteers get up to in their shifts and a whole new appreciation for their roles! We have pressure to comply with Seiko, TV Cameras and the strict time schedule to adhere to: the field team have to make sure that no athlete gets injured, or is able to throw a discus, shot put, javelin or club throw into the crowd. I think they have more things to worry about!

We ambled up at 2.30pm (90 minutes before our normal shift began) carrying all the metal poles for the throwing cages – which were surprisingly lighter than the netInjuryting that goes around it – and lifting the net like a flagpole. Me, like the delicate flower that I am, managed to get rope burn in the process having to resort to yet another plaster. But it wasn’t just me, this was dangerous work! Two others in our team ended up receiving medical treatment after setting up the field equipment; starting to appreciate our role even more now!

Scrubbing the floors

But we also got to experience the hidden downsides to the equipment team, the dirty underside of the role; cleaning. We felt like Cinderella scrubbing the floors and waiting for Prince Charming to spot us and return a glass slipper. It didn’t happen… Our aim was to get rid of all the chalk that was on the track from the previous night’s action – whether we achieved that or not with just a couple of sponges and some cold water in a bucket, we’ll never know!

The rest of the evening’s squad arrived and we had to get to work for yet another incredibly busy evening of action. This was going to be a night where we were grateful for a pair of running trainers from Asics, because they were certainly going to be put to the test. I was on the 400m and 800m for the evening with a slick team ready to keep the finish line clear before the athletes made it with 200m to go, but it wasn’t going to be a doddle.Whole team shift 4

It also doesn’t help with concentration when our team leaders keep asking us to strip off… the track. Wording is everything and we still can’t help ourselves!

But we made it through the evening with no major hiccups and an aGroup selfie!bsolute ton of giggles. These people will be friends for life as they have made the experience that little more special for all of us – you may be having a rough day or feeling sleep-deprived, but a high five from someone on the bridge, or hearing that you have a lovely smile from the guys at the bag search table can completely turn your day around. Suddenly, you have all the energy in the world and are ready to give your all for the session.

The grouInside the Stadiump that we have on the starting blocks have carried me through the last couple of days, and I know that they will be there to keep picking me up and make sure I have a grin permanently plastered on my face. We are so lucky to be so close to the athletes during their races and they have all been so open and willing to have conversations, sign autographs and even take selfies with us all.  we are doing as volunteers is to make their competition experience as special as possible.

After all, London is the home of the Paralympics!

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?

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?!