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637 Days To Go is my blog, which was originally started with exactly 637 days until the start of the London 2012 Paralympic Games. And now it's been re-started with 637 days until the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.



Sunday, 13 November 2011

Meeting Oscar

I have to admit, prior to this past week, I didn't know much about the man. I mean – like most people I'd heard the stories and seen the odd news clip of him in action, but that was about it. And as a fellow amputee, I took some interest in his legs. Who am I talking about? Oscar Pistorius, the South African runner also know as the Bladerunner.

What sets Oscar part from the crowd? Basically it boils down to this: he's an immensely talented athlete that despite his 'disability' has risen almost to the point of being able to compete on equal footing (pardon the pun) with 'able-bodied' runners. But controversy has surrounded his efforts due to him originally being prevented from running in the Olympics because various governing bodies thought his carbon fibre running legs gave him an advantage over able-bodied runners.

These decisions have since been overturned by CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) clearing the way for him to compete for a spot on the South African Olympic team and participate in the London 2012 Olympics (as well as the Paralympics). He has achieved the 'A' standard once already (the minimum time that an athlete must run in competition in order to be allowed to run in the Olympics). South African qualification criteria state that ALL athletes must achieve this standard within 3 months of the Olympics in order to be eligible for selection – so he'll have to do it again some time next summer to make the team, but he's confident that he'll achieve the time and gain selection – paving the way for him to be the first Paralympic athlete to also participate in the 'regular' Olympics.

He may actually be one of several Paralympians to make the jump to the Olympics in 2012 with Irish athlete Jason Smyth looking to compete in the 100m and 200m sprints and GB cyclist Sarah Storey trying to secure a spot in the Olympic Team Pursuit squad as well as her usual range of Paralympic cycling events. But there is something much more dramatic about Pistorius' bid for Olympic inclusion due to the double carbon fibre bladed legs he runs on.

On Thursday I travelled to Glasgow in Scotland along with my prothetist Howard Wooley from Pace Rehabilitation (www.pacerehab.com) to present at a conference focussing on prosthetics in sport. Howard and I were there to discuss the leg that Pace had made for me and the impact it has had on my cycling whilst Oscar was the keynote speaker at the conference.

We were invited to a dinner the night before the conference along with the other presenters, and of course, Oscar as well. This was my first chance to speak with the man about various different topics. It's always a little odd when you meet a 'celebrity' – or at least someone that is perceived to be one. But he was modest and approachable in every way. We chatted about training schedules, travel, the Opening Ceremonies, the weather and a host of other topics. At no point did I feel out of place asking questions and I have to admit he was one of the nicest people I have had the pleasure of chatting with. I even thought he was embarrassed by all the attention heaped on him by the other dinner guests.

The following day at the conference, there were several photographers, news interviewers and TV crews there to interview him. I was asked to tag along so that they could also ask me some questions, but it was a bit of an afterthought as it was clear who (rightly) the star of this show was. But he made no complaint about sharing the spotlight with me and when the photographers asked if I would produce my bike and carbon leg, Oscar happily jumped in to have a look at my equipment and have his photo taken with me. He had never seen my particular type of cycling leg and I think it interested him to see how the cleat bolted directly into the bottom. We discussed the weight, the shape, the performance benefits and even the weight of my bike. 

Lastly, over lunch, we were able to talk some more – this time about diet, weight loss, training loads, different sponsors and even the delicate task of finding a balance between training and doing these types of promotional events. At this point I'm was starting to become a huge fan of the man and possibly even become a little star-struck. I think I'd started to develop a man crush on him simply because he was so nice. 

There is a moment, just before he must go on stage to do his speech, that he is introduced to a young boy of 15 that has come to see his presentation. The boy has had all of his limbs amputated due to a terrible illness and is wheelchair bound. Oscar chats happily and with ease to the lad – probably making a lifelong impact on him. To me – this is what sets him apart. It's not his achievements on the running track, but the way in which he so happily tries to better the lives of those who are less fortunate around him. He's a true professional sportsman – but also down to earth and at ease with his 'fame'. There is a willingness to use his celebrity status to make the lives of other people better and to perhaps inspire a future generation of Paralympians to succeed. I saw it in the way he chatted with me, treating me as an equal and in the same way he spoke to this young boy.

I'll never reach the same level of exposure as he will. I simply am not as big a story as he is and never will be. But meeting him has somehow inspired me to try and reach bigger heights. Not because I want to be famous in the same way he is, but because I'd like to be a better human being like he is. I admire his professionalism, his dedication to sport and his ability to touch other people's lives.

I hope to see him again in London next year – and hopefully he'll remember who I am (although even if he has forgotten, I suspect he'll still make me feel like he remembers and put me at ease again!).

Video of Oscar talking about competing in London next year, with some footage of he and I together at the end: