I originally created this page when I was trying to qualify for London 2012 and kept it going through to Rio 2016. Now I'm going for one last Games: Tokyo 2020, but this time it's going to be much, much harder...

Friday, 20 April 2012

Who inspires the inspirational?

Recently I found myself sat in a ballroom listening to a so-called motivational speaker. He had been bought in to try and inspire myself and the rest of the gathered athletes in the room with his tales of how he had overcome adversity, and conquered physical feats thought by many to be impossible. Unfortunately, I found him to be more patronising and self-congratulatory than motivational, but it got me to thinking about what exactly DOES inspire me.

I've said it before - I don't think of myself as an inspiration (see my blog: "I am not an inspiration.") But for the sake of this post, let's just assume that other people still find me to be an inspiration, whether it's because of my physical limitations or just because what I have achieved through hard work. If that's the case and I'm an inspiration to others, where do I look for inspiration? Who or what drives me on and what sorts of things do I find inspirational?

Last weekend I went over to Ireland to join the rest of the Irish Paralympic hopefuls (from all sports) for one of the few remaining Renault Paralympic Preparation camps. We spend a few days together training with our own squads and mixing with the others athletes, getting to know each other better so that when we are thrown together for a month at the end of the summer to compete in London, we won't all be complete strangers. It's a good team-building exercise and packed full of useful info on what to expect and how to handles the stresses of competing in the Paralympics.

A good part of these camps involves various activities designed to bring athletes from the different sports together. There is a natural tendency to gravitate towards the people you know rather than meet new people. In past camps many of us normally sit with our own squads during meals, presentations, etc. You don't interact with other people as much as you should. As we draw closer to the Games, these camps have a greater focus on integrating the athletes. We sit with different people for meals, participate in more group activities and try to get to know each other better.

I admit, in the past I have been one of those people that didn't venture outside my comfort zone very often and stayed close to the teammates I knew. The wide variety of disabilities and unfamiliar faces at these camps can be a little daunting and sometimes it's easier to stay inside your safe zone. But I genuinely want to get to know these people and have embraced the ethos of these camps in recent times. And it's been eye-opening.

My disabilities are fairly simple and straightforward. Nerve damage and an artificial leg. I have had these problems for the majority of my life and they are "stable" conditions – meaning they won't get worse and can't be treated. I have learned to adapt my life and am comfortable with any limitations these conditions present.

At the camp I had the opportunity to chat with a competitor from another sport that had a progressive and degenerative disease. This person shall remain nameless, as will the specifics of their disease. Suffices to say that as they get older, the outlook does not. Couple this with the fact that they have already beaten the odds and remained in fairly good condition for the amount of time that they have had the disease, and that it is likely to get bad for them (to the point of complete debilitation or even death) in the coming years, it's easy to see how they might not have the most positive outlook on life.

And yet... the complete opposite is the truth. This person is happy, upbeat and a fierce competitor. Imagine how easy it would be to be down if you knew your days were numbered and knowing that your remaining days will probably be painful and you may suffer from complete incapacitation? It's one thing to have a mild disability that you will be stuck with for the rest of your life – but that won't cause you too much trouble. It's another thing to have a disease that you know will kill you far before your time. Tick tock, tick tock. It would weigh heavily on me.

To see this person making the absolute most of their life and beating the odds, with the burning desire to succeed at the highest levels of their sport was inspirational TO ME. The challenges of riding a bike with an artificial leg pales in comparison in my opinion. I was humbled to speak with them and get an insight into the life. And this... is what the camps are all about.

Another significant portion of the Irish Paralympic team are boccia players. You'll have to pardon my ignorance here, but I'm assuming that all the players suffer from Cerebral Palsy is varying degrees. Most are wheelchair bound and their ability to speak can be severely impaired. As such, a lot of them struggle to communicate and 'speak' with extremely slurred speech, often almost monosyllabically. Again – in my ignorance, there is also an assumption that because of their poor motor skills, and poor speech abilities, that they are also intellectually challenged. This couldn't be further from the truth. Their legs and mouths may not work very well, but their brains are perfectly fine.

But you see, because their outward appearance made me uncomfortable, and because I made assumptions about their intelligence, I have been uncomfortable being around them in the past. I struggle to understand some of my fully communicative teammates at times, so you can imagine how trying to understand someone with slurred speech might make me feel. Because of this, I have missed out on getting to know some of these great people.

At the latest camp I got over my fears and made a point to be talk with some of these athletes. Again – it's eye-opening to see the challenges they face int heir daily life and yet how positive and upbeat they are. I am like a lot of the general public – I just see the packaging and don't bother looking deeper. I see the disability and not the person. But slowly but surely this is changing for me and I hope these Games in London will help further change perceptions of the public.

These are the people that inspire me. Their success is harder to come by than mine as their obstacles are greater to overcome. And yet, inside they are just like you can me. They just want to do well at their chosen sports and to be respected for it. And I'm sure they also do it because they love it!

Even the Paralympics Ireland staff that work tirelessly behind the scenes, making these camps and indeed my London experience possible, always working for the greater good of the athletes and never thinking of themselves – these people make me want to perform to the best of my abilities. In many ways I feel like I can't let them down. Sure, for many of them it's a job, but not all of them and certainly the passion they bring to their duties go far beyond what any paycheque can reward them with. They are the true believers. They are the ones that will celebrate just as vigorously as any athlete who makes their way onto a podium in London. Their passion rubs off on us all and makes us work harder. They make us believe in ourselves and that anything is possible if we keep working at it. They do it quietly most of the time with a kind word or reassuring smile – much more inspirational to me than most of these so-called motivational speakers.

Lastly, on the way home from the camp, as I was checking my bike in at the ferry terminal, the gentleman at the desk saw my Paralympics Ireland shirt and asked me about it. I explained that I was preparing to compete in London and that I had been away with the rest of the team. He offered to take my bike through for me, saying he 'was proud to help a Paralympic hopeful." He shook my hand several times, wished me well and said "we're all behind you". It's not often I see this sort of public appreciation for what we do and to hear directly from a complete stranger that they were behind us. There was something incredibly uplifting and motivational about that. And so... you, the general public, that quietly or opening show your support for us (and not just those of you directly related to an athlete or member of the team): you inspire me. You make me want to succeed on your behalf. 

I look forward to getting to know my fellow London-bound teammates better over the coming months. Perhaps it's foolish and bold of me to say it, but I would love to be the flag-bearer for the whole team. But to do so will mean I have to know and be known by everyone. I'm not getting to know them because I want to be selected for the role, but because I want to be able to cheer them all on by name when we start to compete come August 30.