There’s still something inside me that knows it’s a Games year. Even though I last competed at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, it’s almost like my body has become attuned to being ready. You wake up and there’s this feeling: “Wow, I know something special is happening.” And that’s true even in this strange, fifth year of the cycle.
I have a sense of excitement as the Games approaches, but – fortunately – I don’t have any of the pressures; the pressures of qualifying for the Games and now of making sure you’re ready for them. It’s about this point in the buildup that athletes start to really worry. You’re trying to get your form right. But you’re also paranoid about getting injured, and about staying away from anyone who might have a cold. This year, of course, there is Covid to think of too. You catch that, you’re potentially out of the Games or even worse. I can’t imagine what it must be like getting ready for Tokyo right now, people must have wrapped themselves in cotton wool.
Coming out of the Olympics, one of the great things has been that athletes have finally been able to talk about the impact that these pressures have on their mental health. I don’t think the general public really understands that, the emotional turmoil that we feel. I think they love the idea that we are these indestructible beings who are able to cope with it all; do or die every four years. We go into the sport wanting to take that on, don’t get me wrong. We want to put ourselves in that position. But for us the whole cycle of the Games is like getting in your car and driving at 100 miles an hour every day.
I felt that pressure for 10 or 15 years, for David Weir it’s been nearly 25. Dave had only been down for doing the marathon this year, but I think he wants to do the 5,000m and the 1500m too now. He will be competing on both track and road at his sixth Games, he’s a phenomenon. But when we were talking on the phone recently, what we talked about was his anxiety.
It will seem really hard to comprehend for people, but for a long time Dave has struggled with feeling worthy of all the accolades that people have bestowed on him. His thought processes have been: “Am I as good as people think I am? Am I as good as all these other athletes that I’m competing out there against?” That’s another kind of pressure that athletes feel, many of us suffer from impostor syndrome at some point in our lives but as elite athletes you’re not supposed to talk about it, or show any signs of weakness. When Dave and I were chatting about this, I said: “When I was competing, I don’t think I could have really told people how I was feeling.” And I couldn’t because I wouldn’t have been selected for the squad. You had to bottle it all up, put it to one side, and just “deal with it”.
I often talk about a moment in the Athens Paralympics where I made two shots in a quarter-final against the USA. They were the last shots of the match, we won it, and we went on to win a bronze medal. It was one of the biggest moments in my career, but when I watch it, and I’ve seen it so many times, rather than euphoria all I feel is relief. Prior to the Games we had been told that if we didn’t medal in Athens we’d lose all our funding. When you come from a Paralympic sport or a minority sport where there’s not an opportunity to make much money … that’s a big deal.
Bizarrely, I think Covid has had one upside for athletes. Dave hasn’t been able to enter many events this year, he even had to return to the track competing at the Swiss Grand Prix just to stay race sharp. That meant, for the first time, he had the opportunity to take a break from the sport and get himself some perspective. There’s only a handful of British athletes who have made six Paralympic Games. You’ve got complete freaks like 14-times gold medal cyclist Sarah Storey who’s going to her eighth, but that’s ridiculous. When Dave really sat down and realised: “Blimey, I’ve been doing this at the top level for 24 years,” he was able to find the pride in that.
Dave says he’s in a good place now, that he’s had the time and space to reevaluate his love for the sport. He’s ready to go, and the truth is those same athletes who Dave worried about, all actually look up to him. He told me in the call room before the races, in Switzerland they would say: “It’s good to see you back.”
London 2012, fuelled by Channel 4’s innovative coverage, gave ParalympicsGB the perfect platform to create new legends in our sport. Dave, Sarah Storey, Ellie Simmonds, Jonnie Peacock, Richard Whitehead, Hannah Cockroft and Lee Pearson are among a special group that I believe have an indomitable appetite for success that’s so infectious it flows through the whole team. The moment they roll into these games, every athlete from around the world is looking at them and thinking: these are the people we want to beat. Not that I want to put any pressure on them …