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“I couldn’t play football, I couldn’t ride a bike, I couldn’t run. This gave me the opportunity to be the best in something.” - Paralympic athlete David Weir
Six-time Paralympic wheelchair gold medallist David Weir talks to Adam Darke about the highs and lows of his sporting life, from fighting taunts in the playground to quadruple success at London 2012.
With contributions from his coach Jenny Archer and his mother Jackie, the programme provides a vivid insight into how he overcame his spinal cord transection he was born with which left him unable to use his legs, to become a top-class athlete.
“I don’t even think I’m disabled, because I was brought up to feel like I’m not. My parents never wanted adaptions, they asked me if I wanted them and I said no, in the house. I didn’t want it to look like a disabled house - no lowered cupboards, stairlift. I went up and down stairs on my backside and that’s the way I wanted it. They taught me at an early age, this won’t stop you, you’ll have a normal life. In sport it was the same thing.”
He said his brothers refused to stand up for him, because they told him that he would have to learn to stand up for himself, in the face of playground taunts.
“They always said to me, ‘You have to fight your own battles if someone is nasty.’ The word I hate is cripple - I don’t think there should be a word. It really gets on my nerves, I used to get really angry when people said that. I used to retaliate.
“Fighting. I’d probably get beaten up but that’s what I did.”
He tells the story of how he got into wheelchair marathons, entering a competition for 12-year-olds when he was just eight: “I didn’t come anywhere but that was it, that was the bug then.”
In 1996 he made the Great Britain Paralympics squad for Atlanta, failing to win a medal in the 100m, 400m or 4x100m relay. After the games he he walked away from sport because he became disillusioned by competing in an empty stadium, and he talks about his decision: “I just fell out of love with it. It was supposed to be the best thing in my life at that time, going to a Paralympics, but it was rubbish. We were expecting big crowds but you could count how many people were in the stands, and most of them were team members of other countries who were there. It was the worst feeling ever. At the time I didn’t really care. It was only when I got back and I just thought, ‘is there any success in Paralympic sport? Will it ever be good?’ I don’t think so’. That’s the way I felt, and then I thought, ‘let’s have a break for a little while.’”
But when he saw the Paralympics four years later in 2000, he regretted his decision: “Then I saw Sydney and seeing the crowds and everyone saying how brilliant the Paralympics is, and I couldn’t stop crying. I thought I’d let a lot of people down - my family, my country, everyone at UK athletics and seeing Tanni [Grey-Thompson] winning her medals. That was only four years after I thought it was a disaster. I said to myself, and everyone around me, ‘I will never let anyone down again.’”
At Athens in 2004 he won silver in the 100m and bronze in the 200m. Then in 2008, he contracted glandular fever shortly before he was due to compete. But he explains what drove him to win gold in the 800 and 1,500m plus a silver and a bronze at the games: “The desire to get my first Paralympic gold medal. Watching the TV, in the athletics nobody was winning a gold medal. I felt a responsibility as a team member to win at least one gold for the team, even though the way I was feeling I shouldn’t even have medalled.”
His coach Jenny Archer reveals that the pair set even higher targets for London 2012: “We were asked to do a team photo of all the British athletes out there and Peter Eriksson who was the head coach at the time came over and said ‘I’d like to introduce you to the Paralympic Committee.’ He says, ‘This is Jenny Archer, David Weir’s coach. We’re expecting four gold from David.’ I thought, ‘If that’s what you want, you’re gonna get it.’ So I said to Dave, ‘You fancy a challenge?’ He said ‘Yep.’”
Prior to the games, David says, he was determined to please the crowds by winning plenty of gold medals: “I wanted it to be the best Paralympics ever, in Britain, I think. I knew we could pull it off. I just wanted the Paralympics to be on par with the Olympics and I wanted London to be the first host city to do it. I still had little doubts, you still thought maybe ‘Is there going to be a packed crowd?’ But seeing 80,000 people there was an amazing feeling.”
He describes his inner thoughts before the start of the 5,000m final which he famously won: “I knew when I got on that start line - I had to win that race. Not just for myself but for all the people who had supported me over the years who knew and helped me.”
The fact he had become famous through his on-track exploits added to the pressure on him for the final race at the games - the marathon. He had already won three gold medals and earned the nickname the ‘Weir-Wolf’: “I felt pressure - you know the ‘Weir-Wolf’ thing, everyone on the course had masks and was shouting, I felt like, ‘I have to do it now.’ I couldn’t go away with third or maybe a silver it doesn’t look good. Emotionally I was drained.”
Following his victory in the marathon, he explains his view on athletes who compete at the Paralympics: “You can’t moan about not getting recognition and then when you get it you can’t moan that people are hounding you. We’ve wanted it for years… You should love every minute of it.”