I sat down to write my niece a letter this morning. It’s her first birthday next week. Some of you will know she was born 13 weeks early, weighing just 1lb 12oz/800g, and spent the first four months of her life in neonatal intensive care. Many of you sponsored me when I ran this year’s London Marathon for a premature baby charity.
The letter will sit in a wallet with the marathon medal that’s hers to keep. She won’t read it for many many years but I wanted to tell her how her first months felt for those looking in, how remarkable her mummy, daddy and big sister and the medical professionals were, and how surprising it was to feel this huge overwhelming love for a person you aren’t even able to meet or hold for nearly five months. I wanted her to know how many people who are unlikely to ever meet her were rooting for her. How, a year on, barely a week passes without someone asking after her.
Against All Odds is a well worn phrase. It’s banded around in everything from war reporting to charity storytelling, in health catastrophes and, at the moment, Olympic coverage. It’s a bit hackneyed but often it just works. My niece has Chronic Lung Disease, a common condition in premature babies who are born before their lungs are fully developed. Laura Trott was born prematurely with a collapsed lung and spent the first weeks of her life in an intensive care unit. She took up sport to build her lung strength. She is regularly seen retching at the end of a race. She is the most decorated British female Olympian of all time. I will choose my words carefully when I write about that; I don’t want my niece to be overwhelmed by expectations of greatness, but I also want her to know that serious health conditions may not be a barrier to her.
Generally speaking, I’m a sucker for the ‘Against All Odds’ stories during the Olympics. Of course I love watching the predictable showstoppers, but what I think makes the Olympics so special is the moments of human spirit shining through. Do I occasionally randomly watch the Derek Redmond clip from Barcelona just for the joy of having a little cry? Er, yes (sorry, not sorry). Do I think the refugee team is one of the most amazing things about this year’s Games? Yes. Did my heart surge and eyes leak as the London 2012 crowds roared for the whole 11 minutes and 23 seconds it took Paralympian Houssein Omar Hassan to complete the 1500m race? Fuck yes!
I was a volunteer at the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. I signed up for it in 2005 during the Back the Bid campaign. I was obsessed with the Games coming to London. There are experiences in life that create a change in your attitude that’s permanent. That make you think ‘fuck it’. At the close of 2012 as friends and I watched the new year fireworks on the TV I turned to my best friend and said ‘am I the last person in the world you’d expect to run a marathon?’. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘but it’s you so you’re going to bloody do it aren’t you?’ Three weeks later I went for my first ever run. Fourteen months later I ran my first marathon. When I was feeling useless and tears were constant after my niece was born and I couldn’t do anything useful for her I signed up for my second one. I’ve raised nearly £11,000 now over the two marathons, all of which will go into research funded by the two charities I ran for. There is not one shred of doubt in my mind that it was volunteering at 2012 that inspired me to sign up for my first marathon.
What I didn’t expect to happen as a result was how differently I would come to think about my body and how it looks. A bit fat? Yes, but I ran a marathon! Leg held together with two metal plates and 12 screws? Yes, but I ran a marathon. Years of thinking I was the not very attractive one? Yes, but how ridiculous! I’m amazing! That last bit is a bit tongue in cheek, but on the more serious body positivity thing, my sense of my own attractiveness and confidence in it has developed in almost direct proportion to my appreciation of what I can train my body to achieve.
What was even more of a surprise is that I have, in turn, inspired others. That is so weird to type! But two friends (and not even good friends – Facebook friends, neither of whom I’ve seen for years) emailed me to say that after following my stories on Facebook in 2014 they both started running. To date, they’ve both run two marathons. I’m not claiming to be an ‘Against All Odds’ candidate but I was definitely ‘really bloody unlikely’!! That these little seeds of ‘maybe I could do that’ are sown and flourish off the back of something as exciting and life affirming as volunteering and the collective joy of watching sport makes me so happy. That some of us look upon another, whether it’s an Olympian, Paralympian or someone you haven’t seen since university, and think ‘I’ll give it a go’ is amazing. One of my favourite things to come out of 2012 is a group of staff at the disability charity where I was working during that summer getting so excited after visiting the Paralympics they joined a running group for the learning disabled. On 4th September I’ll be cheering them on during a 10k in the Olympic Park!
I know the Olympics are horrendously tedious for some people and for them people like me are unbearable for those few weeks every four years. Some people just hate watching sport, others find the collective awe at best annoying and at worst soul-destroying, whether for personal or political reasons. But not everything can work for everyone and for these two weeks, and for two weeks next month during the Paralympics, I will happily soak up the ‘Against All Odds’ narrative.
As for my niece? She’s still here, that’s what matters most. Who knows what she’ll do or become over the next few decades. She may never take up any sport in her life and that’s fine, but I’m happy she has a medal in her name. I hope one day she draws strength from knowing how many people put their hands in their pockets to donate in her name and that they provided me with moral support during such a difficult time.