Paralympic hero David Weir on gold medal success, Surrey life and inspiring future generations
- Credit: Mike King/Richmond Running Festival
Fresh from his gold medal success at this summer’s Commonwealth Games, which follows his six Paralympic gold medals and six London Marathon wins, Surrey-based wheelchair athlete David Weir is now looking forward to an event rather closer to home, as Surrey Life discovers...
Given the fact that he’s a world-renowned sportsman and an inspiration to millions facing the challenges of disability, David Weir is the epitome of normality.
“I don’t go in for the big celeb stuff,” says the 35-year-old, as we chat over coffee in the serene setting of Kew Gardens near Richmond. “Obviously I’m an athlete first and foremost and, family aside, that will always be my focus. I like things to be structured and calm. I compete, I look after my kids and partner, I enjoy living in Surrey… that’s it for me. It’s a good life. Ultimately, why should I want it to be any different?
“I’m one of those lucky guys who loves what he does and wouldn’t want any distractions from a vocation that has driven my life forward. I hope it will continue that way, I really do.”
That unshakable commitment has taken the Wallington-based athlete to multiple gold medal success in the Paralympic, World and European Championships, in wheelchair race formats from the 800m to marathon distance. And this summer, he added a Commonwealth 1,500m gold to an already glittering showcase of competitive success with a devastating display of raw sprint power.
“This medal was particularly special because it wasn’t on my list until now,” says the six-time Paralympic champion. “It means a lot to me to represent England because I am passionate about my country. That’s why I carried on after 2012, and it felt like London out there with so many English flags.
“It was also great to prove that I am at my best and I can still do it at 35.”
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Certainly, he has silenced the critics, who felt his year away from the sport, when he decided to take a break after competing pretty much non-stop since 1997, might signal the beginning of the end. But they should have known better. This is someone whose strong mindset and straightforward approach has seen him succeed again and again. “It’s simple really – being good at wheel-chair racing takes the same skill and dedication as running,” says the athlete, who was awarded a CBE last year for services to sport. “It’s just that you’re using your arms instead of your legs. I’ve always been good at the sprint distances, but over the years, I’ve just had to find a different way of conserving energy and strength when building up to the bigger distances.”
While the London Olympics provided arguably Weir’s finest sporting hour – four gold medals – he doesn’t see 2012 as the pinnacle, more just another step on the journey. “Obviously, the Olympics were incredible, and competing on a course that was familiar made it feel like a race I’d done many times before, which helped,” says the man who was nicknamed the Weir Wolf by his army of fans. “But my focus always moves on to the next race. Looking ahead now, I’ve a busy year of Diamond League and Anniversary Games, and then preparations will start for next year’s London Marathon, because that’s a race that still means as much to me as ever.”
On home turf
He’s also looking forward to an event a little closer to home too. A great believer in ‘sport for all’, Weir is involved with a number of community projects – one of which is Richmond Running Festival. Having launched last year, this 10k and half-marathon event, with mile-long races for children, has now added a junior wheelchair category to its offering – which is what brings him to Kew Gardens today for the official launch.
Part of Richmond’s Olympic legacy programme, the event will see young wheelchair athletes from the ages of 11 to 17 compete in the stunning setting of the gardens before 6,000 adults take on the 10k and half-marathon races.
“It’s great that London 2012 has inspired Kew Gardens to host the Paralympic champions of the future,” says David, who can often be found training in nearby Richmond Park. “I’m happy to see that the Borough of Richmond is building on the legacy of London 2012 in this way.”
Taking place on Sunday September 21, the festival as a whole promises to be a fantastic day out for both competitors and spectators alike, with not only the races themselves but also the Richmond Fitness expo and even a music festival.
“It’s a great event that takes in some spectacular scenery around Surrey and west London,” continues David. “There are live bands, parties and fantastic support along the route, and it’s a great way for people to really share in the community feel that sport offers.
“I’m a Surrey boy and proud of it, so having this kind of thing on my doorstep really means a lot.”
A passionate advocate for inclusion in sport, his determination to see wheelchair users given the same opportunities as the able-bodied has often seen him come up against organisers and sports bodies in the past.
“I’m not a confrontational person,” he laughs, “I just have a passion for sport and I believe everyone should be given the best opportunity, and an equal opportunity. I think more than ever before it’s so vital that we involve people of all ages in sport and fitness – for me it’s been a lifesaver. I don’t know where I’d be without this in my life.”
The Surrey speedster – who has been disabled since birth due to a congenital spinal cord transection – obtained his first racing chair at the age of eight. Previously, he’d competed in the London mini- marathon in a standard chair. “When I realised I wanted to be a wheelchair racer, I knew I could be the best, and I’d stop at nothing to ensure I made it,” he adds.
The driving force
For many athletes, the climb to the top comes from a hunger for winning. Yet in the case of Weir, the driving force was slightly different. “I’ve always been spurred on by the fear of failure,” he explains. “Coming second, as I did in this year’s London Marathon, has just made me more determined than ever to win back the crown. I don’t look back on past glories – of course, I’m glad they happened, but they’re not my focus – I just strive for the next success.”
At 35, won’t this incredible athlete have to accept that his career cannot go on forever? “I guess I’ll need to find a way of revising that definition of failure,” he muses. “Maybe I can move my definition of success towards the community projects and away from my own racing, but that’s not something I want to contemplate right now because I still feel as though I have so much to give to disabled sport.”
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: The Grange Bar and Restaurant in Wallington is a nice spot. I’m not big on going out because once I’ve done my training and a few media commitments it’s nice to relax at home, but The Grange is good for a drink or a meal.
View: Getting up to Box Hill is magnificent. There’s always some great training for me out there, which I love, and if I do some hill sprints or stamina training on inclines, the reward at the top is incredible, with such amazing views from the North Downs.
Place to visit: I do like Beddington Park in Wallington. It’s local and I take the kids down there and race them around! There’s lots of space and some of the gardens are beautiful.