Jacuzzi Performance Podcast

Ep 6.  Richard Whitehead MBE – from PE teacher to Paralympic gold medalist.

Hi, and welcome back to the Jacuzzi Performance Podcast. I'm Ed Baxter, and today, we're joined by Richard Whitehead, MBE. How are you doing?

Hi, how's it going?

Good thanks. Do you smile every time someone says MBE?

[Laughs] Not really. It's obviously a great accolade for my family, and a great day out for myself and my parents, but for me, it's just part and parcel of performance sport.

I think you're the first one we've had on who's had some pretty impressive letters after their name – so nice one there. I guess first of all, how's lockdown been?

I think it's been quite tough for a lot of people, especially athletes that have got aspirations of Olympic and Paralympic participation and success. To try to quantify not having those goals is something that, initially, athletes would say 'it's fine, I'm being dynamic and training at home'. I think naturally, you have to reflect on the situation you're in and then, if you're dynamic and you look at the bigger picture, then you'll be able to manufacture an environment that makes you continue to progress in your sport. But it is hard, it's tough.

Definitely. You were saying there about manufacturing something and making sure you can keep going. I know Jacuzzi provided you with the Endless Pool, didn't they ­­– or a swim spa? How have you found that?

After London 2012, I made sure that I had my own gym at home, so regarding the actual gym itself, I was largely fine. But I felt there was something that I needed to put in place regarding my recovery from the sessions, as well as the mental health side of sport and    enjoying that family time. So having that swim spa at home has given me a different dimension to my sport, in respect that I can do my walking drills in the swim spa, obviously swim, and have my children in there enjoying the swim spa. I think it's really important to evolve as an athlete and that's what I've used the time in lockdown to do, to be proactively evolving.

That's really cool. You can have it at 28-degrees for you to swim in the week and then bang it up to 40 for the kids at the weekend.

[Laughs] That's right. I think the issue is that the weather's been quite good, so they've been trying to jump in when I've wanted to do a session.

'I've got to train, get out.'

You should see it now, I've got all like toys in it at the moment. There's wind-up toys, there's balls in there and woggles and everything. It's like a swimming lesson.

Sounds great. If we go back to you as an athlete and who you are; you're a 100 and 200-metre sprinter and you're a Para-athlete. So, you've got the – what would you call them – springs that you race with?

Yeah, so I run on prosthetics. When you're an amputee you use walking prosthetics, but I've got specific ones for my sport and they give me the platform to participate at the highest level. But, obviously, I have to train like every able-bodied athlete, and I think that's really important people realise – that any disabled athlete or person can't just put on these running feet and then just run the kind of times that I do. Whether it's myself or Johnny Peacock or whoever, it's about the dedication and the sacrifice you make to be a performance athlete. The actual carbon-fiber feet that I run on are specific to my height and weight, so they're very custom, the same as a performance swimmer would have a custom suit for racing. Very specific.

Yeah definitely. So You won your first World Championship around 2011, is that correct?

Yeah, four straight.

Four straight World Championship titles. Decent. You were 35 years old when you won that first one. I guess in sport, it's more of a young person's game in general, but you've changed that, you've broken the mould there. You're not this 20-year-old who's burst onto the scene and said 'I'm here'. You bided your time and then in 2011 you burst out.

I think with sport and the evolution of Paralympic sport, it's slightly different than mainstream able-bodied sport. Disability sport you have athletes and participants like myself that are congenital, so they were born with their disability and impairment, and then you also have participants that have accidents or illnesses through tragedy. You come into the sport at different levels, at different times and at different ages, so development in each sport isn't exactly the same. I'm 44 years old now, my athletic age isn't 44. I've been in sprinting since 2010, so I've only been in the sport for 10 years – as well as obviously other sports – but that's the main difference between able-bodied and Paralympic sport. We're funded exactly the same, Olympic and Paralympic athletes are on ABC funding exactly the same, and we access the same kind of facilities, which is great.

So, you burst onto the scene in 2011, world title and then next year you end up in London, home games. There's so many things in that, how was it? What was it like?

Yeah, crazy. [points to wall] *inaudible*, and then the picture underneath was from the finishing line, from a sponsor that I had at the time, Powerade. It's incredible. I remember talking to friends that had bought tickets and their aspirations on what actually would happen on the track were completely different to what actually happened. They'd maybe heard me talk about what Paralympic sport's really about, but didn't really understand that it's high performance sport, and then when they saw it, and then obviously myself winning in front of 80,000 people, was incredible. I know friends that have won in the pool in the Aquatic Centre and obviously in the Velodrome. But in that stadium, 80,000 people. Even now, with West Ham being in there, they've probably taken the capacity down, so the atmosphere now isn't the same. In London, it was just – you say to yourself 'I wonder what it would be like to be in a Paralympic final' and you wonder what it'd be like to be successful – it's just like an out-of-body experience. It was unbelievable. Watch the race on YouTube, it's a great race to watch – even if it wasn't me winning – because I'm like 8th until 80-metres to go, and then just storm through the field and win. Get the guns out, happy days.

Is that the 100 or the 200?

That's 200. At that time, I'd not raced many 100-metres. I just did the 100 for a bit of giggles, really. Yeah, so I'd only done about five or six 100-metres in my life and then qualified for the final. I think I was 7th in London in the 100, and then in the World Champs before Rio I was 4th – and I was annoyed because I was running really well then – and then, in Rio I was equal 2nd. I should have won it. That season, it was my best season in the 100-metres, and basically what happened was, I just made a bit of a technical error. There was a false started in the race. I pushed out really hard with the guy that got disqualified and by the time I then reset on the start line again, I just felt a bit goosed really. I felt that I'd gone into that red zone too much on that start and I think maybe, looking back at it, in my preparation, I maybe hadn't allowed enough time and effort for a possible false start.

For the guys watching this who aren't performance athletes or don’t know about performance sport, essentially you've got a small amount of energy that you've always got which is just ready for really explosive movements, and once that's gone, it's gone for a long recovery time. So, you're saying you just emptied that system and it was gone for the start of the next race?

Yeah, mentally as well as physically, I think. I got back to the start line and was like 'pfft'. That was just it.

'See you later lads. I'm off home.'

The thing is though, the lad that got disqualified was from Sri Lanka. And I'm going 'mate, you've got a long way to go. You're going home and you haven't even got a medal. You've got nothing to show for it. You got into the final and then’…

Haven't even got a taking-part medal.

That's it, see you later. Then to get myself up, psyche myself up, for another big start was tough. But people say 'have you got any regrets in sport?' I wouldn't say it's a regret because four years previous I was 7th, nowhere near the medals. To get that close was, it was a proud moment that I could actually – at my age – be really competitive over the shortest sprint distance. Obviously, I won the 200 in Rio as well.

I guess there's not many people who can turn their nose up at a Paralympic silver medal, is there?

No, and I was disappointed. That's probably the only time that – when you win a medal, you do a lap of honour in the stadium. You celebrate with fans and the Union Jack, certain sports they do it, others don't. I'm not sure I see Adam swimming down the pool with a Union Jack in his arms, just kicking his legs. I'm going to suggest that to you Adam though, you need to do that next time, mate. 


Yeah, it's a great thing to do, but that time I actually didn't, because when you get yourself into that mindset where you think you're going to really smash it and then it just doesn't come off. Yeah, I was little bit disappointed.

If we go back a little bit to London. As an outsider, I've always watched the Olympics, but Paralympics is something that, for a lot of people, is on after the Olympics. After London it felt like there was way more stuff going into the Paralympics. I know there’s a TV show that I used to watch called The Last Leg which I think pushed it a lot, and Paralympics sports now is way, way bigger than it’s ever been. Do you think London was a big pushing point for that?

Yeah, I think so. Commercially, you want to look back to probably Sydney in 2000, so 12 years before, and then Beijing was a big moment for sport and they had a lot of schools, and a lot of young fans, in the stadium in 2008. Then there was a big push, educationally in the UK, prior to 2012 around disability sport, people with disabilities and information about disabilities as well. So they were looking to obviously promote sport on the Paralympic level at a paying – so having a paying audience – in 2012, and obviously sold out the stadiums. I think a lot of participants raised their games because the stadiums were so full. And those Olympic and Paralympic athletes – one of the things that I will always say is the atmosphere was incredible. It’s one of those things where having a home games is very special, and it only happens every 40 or 50 years, whatever, and in 2005 when it was announced we were having a home games, at that point I was like 'I need to be on that team’. So even though I wasn't running at the time on the track, I was always very persistent that I needed to be on that team. It was a long road up to that point, but perceptions of people with disabilities had changed in 2012 because, I think, people with disabilities had so many challenges and obstacles up to that point.

So you won in London, then you go to Rio, you win in that 200 as well. Everyone says winning Olympic or a Paralympic gold is hard, but then winning it the next four-years is ten times harder. Is that true?

I think the motivation to dig deep and produce the same performance – after the London 2012, I said to myself that I'd only go to Rio if I could deliver performance that was better than the one in London. Obviously, a lot of people had seen me race in London and expectations were a lot higher, so pressure's higher; you're a reigning Paralympic champion and the expectations are that you're going to do the same again. But, four years on, a lot of things can happen in your life. You're four years older, motivation is maybe not there because you've won everything up to that point. So you need to find different avenues to motivate yourself through training and competition. Obviously, being on a different continent as well – Rio is a pretty cool place, cool people – but it’s also another opportunity to reach out to maybe people in South America that don't really connect with a disability community. So to be a part of that movement was quite important as well.

So, the year after Rio, you're back in London, 2017 World Champs. We're talking there about how London was one of the best experiences of your life, you've got this incredible atmosphere. Was that, not a let down, but did you step in in 2017 and go 'it's not quite as good'? What was that like?

No, again, at that point I was thinking that I was probably going to retire in the home World Championships. After Rio, I was not sure if I was going to continue. I'd given a lot of time and effort towards my training and I'd sacrificed a lot of stuff to be a high-performance athlete, and decided that I was going to continue because the World Championship was in London. Obviously, I love competing at that stadium, another chance for people to support and see me race. At that point, there were no aspirations to move onto Tokyo at all. So I decided after London, I spoke to my team about where I can go performance-wise, where I can improve, and was it a possibility to finish my athletics career at the Paralympics in Tokyo. We came to a collective decision that we wanted to have one more push, and yeah, London was kind of the catalyst for that. I felt I was running really well at London, at the World Championships, but I had a little bit more to give. So, hence the reason why. Athletes always feel they've got another five-percent to give, whether they’ve done a world record or a personal best, so I had to have an honest conversation with myself, as a 40-year-old, whether I wanted to continue.

Was that gold in the 200 and bronze in the 100?

Yeah. My 100-metres was terrible. I hadn't put as much effort around my training in 100. It was more about just retaining my 200-metre title. So focus had shifted at that point, where in Rio I wanted to win both, I wanted to be a double-gold medallist, but in the World Championship I was like – the 100 metres would just happen and I hadn't raced as much.

Just scrape a bronze, I don't really care’.

At one point within that race, I wasn't even getting a bronze. It was a case of how much did I actually want another medal? I always forget the minor medals that I've won as well, because I've won a couple of minor medals at European level and a silver at Paralympics and a bronze at the Worlds. You forget those, you're always reminded about the world titles and the Paralympic gold medals, but they're as important, because they add to the teams medal count, and also it's a lot of hard work that goes into that success.

One of the biggest things in the sporting world at the minute is obviously Tokyo being pushed back. We've talked about the Paralympics there, and this was your triple defence. We talked about it being ten times harder, but you were ready for that, I guess. How is that, being knocked back?

I think the situation for everybody is tough. I hear a lot of positive things on social media and in the news about people being very proactive, but I think generally, it's the unknown, isn't it? There's obviously talk of it being on next year, the same time of year, for the Olympics and Paralympics, but without a vaccine, or without any more information about how this pandemic's going to develop, it's just a little bit unknown whether it will take place or not. So, as athletes, to try and motivate yourself to push yourself further and go into that red zone, it's going to be tough mentally for anybody. Lockdown for me was just about self-evaluating what I wanted out of the sport and the kind of legacy that I want to leave on the track, and things that happen in the future. So I'm planning podcasts and things like that that I've got in the pipeline, and other business opportunities as well as athletically mentoring, and supporting other athletes within Paralympic, Olympic and mainstream sport. So just keeping myself busy. I read a lot, I've been doing quite a lot of that, and enjoying time with the family. Even though it's been super tough. It's definitely been the toughest time of my career, because normally I've got 35 hours of training, and how do you fill that when you're in lockdown?

Exactly. So just before lockdown, you were at the World Championships again, weren't you?


You were the team captain for that. You're not just part of the team, you're rallying everyone, you're getting everyone motivated, you're the leader of the team. Was that hard – going from the person that everyone looked to for support, motivation or whatever, and suddenly, the team’s gone and, obviously you’re with your family at home, but that team feel is like nothing else in the world, isn’t it? How was that switch?

I think it's a great responsibility. Like, when you put the vest on or the tracksuit on, you feel that sense of pride and you need to also understand that it's not just for you and your family, that it's also for your country. The ability to motivate and inspire is a massive opportunity for the growth of not just the team, but also yourself. So when I get nominated by the fellow athletes, I always take on that responsibility. Last year, I didn't have a great competition year. I raced like once before the World Championships. That was because of a family illness, so I literally went out to the World Championships to support the team, came home with a silver medal and, again, very proud of what I actually did that season. You've got to take into perspective where we're at, at the moment, and sport's about having memories and being as successful as you can. Success isn't always about gold medals or world records. I've been fortunate enough to have lots of those on the track and on the road, so I'll always look back on my career with great happiness, and hopefully people have seen what I've done and can follow my journey after. Because, I enjoy what I do, but there's going to be a time when obviously I won't be competing, and hopefully other people will follow my success.

We've mainly talked about running and sprinting here. People say 'I'm a sporty type, I love doing sports', but you've taken that to a little bit of a, not extreme, but you could say you're very sporty. Swimming, teaching – you even competed in the Winter Olympics in 2006 – so what else have you done?

I taught PE. Sports development officer. Played some cricket for England Development Squad. What else have I done? Loads of stuff. I think when I was younger, I was just a talented athlete. I was a gymnast and a swimmer when I was between four and 11. I enjoyed all aspects of sport, not just competing, but also the social side, and always looked for that competitive area. I played a lot of five-a-side football and enjoyed the recreational side of sport, which obviously you can't do now as a professional athlete, but I always found that there's a sport for everybody – and if it's not in the participation, it's in the area of administration, spectating, officiating. So there's always a role for anybody that's listening or watching that wants to get involved in sport that doesn't like playing it. Because I think sometimes sport – and when you hear or watch high-level sportsmen or women – aspirationally you go 'there's no way, at my weight, or my size, or who I am, I'd be able to get to that level', when you need to set your own goals and aspirations in life to be successful, and be realistic. When I started out on my journey in sport, it wasn't to be successful on the top of the podium, it was about becoming a better person, enjoying what I do, learning, travelling the world, and I've been able to do all of that. So I'd encourage anybody that wants to participate or get involved for physical or mental wellbeing, it's really important. You find that you learn a lot about yourself and also meet so many cool and inspirational people.

I think sport is one of those things that holds the world together. Even in a time like lockdown, you see so much stuff going on in the world that’s really not that nice to think about , but then you go on Twitter or Instagram and you see the sporting community – doesn’t matter if you’re a swimmer, runner, biker, anything – everyone pulls together in a sporting community.

 Yeah, definitely.

We touched on it earlier about you wanting to leave a legacy. Sports, as much as it is about winning, it's also about the bigger picture for you. So, I've got a quote from you here which says ‘it's never been about the shiny gold medals on top of the podium. It's all about the people you liberate along the way. For me, I want to leave a legacy and show people what is achievable if you work hard and believe in yourself'.

Yeah, you're just showcasing who you are as well. When I'm not here, I'd like to think that people remember me as being a person more than an athlete, and hopefully a good person that wants to help people generally. A lot of the charity work that I do outside of sport isn't related to my running or sporting career. It's cancer, homeless, humanitarian. That's something that I feel we all should do more of and I'm passionate about helping people that are less fortunate than myself. I don't feel you have to do it – I just want to be able to help. Because of the life experiences that I've had, and I've been lucky enough to have so many people that have supported me, it's given me the layers in my life to show that it's always time to give back and to support those that do need that platform or that hand up. It's also really nice to see the benefits of that. When you're raising somebody's self-esteem and they're then achieving themselves, that's like winning a gold medal as well.

That’s amazing You were saying about the charity work there. Would you say the biggest thing you've done, you ran 40 marathons in 40 days?

Yes, Land's End to John O'Groats. It's a bit different than 200 metres.

So, you're a sprinter. We were talking there about this system; that you've got this fast energy and once it's gone, it's gone. And you've gone 'right, I've gone from a ten-second event to 40 marathons'. Where do you even start with that? How did that come about?

Well, after 2012, going to London was all about creating that platform to then do what I wanted to do with sport. I was inspired by an athlete called Terry Fox and he's a Canadian athlete that had tried to run from East to West of Canada, run a marathon a day and raise a lot of money for sarcoma in Canada. He's raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Canadian cancer charities.


Unfortunately, his journey in the late 80s, he didn't actually complete it at the end, he died of secondary cancer on the journey. But I saw his story, the Terry Fox story, as a youngster, and I said that when the time comes, I'd like to accept a similar journey, or a similar challenge that I didn't expect I could complete. I didn't think it was possible, but also it would change people's aspirations about what is possible. So, London 2012 was obviously announced in 2005, and I wanted to use that platform to then hopefully do this challenge. It wasn't about winning the gold medal in 2012 at all, it was about trying to do this run. And then in 2013, literally two weeks after the World Championships in Lyon where I won, I then travelled up to North Scotland and started that journey of running a marathon every day for 40 days. It was incredible. I'd raised hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of money for charity, but more than that, it was the awareness that the two charities had gained. That was Scope; a charity for people with disabilities – but also a charity that was really close to my heart, which is Sarcoma UK, because my friend Simon Mellows died of cancer and I wanted to support them. I'm actually the patron of Sarcoma UK now, and they've gone from a charity raising hundreds of thousands of pounds to millions now, because of that awareness. So when we talk about legacy, I think I've supported the way that I feel like I can and hopefully I've provided them with the stepping stones to them becoming a charity that helps more and more people.

That's incredible. That story, of seeing the Canadian running that journey and you picking up the torch in a sense and saying 'unfortunately he couldn't complete it, but I'm going to do it for not just you, but for the world, and for the good of everyone’.

And I think all athletes do that as well. I think all athletes have role models and aspire to be better than the next person, but also they want to do it in their own way and they want to add value to that journey. If you're only driven by gold medals or money, or going to as many games as you can, eventually you're going to be left empty. That's what I never did with sport. When we talk about mental health and how after the games a lot of athletes feel that there's nothing else in their life and they do feel empty, it's about having something else that you can channel that energy into. Charity is something that, like I said before, everybody needs to do more of because it is so good for the soul.

I almost want to say, was that 40 marathons in 40 days hard? But, obviously it was.

The only thing I had to do every day, so my day for 40 days – which even when you say that as well, you don't realise that 40 days isn't four weeks. A month is 30 days. You don't realise, it's like 5-6 weeks of my life – so, I'd get up in the morning and my S&C coach, we'd do some stretching and then I'd do an hour, an hour and half, of media every day. Then I'd run. I'd start at ten o'clock and then I'd run, however slow or fast I wanted. Some days I wanted to just get it done, other days I didn't. What happened, we had people that would come and run with me and they would obviously provide sponsorship to the charity and then run with me. That was great, great to have that support.

It's a great idea.

Yeah, and I met some really cool people that were cancer sufferers themselves, or people with disabilities, or people that had heard my story and wanted to join me. Some of the stories that I was left with then inspired me to continue with the work that I do for charity and sport. I remember speaking to a lady when I was down South and she'd just got a cancer assessment, and she said 'life expectancy for me is not long and I've got two real young children'. That reminded me of the reason why I was doing it, because my friend Simon that died also left two young children to his widower. It just showed me that life's really short, and to make use of as much time of that as possible. And also, don't waste life; don't waste your time doing stuff that you're not passionate about.

Could you pick out one moment in that whole 40 days that you thought was the killer moment, that was just so hard to get past? Was there any?

I had a really bad blister, and then to push on from that, that was really tough. We took a little bit of a detour. We came into Nottingham to then do a charity run and then – so I ran into Nottingham.

You did a run within the run.

I did my marathon, and then I did a charity run, and then I ran back out of it. Normally, when you go Land's End to John O'Groats, you don't go anywhere near Nottingham, so I went in and then went out. That was quite tough to come into Nottingham, stay at home for one night, and then run away knowing that I've got still another 20-odd days to go. That was quite tough, motivation-wise. But I had a great team around me of doctors and support staff. One thing that sport has taught me is that it's about having those people around you that motivate you, guide you, support you, but also really give you the energy to continue. That's where some national governing bodies don't get it right. They give you a team to work with where – it's kind of like a partner, like a girlfriend or boyfriend, people don't give you a boyfriend or girlfriend, you choose them. You choose your boyfriend, girlfriend, wife, husband, and they've got the qualities that you are attracted to and you feel that you can embrace. That's exactly the same as having a team when you're a professional athlete. That's something I've learned over time, but also you need to be quite ruthless with that. You need to, when you don't think it's working, you make a change, and when you think you need to be better, or you see something better out there, you put that in place. I've done that. Even recently, I've changed how I've worked and who I work with, because I find that I want people to push me, and I want people to believe that I can be better.

I’ve really enjoyed that; that’s been brilliant. We usually, to finish the podcast off, we ask for a performance tip. With yourself, you’ve been through so many different things, the charity work, the different experiences – can you just give us one tip for where your motivation comes from?

That's a tough one. Probably to relate to everybody, I would say you just need to be truthful and honest with yourself and believe that anything's possible. If you've got that self-belief, you can achieve great things. I do understand that sometimes athletes and people do struggle with self-belief. In that respect, have people around you that do believe in you and provide you with that support and guidance. They can be in all different areas of life, and I've been able to do that. So, trust, honesty, have those core values that you live and die by, and you'll be successful in whatever you're doing, whether that's in sport, life, or business.

Perfect. Thank you very much, Richard.

Thank you very much for watching, and we’ll see you on the next episode.