Saturday, 29 November 2008

In it for the Long haul: Paralympic gold medal winner interviewed

LS Sport sits down with a golden graduate, Giles Long, Leeds Uni’s own Olympic champ

As a triple Paralympic gold medallist and world record holder, a Member of the British Empire, and now a London 2012 ambassador Giles Long is easily one of Leeds University’s most successful sporting Alumni. But the accolades didn’t come without a fight for the swimmer who won medals at three consecutive Games from 1996 to 2004.

“I had dreams of going to the Olympics ever since the age of seven and I even told my mum and dad that I was going to win a gold medal. And then I had cancer as a teenager and I had to come to terms with, well, does going to the Paralympics answer that dream?”

The question of whether hopes of able-bodied sporting excellence can find fulfilment in a disabled sphere is answered with an emphatic affirmative: “What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger” Giles says providing validity for the maxim, “as long as you’re prepared to work at it and take the set backs but then carry on and still pursue that dream you can be anything you want to be.”

Giles’ inspiring outlook was one that as a young boy might not have been foreseen. After being diagnosed with a bone tumour at the age of thirteen he lost the use of his right shoulder through subsequent chemotherapy and operations. The impact of the event, occurring at such a crucial point in a person’s – and a swimmer’s – development was initially too surreal to acknowledge. “At first when someone tells you you’ve got a disease like cancer, and you’re that age, it really feels like it’s happening to someone else,” Giles confides, “It’s not until you physically start having the treatment that it really hits home.”

For a time the idea of switching goals and aiming to compete at the Paralympics was not one Giles was enamoured with, “principally because it meant acknowledging that I had a disability.” It was only after a chance meeting with an eminent swimming coach that Giles found the right frame of mind to continue.

“He told me, ‘Before you were ill you could do ten-thousand things, and now you can do nine-thousand, which means that you’ve got a choice. You can concentrate on the one-thousand things that you can’t do anymore, or you can concentrate on the nine-thousand things that you can still do.’” It was the spark that got Giles thinking. “I decided that I wanted to go to the Paralympics because I wanted to be the best I could be. The rest is history.”

Giles graduated from Leeds in 1997 with a degree in Geological Sciences under his belt. Back in Leeds to take part in the University’s ‘Celebrating the Games’ series of lectures, Giles found himself walking down the Otley Road for the first time in a while.

I ask him what memories the trip vivifies. “Coming back from the Games in 96 as a gold medallist was a terrific time. Most of the people on my course didn’t even know I was a swimmer; it was something I kept quite separate from that life. So all of a sudden after coming back from the summer having been all over the TV and they said, ‘Oh my god I didn’t realise!’ Seeing how much some people got from what I’d done was just awesome.”

Managing to balance training at an elite level with studying for a degree was done “with great difficulty” and on occasions socialising had to be come second. “There were times when I had to say ‘I’m not going to the Original Oak tonight because I’ve got training in the morning’” Giles tells me, “A lot of people would look at that and call it a sacrifice. I’d look at it and call it a choice. Everything in the world that’s worth doing is really difficult and all the fairly rubbish things, like watching This Morning when you’ve got exam revision to do, they’re all really easy.”

Looking forward to the 2012 Games, the first to be held on these shores for what will be 64 years, we chat about what impact it will have and how the Leeds graduate will be involved. As a 2012 ambassador Giles will be at the core of the momentous sporting occasion as he spends the build-up promoting the Games all over the country, sometimes being charged with persuading people of its relevance to them: “I was speaking to someone from Leeds today about this talk tonight and how 2012 will be something for the whole country and he said ‘Well, it really feels like a London thing.’”

Giles recalls, “So I said ‘Yeah but if you live in Leeds, you can get the train down to King’s Cross in two hours twenty minutes. And from King’s Cross there’ll be the javelin service that’ll take you to Olympic Park which means you’ll probably be able to get there quicker than someone that lives in South London.’ Now if that doesn’t mean that the Games is something for everyone then I really don’t know what is!” he reasons soundly and passionately. “There comes a point at which you have to say ‘This is something that’s going happen once in my lifetime’ and ask yourself if you’ll regret it once it’s been and gone and you didn’t go, you weren’t a part of it.”

The fantastic achievements of Britain’s swimmers in Beijing this summer, with a stand-out Paralympic performance from Eleanor Simmonds, came as little surprise to the man no stranger to gold himself. “It was a personal thing for me with Ellie winning her golds [in 100 and 400 metres freestyle] because I’m her athlete mentor. My input has been infinitesimally small compared to all of the hours of slog that she spent up and down the pool but to be able to share in someone’s success in whatever tiny, tiny way, well that is the essence of what we were talking about; people up and down the country taking a piece of the Olympics, taking a piece of the Paralympics, and having it for keeps.”

When I ask about the forthcoming pool Giles is reflective: “It’s a shame it’s not a 50metre pool but there’s only so much land, there’s only so much money. But the brand new pool sounds like it’s going to be absolutely fantastic; yet another feather in the cap that makes this university one of the best in the country.”

Giles has an autobiography out at the moment entitled Changing to Win. It carries simple motivational methods that can be used to succeed in many tasks, from getting out of bed in the morning to achieving that long-term goal. To take hold of change and use that as an inspiring force. Available from all good books shops.

Originally published in Leeds Student on November 28 2008