For the athletics leg of JohnsRoad2Rio I chose to throw the hammer. England Athletics helpfully invited me to compete as a guest at their National Age Group Championships on August Bank Holiday Sunday at the International Athletics Stadium in Bedford. What a place and an event to debut.

I didn’t realise, when I selected the hammer with Malcolm Wallace, the enthusiastic coach at Lee Valley, quite how technical the event was. With Malcolm so busy and a distance away I was introduced to Mick Shortland, another top throwing coach, who kindly gave up lots of time and was happy to come to the University Athletics track in my home town, Cambridge. Although I had picked the hammer because I could grip (just) the handle in the crook of my right arm, there were many issues to resolve.

With Mick’s expert guidance and with a fair amount of trial and error, we settled on an imitation of a discus throw. This starts with me facing away from the front of the circle, the ball on the ground behind me as far to my left as my right arm will allow. I then spin round almost two times, hopefully ending with my left leg planted in the direction of the throw and driving my right arm up and round my right hip as I pivot to use as much body as I can.

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My first effort with Mick in the main cage at Wilberforce Rd, filmed by Cambridge TV, revealed a further challenge. The grass, where the measurement started, was beyond my reach, at roughly 10m. I was throwing about half that and the hammer ball was bouncing: on one occasion straight at Steve Morley (our Operations Consultant)! Mick’s very sensible solution was to reduce the weight: he found a special 2kg hammer ball and shorten the wire to give me better control.

We practiced a lot. I did have one test event – at the National Prep Schools Championships in Birmingham – but I only managed 4.24m legally, though one travelled 6.63m outside the vector. Frustrating! Back to the drawing board.

We changed the angles and I practiced some more working on lifting the hammer at the front of the circle. And at the last training session Mick lengthened the wire to increase the speed of the ball as it travels further on the circumference of its arc.

The big day came round, rather faster because of holiday. The National Age Group Championships is a fully inclusive athletics event for under 17s and under 15s, with wheelchair racing intermingled with running races, seated throws in amongst non-disabled competitions. Mick greeted my wife and I at the entrance and the first surreal moment was being escorted in through the doorway marked for “Athletes”. I had never competed before, had never thought of myself as an athlete, so it was like being in a dream. With accreditation and after a view of the track and a lovely welcome from Andy Day, England Athletics’ Head of Teams and Competitions, it was time to have the hammer evaluated.

In the dark recesses next to the indoor training area, we were looked after by the lovely Jan, who confirmed the hammer was the right weight and the wire within legal limits. There followed a discussion with the officials who agreed that though I was participating within the able-bodied U17 competition and would normally be eliminated after three throws as not being in the top eight, there would be time for me to take an extra three throws (six is the full complement) while they worked out the ‘cut’. I was relieved and very pleased.

After a short warm up – with fewer joints there is less to warm up! – I was into the call area with the 13 lads. It was an eye-opener to see at first hand the routine all athletes go through: the checking of competitor number, both front and back, the reading of the rules and track etiquette, the ordering of throws – I was to go first! – and the suppressed tension. Controlling this part, which as TV watchers we never see, is crucial. I was nervous, and I wasn’t competing as these lads were. I did manage to tell them why I was gate-crashing their event, what Road2Rio was all about and why I was raising money for Power2Inspire: so we can hold more Power House Games.

The walk out onto the track was another surreal moment – walking inside the perimeter fence jolted me, this was happening! I felt such an innocent as the boys loosened up, walked into the circle and without their hammers, carefully whirled round and round imitating their throw. I just copied them! Then it was me to have the first practice. This was scary. I was handed my hammer – you are not allowed to hold on to them between throws, to prevent tampering, so they are kept hooked on a rack. They even put my lighter weighted hammer separate to prevent the boys using it, which would have been a cool trick but as they were throwing their 5 kgs 60+ metres, the spectators would have been in danger with my 2 kg version! I was relieved that I got it out of the cage and it even landed on the grass.
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After a second warm up throw, it was my honour to open the competition. I was nervous; with Mick’s excellent advice, “Do what we do in training,” ringing in my ears, I concentrated hard on not trying too hard! The relief was palpable as again the hammer landed safely on the grass within the sector. I had a legal score – whoopee! 8.12m wasn’t brilliant but it was now my official PB.

Mick advised me to relax. I had rushed so on my second throw I concentrated on slowing it down, though everything is screaming to do it as fast as possible. As soon as I let go I knew it was good, but I really didn’t expect another PB and one that beat my unofficial best in training of 12.5m too. I had dared to hope.…but there was no expectation. Up came the score – 13.45m! Fantastic and a real thrill.

Meanwhile the boys were winding up. Pre-throw favourite Bayley Campbell had put down a marker with 64.93m but the efforts of the others showed how hard they had all trained and wanted this title. Two Scots, Andrew Costello and Andrew Peck, and one Northern Irishman, Sean Mockler, emphasised the “open” nature of the competition as all comers are welcomed. The Scots were particularly helpful in keeping me calm. Thank you lads and better luck next time. Ben Hawkes was another interested in my challenge and he finished a creditable fourth – he would have had to throw a PB to get into the medals.

While the cut was taking place I took my fourth, fifth and sixth throws, my third at 10.9m, ridiculously disappointing as my target had been 10m, but once I had thrown 13.45m I was after the 15m! Whether I had relaxed too much, or became tired, or wasn’t quite concentrating I had two fouls: the first bounced on the hard surface before the grass so I walked out the front of the circle; the second hitting the right vector line. It nearly took out an official as I had never thrown that way before. He did spot the chalk flying and had to declare it a foul, which is a shame as it looked long. The last throw was a respectable 10.93m, proving that over 10m is no fluke.

The competition continued with the top eight and hard as they tried the boys couldn’t catch Bayley’s first throw, and he too tried too hard and had three hit the cage, though one bounced to an amazing 51m off the gate. Jacob Roberts claimed second with 62.97m, his second throw, the rest all fouls as he tried for the extra. And Oliver Hewitt took bronze with his first throw of 61.81m, proving again how hard it is to improve later on.

I had a great day. A huge thank you to Andy Day, Nicola Evans and all the others of England Athletics. They have truly embraced inclusivity. I was taken by the normality of a wheelchair race following an ambulant 100m hurdles, the seated throws intermingled with the able-bodied competitions. A real beacon for Inclusion through Sport.

But my biggest thank you goes to Mick Shortland, my coach, for agreeing to test his wits to find a way for me to compete. My success is his success. A PB, and as he says, a world best, as we cannot find anyone like me (with my impairments) who has thrown the hammer. What more can we ask for? Are there any challengers out there?

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