Catching up with a Paralympic champion

(5 May 2021 12:00 am)

Noel Thatcher MBE, is a visually impaired Paralympic runner, who represented the United Kingdom at six Paralympic Games between 1984 and 2004, setting two world records and collecting a total of five gold medals. Speaking with Sam Davis, WVS’ marketing officer, Noel reflects on his career and gives advice as a visually impaired runner. 

Noel, what was it that inspired your passion for running?
My passion for running developed at Exhall Grange School in Coventry where I studied from age 10 to 18.  We had to run three times a week, and despite not enjoying it initially, I grew to love the freedom, friendships and competition.  At one point I and three other visually impaired boys from the school won the local cross-country championship, which was a highlight of my running career. 

What was your training regime like?
My training varied, but at my best I would run twice a day for a total of between 90 and 100 miles per week, plus work in the gym. It was pretty challenging balancing this with studying and work, but there are no easy routes to the top of the mountain.

Winning 5 gold medals and setting 2 world records is a phenomenal feat. How did it feel reaching those achievements? 
Winning gold medals is a privilege and a testament to the power of teamwork.  It’s amazing to share those moments with teammates and friends. I also think that I have a responsibility to use my achievements to encourage other blind and visually impaired people.

You received an MBE for your achievements; how important was that recognition for you?
Receiving an MBE, and then last year receiving a commendation from the Japanese Foreign Minister was a huge honour for my family. As was recognition for everyone from my school teachers to my coaches and teammates as well as the wider visually impaired community. 

Did you come across any challenges as someone who is visually impaired breaking into the world of sport?
I was really lucky to work with world class coaches and guide runners who never saw my sight loss as a barrier to my becoming a good runner. I always used to think that someone telling you that you can’t do something was the best reason to go out and do it!  You need to have self-belief.

Do you think enough is being done currently for visually impaired people in sport?
Opportunities for visually impaired people to take part in sport are much better than they used to be. Organisations such as British Blind Sport and Metro do great work.

What advice can you give to visually impaired people who want to take up running but don’t know where to start?
I would advise people to contact their local parkrun team. Parkrun is open to all skill levels and has always provided a safe, welcoming and supportive community for visually impaired people and it’s usually easy to find guides. It’s natural to feel nervous when you start running, which is why it’s good to get involved in something like parkrun where everyone is welcome and there is lots of support from the community.

What impact do you think getting involved in sport can have for the visually impaired community?
Lockdown has had a huge negative impact on our mental and physical wellbeing and it has never been more important to get out safely and move.  There are more challenges for visually impaired people, so it’s really important that we support and encourage each other.  We are definitely stronger together.

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