Noel Thatcher MBE is one of the most successful British athletes of all time. He represented Team GB at six consecutive Paralympic Games and won five gold medals, as well as breaking the 5,000 metres world record at the Sydney 2000 Paralympics in the astonishing time of 14:56.
Noel was made an MBE in the 1997 New Years Honours for ‘Services to Athletics for Disabled People’ and he was inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009.
We asked Noel to tell us about what it was like growing up with a visual impairment, how he juggled being a world class athlete while training to be a physiotherapist and studying Japanese, and why he and his family are so passionate about parkrun and junior parkrun.
“One of my proudest moments was when, as a team of four Visually Impaired boys, we won the Warwickshire Schools Team Cross Country – beating all the ‘normal’ kids who used to call us ‘special’.”
All my medals and all my success are owed to an army of guide runners who trained with me through rain, heat and snow. As a visually impaired (VI) runner I could never run flat out confidently on the road without a guide, and I certainly couldn’t run away from the track in the winter.
I was born with Optic Atrophy, a condition that results in the death of the cells of the retina and optic nerve. All aspects of my sight, field, colour and detail are affected, and the condition is irreversible. Being born with this disability meant that I never had to go through the process of adjusting to sudden sight-loss, which I imagine must be far more harrowing.
My sight-loss caused me a few headaches growing up. I was never picked for ball-sports teams because, unsurprisingly, I was hopelessly un-coordinated. My dad tells a story of me climbing up a cliff when I was four though so I must have had a bit of spirit.
Things turned around when I went to a boarding school for the blind and visually impaired when I was ten. There we had all the support we needed, but I really hated running as we were made to do it three times a week as a way of ‘developing character’. I did everything in my power to avoid it, including feigning several interesting tropical diseases previously undetected in the East Midlands!
Sport was considered very important at our school as a way of developing character, confidence, teamwork and for the obvious health benefits. We did everything from climbing to football, rugby to swimming and everything in between including all the athletic events.
In the summer we did athletics every day and setting PBs was a big deal. There were four boys’ houses in the school and inter-house rivalry was intense. One of my proudest moments was when, as a team of four VI boys, we won the Warwickshire Schools Team Cross Country – beating all the ‘normal’ kids who used to call us ‘special’.
I got caught smoking when I was about 13 and the punishment was to be forced out running five miles a night for a month. The teacher followed us in his car so there was no way of cheating. After this block of ‘training’ I came third in the school cross country and, in a weird way, started to understand the benefit of applying myself. I began to enjoy the idea of being a runner. The teachers started to give me less of a hard time as well.
I realised that I could be a decent runner when, as a 17-year-old, I won the 400 metres at the National VI Athletics Championships at the first attempt. It was at that meet that I met Jon Anderson, who coached David Moorcroft who at that time was the 5,000 metres world record holder.
Jon Anderson changed my life forever. He never saw my vision loss as an issue or barrier to success and over the next ten years with him I won seven world championship gold medals and two of my five Paralympic golds.
I believe that great mentors, coaches and supporters are the main reason I was lucky enough to develop the small amount of talent that I was born with. I have been lucky enough to train with a number of world-class coaches and mentors and none of them ever asked for a penny for their advice and time. My medals are their medals.
I continued to train alongside studying to become a physiotherapist, graduating with distinction and going on to work part-time as I ran. There were no opportunities to be sponsored to train full-time and every time I tried it I got ill or injured from pushing myself too far. It was a struggle, but I like to be occupied mentally and before the 2000 Sydney Paralympics I was training, working two jobs and studying Japanese at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies.
When National Lottery Funding was introduced I was able to reduce my work and focus more on training, but I am honestly not sure if it made me a better athlete. As another coach of mine, Alan Storey once said, if you want it badly enough you’ll find a way. Running is pretty simple and people overcomplicate it constantly. If you want to know how to run efficiently, watch a junior parkrunner. Kids have great biomechanics and more importantly are totally uninhibited in the way they run.
My two career highlights were winning the 1,500 metres at the Barcelona Paralympics in front of a very partisan Spanish crowd, and also winning the 5,000 metres in Sydney in a world record three days after blowing up in the 10,000m with one of my worst runs ever.
Being selected by my teammates to carry the flag in the Opening Ceremony in Athens was an incredible honour and one of the proudest days of my life. The Paralympic team was like one big family when I was competing and you still see that camaraderie today. This is one of the most significant factors behind our current success. There is something common to everyone in the team in that we have all had to overcome some obstacles to get where we are and the sense of mutual support is very special.
Receiving the MBE was also very special and a busy day as I took part in a pan-European Japanese Speech contest on the same day. Being recognised by your country for promoting disability sport is very humbling given that I basically ran around in circles.
Being inducted into the England Athletics Hall of Fame alongside the greats of our sports and many of my heroes means as much to me as my medals. I grew up wanting to emulate Dave Moorcroft, Sebastian Coe and Steve Cram, so to be alongside them is a dream come true. Every year we have a dinner to celebrate the volunteers and induct more people, and I have had the honour to meet some of our sport’s greatest names as well as those who selflessly support the grassroots.
Hopefully my achievements have inspired other VI people to reach beyond their perceived limits. This is why parkrun’s commitment to inclusivity is so important in providing a supportive and welcoming environment.
At Paralympic level, VI sport has changed enormously with runners running faster and records being rewritten every year. At grassroots level, however, there are very few opportunities for VI people to take part in athletics, perhaps with the exception of the London-based Metropolitan Club for the Visually Impaired that puts on an amazing championship every year. One of the challenges is reaching VI people in the community and again this is where parkrun is doing so well.
Outside of running, I am a physiotherapist with a special interest in treating running-related injuries. I have worked with elite level athletes through to six-hour marathon runners, but the most satisfying patients are those who are most nervous and apprehensive about running but who go on to reach their goals.
I am now a patron of British Blind Sport and an ambassador for Disability Sport in Essex. I also support the Presidents Sporting Club, an Essex-based charity providing sporting and recreational activities for disabled youngsters. I have been an ambassador for Standard Chartered Bank’s global initiative to tackle preventable blindness in developing countries, Seeing Is Believing, which has raised more than $80 million to date. I have also recently started working with the Japan Sports Council and Japan Foundation London promoting Sport and the Japanese Language in the build up to Tokyo 2020. Life certainly isn’t dull!
I became aware of parkrun pretty much as soon as Paul Sinton-Hewitt launched it, but I have been doing a Saturday morning physio clinic for the past 12 years so participating has been almost impossible. parkrun’s Chief Operating Officer Tom Williams and I did put on an event in Leeds in 2011 in conjunction with Saturday parkrun where we had a few local VI runners run a mile and all the volunteers ran with blindfolds to get an experience of what it is like to be blind. I actually guided Tom and I know who was the more nervous!
Harlow junior parkrun though has been the real game-changer for me and my family as it’s on a Sunday, and having an event within a mile of my home in Harlow Town Park where I have been running for decades means that it is easy and safe for me to run. Prior to junior parkrun coming to Harlow, my then four-year-old son, Soshin, would ask if we could go for a walk-jog on Sunday mornings before I did my long runs, so it was a natural progression to take part in parkrun when it started. Even my wife, who has never run, is now taking part and has stopped getting migraines, which is a bonus.
I have volunteered a few times including tail-running and been absolutely blown away by the smiles and high-fives from the young runners and enthusiasm and generosity of the volunteers. Last week, for instance, as I was accompanying the final runner to the finish, the two brothers who had finished first and second came up and said that they would run with us to the finish. What amazing role models for us all. We are building a community where everyone is supported and encouraged and the young parkrunners are leading the way.
Soshin has now done 10 runs so is one away from getting his blue wristband – although like his dad he’s not a big fan of getting his feet wet so we tend not to go on rainy days. Clearly we need to get some waterproof shoes for him!
Harlow, like most towns, has its fair share of young people with health issues and, sadly, anxieties, so it’s great that we can come together as a group to provide such a great opportunity. This is precisely the sort of support that has enabled me to enjoy such an active life.
If you are reading this and you are visually impaired and interested in running, but are a little nervous, that’s completely understandable. But please be reassured that parkrun welcomes everyone and there is no shortage of willing guide-runners. Some courses are easier than others but as long as your guide is a good communicator and you are able to let them know what you need in terms of information, there will be no problem. Communication is the key. Also, the post-run coffee and chat is a great way to build friendships and increase your social support.
As I have said, I owe my medals and success to a whole army of guide runners. I can get by in the light on familiar roads but I am hopeless in the dark, which reduces me to a shuffle. I use a guide on the road when one is available and owe my medals to a huge group of unpaid guide-runners, similar to those who give their time to support Visually Impaired (VI) parkrunners every week.
I ran solo on the track because it was a challenge getting someone who was comfortable and relaxed running at my race pace. However I always had a guide when running marathons as I couldn’t see the drinks or splits, and when my blood sugar dropped my sight deteriorated rapidly. I nearly ran into a canal in Holland once!
My vision loss has given me some amazing opportunities to be involved with some great initiatives. I am hoping that I can become more involved with parkrun as, both as a physio and a person with a disability, I know how important it is to be active and have great social support in terms of building and maintaining physical and mental well-being.
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