Exclusive Q&A with Robert Oliver 🇬🇧 🛶
Hull & East Yorkshire PFC are delighted to publish our second exclusive interview with a GB ParaCanoe athlete. Our Marketing & Communications Officer Kai, discusses with Great Britain Paralympian, Robert Oliver. The talented sportsman has had a great career so far with five times British number 1, a Wold Championship Finalist as well as a three-times European Medalist. Robert discusses with Kai, how his career started, his transition to the sport and what society can do more to accept disability. Also, how preparations are going for the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2021.
K: How and where did it all begin for yourself?
R: It started nine years ago now when I lost my leg, it was around 12 months after having it amputated I was looking to get back into sports. When I was a kid, I used to do Olympic weightlifting for the first couple of years and then played football every year until I lost my leg. The year when I lost my leg was spent just rehabilitating myself, getting used to not having a leg, getting fitter, luckily one of my best friends was a personal trainer in a gym. He took me to his gym and built me back up by putting on a little bit of weight as I was skinny following a long time in hospital. I went to a Talent ID day just before London 2012 trying out a number of different sports. I was actually there focused on just trying the ones to really test my strength. But, I came across a kayaking machine whilst I was waiting to go to another stall. I thought I will have a go at that, I actually set the fastest time that they have had from all of there roadshows. Originally, I thought I was going to die as I put a lot of effort into it due to the time I had finished in. The coaches at the time told me I was really good at it, so I took their word for it and I got a call back for some taster tester days in ParaCanoe and kayaking and then I just carried on from there I loved how difficult it was by having to be stable on the water, the whole fitness, strength and speed behind it. I knew it was the sport for me. From there nine months later, I went to my first national competition and managed to beat the then-current British champion and took his spot. Then I went to my first international and I remember how nervous I was just by seeing all the Paralympians who were there that I had been seeing on television, thousands of people. It was a bit more than going into a canal in Birmingham where I was training. It overwhelmed me a little bit, I got knocked out of the heats, but it was an amazing experience that taught me that it what I was wanting to do for many years. The whole thrill, excitement and nervousness which, was something I had never experienced before in my life. From there, I’ve been to Rio Paralympic Games 2016 and became 5th, my highest achievement in my first Paralympic Games which, I was so pleased about. I’ve been 2nd in the world which was amazing, European Champion for 1 year which, came out of the blue as it was such a close call even my coach didn’t believe it he ran at me and we both fell in the lake as we were celebrating that was six years into my career. Last year, was a really good competitive year for me and was heading into Tokyo in a really good position as I became third in European, second in a world cup, qualified for the Paralympic Games it was all going really well then Covid struck.
Did the sport help you accept your disability and how was the transition for you from being able-bodied to then all of a sudden not being able to?
I think at first, I had a prosthetic that enabled me to move around that was six–nine months after my operation. I was still able to try to play football with my friends but, I missed that enjoyment I had from being able to previously. I struggled to find something that was my level at the time. I never heard of disability football, at the time this was before London 2012 there wasn’t much about and there was no promotion of disability sports as there is now. But, when I did find ParaCanoe it really helped me because I was around others who were like me every day who all had a variety disabilities, being around them every day you forget that you’ve got a disability. The only time I still notice an issue within society is when we go out as a big group to socialise like at a café, everyone stares at us, and we think why are people staring and you forget that still some people haven’t seen a big group of people in wheelchairs or using sticks. If you are surrounded by it, it does help to understand why people use these pieces of equipment and helps disabled people accept their condition and overcome the stigma. When I first lost my leg I was struggling mentally with the whole acceptance of it, by what people would think by seeing a prosthetic I would always try wearing trousers or something to cover it up and from speaking to other people who are amputees and they said that it was the same for them. Still, even now some people will wear very uncomfortable clothing to try and hide a disability. Now, I very rarely won’t wear shorts because I’m comfortable, but you compare that to where I was nine years ago it’s unbelievable and that’s down to being around other simple-minded people and not facing the stigma as much as previously. Now, I always have more positive stigma’s I still do have some negative but, I prefer people to ask questions rather than being negative towards me.
A month before Rio 2016 Paralympics a crisis hit due to funding. Do you think this is still one of the many areas that disabled people face as a barrier within their life?
Definitely, there is still a whole stigma over competing in a competition and a lot of the time you will see is a sport that is represented is Elite sport. We are okay as long as we are elite. Previously for me before I was even on the British squad and I was canoeing, luckily, I found a canoe club and they were an accessible club as they had worked with schools where children had a variety of disabilities. I was lucky enough to team up with them and with my uncle's company who run charity events, so we managed to raise funds to ensure they were able to put in more access such as disabled toilet and changing place facility. Before, that there was nothing in the grassroots and I think that is the biggest thing that, people see Paralympics being promoted and that disability sport is huge for elite sport, but they tie everyone who is doing a disability sport that they are doing it to be a Paralympian. But, that is not the case a lot of people do a sport for social or to feel equal like their family and friends. You don’t see anyone asking Sunday League football players are you doing this to try and compete in Premier League footballer. I think that does get lost in the media. I’m going to retire next year after Tokyo, I’ve been looking at other sports to do recreationally and it’s very difficult to find a grass-root sport to compete in. But, I’m lucky compared to some as I’m still very able I’m only a below the knee amputee, but for others and me, it’s still very difficult to find a sport.
What do you think society and people can do more to understand that disabled people can achieve?
I think a lot of it comes from the sporting aspect of it trying to get more people involved and to try and get more able-bodied people to watch disability sport at a recreational level it’s a problem across both able-bodied and disability sports that just getting people to engage with it and understand it. Once people appreciate it and understand it, then lesser are their hurdles for us to overcome. It can be made simpler, there is no need to overcomplicate it, by putting those hurdles in front of us. Let’s just take a step back, we can still live a normal life and play in a sport that we love or even a hobby. I think some people overcomplicate things by making it less accessible. In general society, please be more inquisitive if someone does feel like they are approachable, but don’t patronise us. The government need to do more than just integrate people, making people have a specific job if a disabled person goes for a job companies tend to put us in some tick boxes when in actual fact we are more creative. Just because we have a disability it doesn’t mean we need to have a specific job or career purely down to our condition, look at what we can do. It would be great to see more businesses to be more openminded.
What advice would you give to young disabled people, who are maybe facing some difficult barriers in their life?
I’d say now reach out to other disabled people or people in general society by using social media to find role models, businesses who are in your field who have perhaps overcome the same obstacles you are facing. If it’s regarding sport there is a number of Paralympians on social media reach out to us and I’m sure we can point you in the right direction to find a sport. I have always answered someone’s question or email as I’ve been in the same position by being scared of not knowing what to do.
Let’s talk about the whole lockdown, what have you been doing ensuring your fit enough for competition when they do return?
I sort of pre-emptied that the whole situation was going to get worse in March and luckily bought a load of home gym equipment because I had a feeling it was going to get worse. I travel from Birmingham to Nottingham I thought they would stop travel completely due to a lockdown. So I bought a load of weights, fitness machines, a spin bike, a bench, squat rack and a kayak machine so that I’ve got a set up at home ensuring I’ve maintained my fitness during the lockdown. As I knew afterwards once they announced Tokyo had been pushed back to next year that we would have to do some simulation races in training like a mock-up of the layout Tokyo Paralympic will be. We’ve done really well.
We would like to thank Rob for taking his time out during his busy training schedule to speak to us. It's clear to see Rob hasn't let his disability stop him from achieving success, but, importantly he's continued to share has a passion for making society and sports accessible to all disabilities. We would like to wish Rob the best of luck as he heads into further preparations for the Tokyo 2021 Paralympic Games. If you would like to follow Rob on social media; Instagram and Twitter