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Jonnie Peacock MBE

Double Paralympic T44 100m Champion


7 March 2016Losing my leg affected my mum far more than me

There is so much exuberance in Jonnie Peacock, with the Paralympics starting exactly six months from Monday, it is easy to be swept along when the young British sprinter describes his animated quest to match hisgold medal at London 2012 with another stunning victory in Rio. “I can hardly believe it’s just six months to go,” Peacock says, “but I know my goal. I want to be a double Paralympian world champion.”

Yet it is almost a shock when the sprinter voices a wider context to his sparkling ambition on two separate occasions. The first moment comes when Peacock discusses the blisters that often form on the stump of his right leg and he suggests that a loose socket on his prosthetic limb has caused the problem. A second reason to pause occurs when Peacock says that, at 22, he is finally old enough to understand the trauma his mother endured when he was a little boy.

At the age of five, Peacock was so ill with meningitis that he slid away into an induced coma as the disease attacked his brain and the tissues in his leg. His mother, Linda, was told his right leg would have to be amputated just below the knee. She was advised to say goodbye for there was a strong chance her son would die.

“I can now reflect on what she went through – hugely,” Peacock says. “I think it affected her far more than me. Of course I’m the one walking around with one leg but I have an OK life. But it was very hard for her to be told I was probably going to die and that if I came back there could be lots of brain damage … which there is!”

Peacock laughs and winks. “Luckily, everything went well but she was in shock. After London 2012 my mum could finally let it all out. She knew I was going to be all right after all.”

Every athlete preparing for this year’s Olympics or Paralympics is likely to suffer from aches and twinges. But Peacock offers graphic insight into the more basic issues that can impair a Paralympian’s progress.

“I’ve had a blade problem,” he says as he assesses his spate of injuries. “I changed my blade in 2013 and six months ago I didn’t realise how bad the socket had become. It was like I was sinking right into the bottom of the socket. I just assumed this was how it was meant to be. But then I put the new one on and it was tight. It was such a huge difference. This was part of the reason I was getting so many blisters on the stump.

“My prosthetist said: ‘Basically it looked like you were running into a hole after every step.’ I’ve also had problems with my day leg [the prosthetic limb he uses when walking around] and had these abscesses. It’s like cutting a golf ball in half and these hard, horrible things stick out. Last year I had the prosthetist cut a huge hole out of the socket to give me some room when I trained.”

Peacock shrugs. “Every amputee has problems. I remember seeing the blisters that Oscar [Pistorius] would get. People push themselves to the limit and it’s not how the body is meant to be. You deal with it as best you can.”

The Paralympic 100m champion moves on swiftly to relish his gladiatorial rivalry with America’s Richard Browne and Brazil’s Alan Oliveira. “I’m definitely one of those athletes that the bigger the event the better I perform. I went to a low-key competition in Bedford and had zero nerves. That can be a hindrance because you need adrenalin pumping through you. I love the hustle and bustle of the warmup area – I love that gladiator feel. Certain people like to play the mind games, and I love it.”

Peacock grins cheekily when I say that Browne seems to be a cocky athlete. “You think! It’s bravado. You try not to take it too personally. The first time I got it was after London 2012 and [Browne’s] brother was sending it on Twitter. I was thinking: ‘What’s going on?’ But I’m used to it now. He’s running very well and he likes the chat. I suppose I don’t like to back down. I’m not going to take someone throwing a bunch of faeces at me. But I stay reasonable.”

The Peacock chuckle erupts again before he becomes more serious about Browne – the current world champion who won silver at the London Paralympics before going on a long unbeaten run from 2013 to 2015. “I beat him last year in Newcastle. He stumbled out of the blocks a little but I won. All I read from him on Twitter beforehand was: ‘Undefeated, undefeated, undefeated …’ I said to my girlfriend all I cared about was taking away the undefeated tag. But he went to the worlds in Doha and ran very well.”

Peacock had to withdraw from the world championships in Doha last year because of his blistered stump. Browne responded by saying that the Briton was“the least of my problems”. The Olympic champion leans forward in surprise. “That’s what he said? That’s funny because I was the first guy to beat him in two years. Look, all these guys are fast. Alan Oliveira has run 10.5. Richard has run 10.6. Felix Streng, the German kid, will do some stuff. Jarryd Wallace [from the US] too. Arnu Fourie [the South African who won bronze at London] ran 10.9 in the worlds. Six people could go under 11 seconds in Rio.”

Jonnie Peacock shows off his gold medal at London 2012 when he won the men's 100m T44 race at the Olympic Stadium.
Jonnie Peacock shows off his gold medal at London 2012 when he won the men’s 100m T44 race at the Olympic Stadium. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

How does Peacock compare his mood now to this time four years ago? “That’s a good question. In March 2012 I had just started full-time training. Six months before that I was just doing three days a week. So I was soaking it all up. Now I know a lot more about it. I’ve been in that cycle before and I just want to get the work done.”

Did he harbour any expectations of winning gold in 2012? “No. Not at all. I thought perhaps a medal. But I started competing and each race got faster and faster and then I went to America and set the world record at the time. That blew me away. It was crazy.”

Peacock was a star at the 2012 Paralympics. He lapped up the fact that80,000 people chanted his name in unison and that he upstaged Pistorius. The South African is likely to be in prison for the next 15 years after being found guilty of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in February 2013.

“When I heard about it,” Peacock says, “I was on my way to Northern Ireland to surprise my girlfriend [the Paralympic 400m runner Sally Brown]. It was Valentine’s Day and I was meant to do a radio interview that morning and I got loads of texts saying: ‘Do you still want to do the interview?’ I was like: ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ When I heard, it was such a shock. But our thoughts now are mainly with her family.”

He once liked and respected Pistorius. “Putting his personal life to one side I still feel that what Oscar did for Paralympic sport, and what he did for me, was huge. In 2012 he talked to me a lot. He came to me right before the final and said: ‘I’m going to say a prayer for you today because this is your opportunity. This is your time.’ It helped and I’m always going to respect him for that.”

Pistorius finished fourth behind Peacock and he was more gracious than he had been when he lost a bad'tempered 200m more surprisingly to Oliveira. His subsequent attempts to shower Peacock with praise was a sign of how badly he needed to restore his fraying reputation. “London 2012 helped make the Paralympics much less dependent on Oscar,” Peacock says. “He had done eight years at the very top and it was almost time for him to pass the torch on. But I liked him. He was charming and seemed like a very nice guy.”

Peacock smiles more sadly when accepting how few people knew the anger and violence that shrouded Pistorius. But Peacock has the charisma to replace Pistorius’s ruined legacy with a positive representation of the sport. As BT Sport’s ambassador for the Paralympic movement he presents himself and his sport in a sparky style. In many ways, Peacock is most impressive when talking out strongly against the disadvantages he and his fellow Paralympians still face despite the apparent breakthrough of 2012.

He trains at Loughborough University alongside Britain’s leading able-bodied sprinters in James Dasaolu and Adam Gemili. But Peacock has had only three races indoors this year, all against able-bodied athletes. In the absence of Paralympic races before the London Anniversary Games in July he also admits that he and his coach, Steve Fudge, “have yet to plan my schedule. It depends on who will have us”.

The difficulties in planning a schedule for even a Paralympic champion help to explain why Peacock has a good idea of what he might like to do once his competitive career is over. “I look at Paralympic sport and there is so much that can be done. Ideally, once I’ve retired I would like to be involved in making decisions that deal with athletics. So many times I look at the sport and think: ‘What the hell are they thinking about?’

Jonnie Peacock 'would like to be involved in making decisions that deal with athletics' when he retires from the sport.

Jonnie Peacock ‘would like to be involved in making decisions that deal with athletics’ when he retires from the sport. Andy Hooper for the Guardian

“For example the IOC manage the Olympic Games. The IPC [International Paralympic Committee] manage the Paralympics. Why? In my eyes the IAAF manages athletics and what I do, in my eyes, is athletics. I’m not saying the IPC is doing a bad job because 2012 was a huge success but I want them to integrate more. Each time there’s a world championship I want Paralympic events to be featured. It’s the same with Diamond League meetings. I want integration and way more Paralympic events. Why let it diminish?”

He is also frustrated by the IPC’s rule-making. “The IPC came out and said that the way we’ve been measuring legs the last few years is wrong. ‘People have been gaining an unfair advantage and we’re going to change it.’ But do you know the date they’re going to change it? One day after the Rio Paralympics. I’d like to get involved with better decision'making in Paralympic sport one day. But … we’ll see.”

He laughs – but, unlike an ordinary 22-year-old laughing at the absurdity of ever growing old, Peacock sounds like a young man who knows there are more serious battles ahead. “Hopefully later in life there will be some kind of leg transplant available. If I am struggling at 60 the [prosthetic] leg could be a big factor … but a lot is happening in transplantation so fingers crossed.”

Peacock’s face lights up again when he talks of his “huge hunger” for Rio and the world championships in London next year. “Those are the two I really, really want to win,” he says with the zeal of a champion sprinter. “Back-to-back Paralympic titles and then gold at London 2017 will be huge. I can take it easy after that.”

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/mar/07/jonnie-peacock-leg-meningitis-paralympic-gold-rio-2016