Steve Trew on the great people he’s met behind the mask of the competitive athlete.
I spent the most amazing two days in May working on the public address and commentary for two great running events – the Bupa Westminster Mile and Bupa London 10,000. What made it even more special and memorable were the guest starters that my co-commentator Geoff Wightman (stadium commentator for the London 2012 track and field events) and I were privileged to work alongside.
They were some of the biggest names in Olympic and Paralympic running: Richard Whitehead, Paralympic 200m champion; David Weir, four-time Paralympic gold medalist at London 2012; and, wait for it… Mo Farah, double Olympic champion at 5,000m and 10,000m.
All three of them competed. Richard ran the Mile in 5:01 and David just outside three minutes. Mo jogged a 29-minute 10k to decimate the opposition. They’re without doubt the best of the best.
However, in a way that wasn’t important.What was important was the way all three of them gave up far more of their time than they had to, standing and talking with the other athletes. Richard jogged his way back to the start immediately after his mile because he’d promised one of the later starters that he would, David talked to everyone and Mo came up to the start line for the younger athletes’ races.
Can you imagine? The world’s number one distance runner comes up to you just as you’re about to start a race and gives you all the words of advice that you could need. When you hear spontaneous applause break out from young athletes just about to start a race, you know something good has happened. Mo, David, Richard – all great private men behind the public face.
And it got me thinking (pretty tough for me a lot of the time!). Ironman champions Chrissie Wellington and Greg Welch always, always, always make time to talk, not because they have to, but because they want to. They’re exhausted from racing but still out there talking to us ordinary people. A photo here, an autograph there, always cheerful, always smiling.
I have a great memory of Greg Welch. We were working together on an ITU World Championship commentary and had arranged to go out to dinner when I remembered that I’d already made arrangements with two of the age-group athletes I was coaching. “No worries, Steve,” said Greg. “Let’s all go together. What are their names?”
One hour later we met for dinner without my two athletes knowing we had another guest. As they came up, I could see their faces going white with the sudden knowledge that the ‘Mighty Mouse’ was there with me. “Hi Jo, hi Sarah, my name’s Greg. I hope you don’t mind me joining
you for dinner?” Mouths opened, jaws dropped and not a sound came out until… “Ooh, yes please!” Greg spent the dinner asking them both about what they did and what they’d achieved – nothing about himself. An amazing, self-effacing man. Greg Welch, Mr Nice Guy.
Remember Spencer Smith, ITU world junior champion and two-time ITU world senior champion? Yes, I bet you do. There was that magnificent rivalry between him and our other great world champion at that time, Simon Lessing.
Spencer made his breakthrough at a race in Portsmouth in the early ’90s. He was just 17 or 18 years old then, and had beaten the best who’d gathered in Portsmouth. When it came to the prizegiving, we were expecting the usual platitudes, and they came, of course. But there was so much more to come. Spencer – all 17 years of him – stood on the stage, one of the youngest guys there, and after he’d finished thanking everybody, as you have to do, he said: “And there’s one more person I want to thank…”
We waited just a couple of seconds. “My dad, my dad Bill.” Bill Smith had to blush – and he wasn’t a shy and retiring man by any means, as those who knew him will testify! “I’m only here because of my dad,” said Spencer. “All the early morning swimming sessions, all the races in Europe, all the kit, the arrangements, everything – my dad did all this for me. He took me everywhere. Thanks Dad, thanks.”
You know that hackneyed expression, ‘not a dry eye in the house’? That day when Spencer spoke, it came true.
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