David Weir interview
The Weirwolf became as famous for his roar as he did for his four-gold haul in London. He talks to Sport about tearing up the track – and why he nearly turned his back on wheelchair racing altogether...
David Weir has been answering Sport’s questions for almost 20 minutes when our interview is brought to an abrupt halt by someone making a ’cut’ motion from across the room.
We’re about to kick up a stink about our time slot being halved when a suited, suntanned figure under a mane of silver hair strolls purposefully towards the quadruple gold-medallist.
“Congratulations David,“ beams the billionaire businessman Sir Philip Green, extending a bronzed hand (including heavyweight wristwatch) towards Weir. The meeting between the two men might seem rather unexpected, but then again we are talking in the London headquarters of Green’s fashion empire – and he has been sponsoring the wheelchair racer for the past three years.
It was a chance meeting with one of Green’s close friends in Richmond Park, where Weir undertakes some of his training, that led to this surprising partnership between Topman and, ahem, top man. When the four-time Paralympian revealed he was still looking for a sponsor, Green, who combines his immense wealth with the nous to recognise a fine opportunity when he sees one, reached deep into his sizeable pockets.
But while Weir is now a household name, right up there with Oscar Pistorius as one of the Paralympics’ best-known characters, life has not always been quite so golden for the man with six London Marathon titles and 10 Paralympic medals to his name. Indeed, there was a time when he turned his back on sport completely – a time when a life on the dole appealed to him more than one dedicated to giving his all for a sport that was giving him so little in return.
Watching him now cross palms with a man who also measures success in terms of his weight in gold, those dark days seem like they must belong to another person, and another lifetime, altogether. But they are just one factor among many that have combined to turn this quietly spoken 33-year-old into an athlete many believe to be the greatest wheelchair racer of all time. Not that he’s entirely comfortable with that term just yet…
You’re being called ’the greatest’. Is that how you feel, with four gold medals around your neck?
“I loved every minute of it when they said that – for Jeff Adams to say it is something, because he was a great wheelchair racer himself. Then I had Heinz Frei saying it to me as well, and he was my idol growing up. It’s a special phrase, but it’s a little bit hard to accept. I still think I’m dreaming, sometimes. I feel like someone’s gonna click their fingers and I’ll wake up.”
What were your realistic aims going into the Games?
“Well in Beijing I got four medals: two golds, a silver and a bronze. But this year, because of the pressure of it being a home Games and because I knew wheelchair racing has jumped to a higher level over the past four years, my aim was just to get one gold medal.
"I’ve always had something go wrong leading up to major Games in the past – injuries or illnesses. But my preparation for London was the best. I had no illnesses, so I felt my body was in the best shape ever. I still didn’t think I was gonna come away with four gold medals – the aim was just to get off to a winning start in the 5,000m. Whatever followed, I’d have been happy.”
That race (T54 5,000m) was tight and tactical – did that contribute to your roar as you crossed the line?
“I was just so relieved to do it on the first day, and not the last. Every lap of the race I could feel almost like a surge from the crowd that followed you round. There were no quiet bits at all. The last lap was really loud – but even halfway, when I opened up and took the lead, it erupted. I was like: ’Jesus, this is cool.’ It’s just nice to be on a level par with the Olympics – the whole thing felt like it was a great sporting spectacular.”
Quite a different experience to your first Paralympics, in Atlanta in 1996, then?
“Massively. In Atlanta there was no crowd support, and the athletes’ village wasn’t very good. The food hall was tiny, so you had to queue up for hours for food. It was just like: ’Well, I’ve missed most of my teenage life for this, is it going to get any better for Paralympic sport? Probably not.’ I was on a downer after that and just went missing for four years.”
What were you doing in that time?
“I’d not been doing anything at all, I was just living off benefits in my flat. I tried to get a few jobs, but it just didn’t happen for me. Then I saw the Sydney Games in 2000, and how great it was for Paralympic sport.
"It had jumped massively in terms of crowds and ticket sales, and there was Tanni [Grey-Thompson] winning all her medals. I was watching it in tears, thinking I’d missed out. If I can get back, I thought, I never want to let anyone else or myself down again.”
It was a couple of years after Sydney that you began working with your current coach, Jenny Archer. Was it her influence that really turned things around?
“I’ve known Jenny all my life. She got me into the sport when I was younger, but then she went to do her own thing with Wimbledon FC. After Sydney, I’d been training on my own about 10 months, but I wasn’t training properly – I knew what to do, but I needed someone to push me every day. I knew Jenny had this training group going in Richmond Park, so I just rang her and asked if I could join up. I started working with her in February 2002, then went on a training camp to Spain with the GB lot, following the programme she gave me. I came back from there and won my first London Marathon – and that’s when I knew.”
How hard was it to keep refocusing after winning gold medal after gold medal?
“After the 5,000m was probably the hardest, because the adrenaline was just pumping for ages. Going through anti-doping and stuff meant I didn’t get back to my room until 3am, then I was up at 6am the next morning because my first round of the 1,500m was at 10am. I was just running on adrenaline. But once I won a couple of golds I started to relax, so my recovery was a lot better. I had two days’ rest between the 800m final and the marathon, which done me good. I’d not seen my family for about 10 days, so I met [girlfriend] Emily and [son] Mason at GB House. That geed me up. Then I could focus on the marathon.”
You’ll be 37 by the time Rio comes around. Are you planning to defend your Paralympic titles?
“If you’d asked me that six months ago I would have said no, London is definitely my last Games. But I had a great year and have a great team around me. I couldn’t have asked for better preparation going into London. Can I do it again? I don’t know yet. We’ll see.”
Sarah Shephard @sarahsportmag