Athlete Focus | Dan Pembroke | 2020 Tokyo Paralympics (Part 1)
Here at Neuff, we were incredibly pleased to get the chance to sit down and have a chat with one of the stand out athletes in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic games. The athlete we're talking about here is no other than Dan Pembroke!
Dan was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) at the age of six. It's a condition where your eyesight gets progressively worse as time passes by. However, this has never stopped Dan from achieving his full potential. Originally an able-bodied athlete, he eventually became a para-athlete and has accomplished so much recently.
In 2012, his hopes of qualifying for the London Olympics were sadly dashed when he had an unfortunate elbow injury. He then took a break from the sport until 2019 and is now back in the game with bigger hopes than ever before!
In the first part of our interview, we talk his Paralympic story, what it was like growing up with his condition and what role sport has had in his life.
Watch the full interview in our YouTube video, or read the full transcript of the conversation further below!
INTERVIEW WITH DAN PEMBROKE: TOKYO 2020 PARALYMPIC GOLD MEDALIST
We're here talking today with Dan Pembroke. He recently came back from Tokyo (from the Paralympics), where he won an absolutely phenomenal gold, with a Paralympic record of 69.52m. Which was even more impressive seeing as it was in horrendous rain and torrential weather conditions! I bet you must be super pleased with that Dan!
And it was also 3m more than your European championships fest, also bringing you in the overall rankings, never mind for the Para rankings. A huge achievement, so we're really pleased to be speaking to Dan.
Dan is a para athlete who competes in the F13 category, which is a visually impaired category. He has retinitis pigmentosa.
Dan previously competed in able bodied games a few years back, but then suffered an injury, so didn't make it to the Olympics. With deteriorating eyesight and your injury, you took a substantial injury and only recently came back to the sport.
HOW WAS THE PARALYMPICS?
I came back into the sport quite fresh from that last break. I'd done a lot in that break, but we'll come back to that later!
Going to the Paralympic games in Tokyo was just a phenomenal experience for me. It was my first games and the biggest competition I'd ever been to. Even though there weren't any crowds there, the actual stadium itself and the Japanese people (the volunteers) made everything so smooth and they were so supportive.
When I got into the stadium, I looked up into the night sky and saw this darkness and then these lights shining down onto where I was competing. That alone just makes your heart beat a hundred times faster! It really kind of ribbed me up for the competition!
On that third throw, I was almost swimming in the rain! But I managed to come down and plant that left leg and unleash a massive throw, which got me the Paralympic record (69.52m). So yeah, I'm ecstatic about that!
WHAT IS YOUR ENDURING MEMORY OF THE PARALYMPIC GAMES GOING TO BE?
I think the performance side of things. It’s great to be throwing around that 70m mark again, like I did back when I was in my “able bodied” career, which was pre 2013! I also think the Paralympics carries another message, which is to inspire other generations and other people coming into the sport with the same condition as I have, or any other condition or disability.
To achieve something in sport is a really meaningful thing and it brings a lot of good feelings to yourself and your self esteem.
WHAT'S IT LIKE FOR YOU COMPETING IN PARA SPORTS EVENTS?
I was diagnosed with RP (retinitis pigmentosa) when I was 6. At that age, my eyesight was as good as anyone else's. But the condition slowly worsens and every year, my vision gets narrower and narrower, and it’s called tunnel vision.
Back in 2012 and prior to that, I was just starting to see the differences in my eye sight, and I was able to see the conditions around me and I had difficulty seeing at night. But in my break away from athletics post 2012, I’ve been travelling around the world and making the most out of my usable eyesight. But then, it got to the stage where my eyesight was a little bit too bad, and I moved back to the UK to try and pick up javelin throwing again, and I noticed some differences when I was training.
When I was running down the runway, I was looking forwards, but because of my constricted vision, I can no longer see the line! So I can no longer see how close I am to the line, which is one difficulty I had to overcome.
I did that by actually counting my steps when I run, I actually do nine forward steps and seven crossovers. You also do lots of patterning in your training, prior to a competition to make sure that those numbers are correct when you’re in a competition. You move the distance of the runway back, depending on how big the competition is!
This has been my longest run up, because when you’re really into the competition, your adrenalines higher and you're running faster, so you just need that little extra room.
It’s those tiny practical things that are actually a huge impact and are of massive importance that then you need to work with in addition to the standards of javelin throwing and the technique that every athlete would have to do!
It’s also with RP, because the condition is always evolving, you have to always adapt and evolve to the things that you’re doing. Something I could have done two years ago, I now have to do slightly differently. Or I have to use a torch, or shuffle my feet along the floor in dark situations to make sure I’m not tripping over anything!
I’m constantly adapting and when I walk into the room I can’t see it in its entirety. So when I go into a room, I scan the whole room, my brain remembers where everything is. And you do all of this self consciously, because it’s a slowly deteriorating condition. You learn to adapt very well and it becomes a skill that you learn, which is inherited from the condition.
And one we could all benefit from to be honest, for all sorts of different reasons in our lives! So in some ways it’s a life skill too!
DOES SPORT MAKE LIFE HARDER BECAUSE IT'S SOMETHING YOU'VE GOT TO ADAPT TO?
It’s a double edge sword, really. On one side, being incredibly dedicated, everything is going into that performance, to try and throw the implement as far as possible. There’s a lot of time, dedication, sacrifices, just like any other athlete.
Because it’s so meaningful for myself, being on that runway and throwing and achieving your best, it gives you a great satisfaction… which is just great! I love doing that and I think the payoff is more than worth it.
HOW WAS IT DEALING WITH RETINITIS PIGMENTOSA WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP?
I didn’t know it at the time, but I wasn’t very good at any other sport! I wasn’t good at team sports because rugby, for example, your players are on your side. As soon as I ended up giving the ball, I would run forwards and I wouldn’t know where my teammates were, so it was all or nothing!
I think I was definitely built for an individual sport. In PE, we had an athletics try out day, where we tried out all different events. I picked up the javelin and I was pretty good at it! I was the third best out of my school on that one day, and I really wanted to pursue it, because it was the first sport I was any good at.
I went to a club which was Windsor Slough Eton Hounslow Athletics Club in Thames Valley, and I just started wanting to throw things a long way, with the help of Ashley Fox, who was the coach there. He was really great at getting me into the sport, he was fantastic.
My dad took the reins and he was a javelin thrower in school, so he already knew a little bit about the discipline. He literally went total professor on the whole thing and he studied so hard. It was like he was at university! He spent every working hour of the day trying to try and make me a better thrower and if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here today.
But back then, I didn’t have too many symptoms in my early teens. They were very slight symptoms. I was very active, so my body was very healthy. I was eating healthy and normally with this condition, the less active and more unhealthy you are, the quicker your eyesight deteriorates.
At the time of my diagnosis at the age of six, they told my mum and dad that at the age of 25-30, your son may be totally blind. And here I am today in the F13 category of para sport, which is the least visually affected athlete. And I’m totally functionable, by learning to adapt to my surroundings. It’s also about having a positive mindset to let yourself adapt and not give up when you get a hurdle.
I think that’s what sport has done to me. When you start training, you hit those barriers all the time, and you train your body to work through them. And it’s not just your physical body that’s working through them, it’s also your mental ability too. Self consciously, I’ve transferred that mindset onto my disability… or my ability!
That sounds like awesome advice for a young person or a parent. Or even an adult who’s had something happen to them which is similar to you, which is how to adapt and use your abilities, in order to thrive and flourish in your life with what’s been given to you!
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WOULD SAY TO ANYONE ELSE IN A SIMILAR SITUATION TO YOU?
Life is tough, and it’s tough for everyone. Some people get it worse than others but again, that adaptation aspect is what’s most important. If something bad happens to you, you’re naturally going to feel upset. So it’s important to take that time to absorb that negative feeling, and to also have that cognitive ability to say “...this has happened, do I want to feel like this for a long time, or do I want to start doing something that’s going to make me feel better?”.
It’s very easy for me to say. But I think that thinking it through in your mind, you have the ability to change your life right now. By doing something positive. Just one thing, which could inspire you to do another positive thing… which could then give you two positive things, which gives you even more positive things in your life.
All of a sudden, it starts to spiral upwards. You attract positive people, positive situations and positive opportunities. I think that’s how I live my life and I find it to be very good, especially when I was travelling around the world. I got to do some incredible things, just by being in the right place at the right time. And having that positive aspect of being in that mindset, got me into those situations. It sounds corny, but it’s about being positive!
It’s actually so simple, but some of the most impactful moments in life are simple.
Yeah, it’s basic stuff.
Yeah! But it works, right? Evidently, because you’re sitting there, having achieved what you’ve achieved, so it does work very well!
Some people find it hard to talk about disability. Whether that’s because they’re affected themselves and are feeling awkward about it, or people who have no experience either themselves or in their family and friends and then feel awkward about how they’re supposed to tackle it, how they’re supposed to think, how they’re supposed to react…
...WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT THAT?
Through my teenage years as I was coming to terms with my condition, I used to hide it and not tell anyone about it. As the condition worsened, I was adapting the way I was doing things and things like that… but these adaptations over the years become things that are maybe normal for you, but not necessarily normal in society.
When I go into a room and it’s full of people, I have to look everywhere around me, looking for people to come up to me to shake my hand and say hello. It’s very hard for me to read someone’s body language.
For instance, someone would come up to me who I’ve not met before or maybe have met before, and they come up to me and ask me how I’m doing and reach out to shake my hand, and I’d look at them and say “yeah I’m not too bad”, but I’d totally just leave them hanging!
This has happened a lot. It doesn’t happen so much now because I’m more open to people now about what I can and can’t see. The people who do know me know that I won’t be able to see their hands, so they put their hands out into my field of vision and say “Dan, I’m shaking your hand!”, or they would grab my hand first.
I think being very open about your condition is the first key to moving on, and not being embarrassed about your condition. Let’s face it. Most of us will want to help each other. If you’re there and you say you have a visual impairment, and someone says “that’s ridiculous”, stuff to discriminate you… this person’s really not worth it, so it’s not worth worrying over them! They just get on with it and the people that are going to accept the way you are are just going to be your friend because of that… I don’t know where I was going with that, to be honest!
But effectively, the more open we can be about it… if I were to come up to you and not know anything about your condition, then I could also be open and acknowledge there’s a difference there and get on with it, rather than stepping around it or feeling awkward.
Exactly! Because it can come off a bit weird. Imagine you come up to shake my hand. You don’t say anything, I don’t say anything. You would come off with the impression that this person is rude.
If you say “sorry if I don’t shake your hand” or maybe you initiate the handshake first, you know? If you’re meeting someone first, you’d put your hand out first so there’s not that awkwardness.
So then they’d have to grab it!
Exactly, then it’s their choice to leave you hanging or not!
Unless you meet someone else with RP!
Imagine that. We’d just be there hovering hands around!
Everyone would be looking at you thinking “why are you hovering your hands in front of your face!”
I think that also comes on to the second point which is that you’ve got to have a laugh with it. It’s not a great thing that you’ve been given to not be able to see fully. But if you can learn to laugh about it a little bit and laugh at yourself, you’ll make the journey a whole lot smoother and you’ll also make the people around you more comfortable to ask questions. If you’re serious about things, then people aren’t going to be as open.
If you give people that vulnerability about yourself, and you talk about your condition, it opens other people minds as well and then they’ll open themselves up to you, and that’s where good friendships are made, so that’s the advice I’d give.
I love it! I think that really works for me! Going back to javelin, you talked about your experiences at school and how your dad really helped you. Now you’re back in training after your break travelling…
...WHAT DO TRAINING SESSIONS LOOK LIKE FOR A PARA ATHLETE SUCH AS YOURSELF?
The buzzing sessions haven’t come yet because I’m new into the sport, so after every session I come away feeling absolutely awful! But it’s been quite a steep curve coming into athletics again. I’m 30 now, so I’m not the 20 year old athlete that I used to be. My brain still thinks I am, and I try and train as hard as I used to. But it does need that bigger recovery and more attention to technique, to make sure I’m not getting injured.
At the moment, I train six days a week, twice a day. I have my Sundays off and yeah, in the winter it’s a lot of conditioning sessions. So a lot of long slow duration training like running, bi reps, low weight etc.
Towards the end of the Winter, coming into the season, I’ll increase my weight training and get more strength behind me and a bit more mass. Then, into competition phase, I’ll be lifting heavy weight, maybe doing one or two reps, maximum of 10 to give me a bit more speed in my training.
With that, I do a lot of conditioning, so boring stuff like physio exercises, that we all know and hate to do, but are very good for us! I do a lot of that, especially now that I’m more of a mature athlete, so that my smaller muscles I’m using when I’m throwing to stabilise my throwing are as strong as they can be. And when I come down to plant that left leg to throw, I don’t break things!
It’s about building the building and making it as strong as possible.