Our Year 8 Journalism Club scooped an exclusive interview with Phil Smith and Verity Naylor to talk about the postponement of the Tokyo Paralympic Games and how our top athletes are maintaining their fitness and skills in lockdown.
On Wednesday, we had the amazing opportunity to talk to Phil Smith, “Chef de Mission” for the Beijing 2022 Games, and Verity Naylor, Director of Operations at the British Paralympic Association against the background of the summer Olympics and Paralympics being postponed to summer 2021.
Phil’s role as Chef de Mission includes leading the team and setting the right tone for the team at the games. He aims to create a comfortable environment for the athletes to train and perform in so that they can achieve the best they can and “produce world-class performances.” “We have three main values at the British Paralympic Association which are Excellence, Honesty and Trust,” he says. These allow the staff and team to set a really good standard by which to work and train.
The Covid-19 outbreak, and the postponement of this summer’s games, has presented a number of challenges. The athletes have been working for the last 4 years towards those two weeks this August, and some for 6-8 years if they weren’t in the Rio team. It is a unique situation, yet all the athletes still have something to aim for, just a year later.
“All our athletes on both the Olympic and Paralympic side are used to challenges, levels of adversity, the road towards an Olympic or Paralympic Games is never smooth or straight and there are lots of ups and downs and this is a very big down at the moment. Some may see it as quite a mountain to climb. But we know that all our athletes have the drive and ambition to do that.”
Specific challenges are faced by the Paralympic athletes as they try to continue their training in lockdown. “All our athletes have an impairment of some variety and a number of our athletes are in a higher risk category, “explains Phil. “So there is the initial challenge of ensuring their health, wellbeing and safety in the current environment.” Training at home is not as easy for some as others but the BPA are working with their athletes to help them as much as possible while keeping an eye on their mental health which is just as important. “Their safety and wellbeing still is and always will be the most important thing.” says Philip Smith. “There’s less technical training but there is a maintenance of fitness and skill set.”
For some sports it is extremely hard to train, such as swimming without the use of pools. Swimmers are having to maintain fitness using gym equipment instead. The Para GB taekwondo team have sent out equipment to their athletes to set up a ‘ring’ in their garden complete with kick bag in the absence of any live opponents to train with! However, for others it is easier, such as cyclists who can use a stationary bike in their house. Phil stressed the important of the whole team being behind the athletes and
staying in touch on Zoom; with nutritionists playing a key part alongside coaches and physiotherapists.
Verity is responsible for the logistics of getting all the athletes out to the Games and she and her team have an even bigger challenge with the Tokyo Games now so close to the Winter Games in Beijing. “We’re used to a year and a half (to prepare) but now we suddenly have to deliver both games with just 180 days between,” she says. There are financial challenges of paying for both Games in a shorter timeframe and the team are usually only focused on one game at a time so workload has doubled. They are having to adapt. “Activities like bringing the winter team together in the summer can’t happen now as we’ll be in Tokyo,” says Verity. Although they are currently unable to visit the host countries, they have visited 5-6 times over the last 4 years and have established strong relationships. “We’ve done a lot of groundwork already so hopefully lockdown won’t impact us too much.” They are now keeping in touch with the host countries through zoom conversations and are looking at doing virtual tours to check accommodation and facilities are in place. Verity and Phil are trying to do as many things as they can this year to ease the pressure in 2021 and hope to get back out to Japan and China in March.
So how did Phil and Verity come to work for the British Paralympic Association? Phil always had a huge passion for sport as a child but admits he wasn’t good enough to take it further. He completed a business degree without any links to sport and after a couple of years working in an industry that didn’t excite him he wanted to find a career that involved his passion. After 15 years working at BPA he says: “My passion for sport has become a passion for para sport as well and the fact I really care about what I do is the biggest thing you can have. If you can find a career you care about then that goes such a long way to enjoying what you do and if you care about what you’re doing, you want to do it well.”
Both Phil and Verity stressed the importance of finding a job that you enjoy. “If you find something you love doing, you don’t have to call it ‘work’,” says Verity. “I played sport growing up and looked at the big events and wondered how you get to be that person behind the scenes who organises and knows everything?” Verity admits she is really organised and likes organising people. She has managed to merge her love for sport with her skill-set.
What is their advice for any pupils looking to work in the sports industry either as a professional athlete or behind the scenes? They replied that we should take the most of every opportunity, whether it is something as simple as cleaning or volunteering, or something without pay, as you would gain vital experience. They also said to always leave things in “the right place, and in a good way.” Phil said to be proud of not only what you did, but how you did it.
Report and Interview By: Amelia S, Dilly S, Lucy W, Molly H.