As part of Blottr’s London 2012 coverage, we spoke to a number of athletes from smaller nations taking part in the Olympics, including Bermudan flag bearer and sailor Zander Kirkland and Sled Dowabobo, a judoka from the tiny Pacific island of Nauru. Each athlete talked of sacrifices made, obstacles surmounted and the challenges of coming from smaller and less developed countries when striving for sporting success. It was a pleasure to speak with them all. With interest in Team GB rocketing after their amazing performances in the Olympics, and the Paraylmpics only nine days away, we thought there was no better time to speak to some of our home grown athletes taking part at the forthcoming Paralympic Games and continue to shine a light on those with a different story to tell.
Look through a list of English international footballers with over 100 caps for their country and you’re confronted with legends. Shilton, Moore, Charlton, Beckham; names synonymous with maximising their talents, dedication to training and a durability that allowed them to play at the highest level for over a decade.
One name that may not have been mentioned too often alongside England’s footballing heavyweights, however, is that of Darren Harris. Having represented his country over 100 times at blind football, competed in judo at Beijing 2008 and undertaken a Maths degree, it would be fair to say that Harris possesses drive in abundance. And having returned from judo back to football, at 39 years of age he has taken the golden boot for the past two seasons playing for West Bromwich Albion’s blind football team. We spoke to Darren about his sporting past, his thoughts on funding for disabled athletes and his hopes for a legacy from the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
From a University maths graduate, to captaining your country in football, through to Judo at Beijing and back to football. Do you ever get tired?
Yes, I get tired, I don't train the same way I did 4 years ago.
You left football for Judo in 2007 and competed in the Olympics a year later. What made you change then and what made you revert back to football?
We were denied the opportunity to play in Athens 2004 because the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish FAs wouldn’t sanction a GB team. I had already been doing judo for a few years recreationally but I decided to try training full-time and give myself the best possible chance of qualifying for Beijing 2008. I carried on playing football until 2007 and we found out sometime that year that a GB team had been sanctioned on this occasion but I had already set my heart on judo. Bizarrely, I found out I had qualified with judo half way through the football European Championships, which was the qualifying event, having scored three crucial goals. I came back to football because I felt I had a better chance of winning a medal. I was starting to get injuries because of the volume of training and my body couldn't cope with the relentless pounding you get in judo any more.
You’ve reached 100 football caps for your country. What did reaching that milestone mean for you and how long do you see yourself carrying on for?
I reached 100 caps at a tournament in Madrid last month. It's an incredible achievement, I see it as a kind of recognition of my durability and consistency. I have no doubt I could carry on for another 4 years, football doesn't take as much out of me as judo, and I'm in better shape than some of the youngsters. It's just how long I can keep that hunger to go on improving. Only time will tell.
Have you made plans for after your sporting career yet?
I start an MSc in Health Psychology in October, I’m thinking about a Ph.D. Nobody in my family has a doctorate yet so I'm thinking why not me. Otherwise, I will carry on with the mentoring I do with the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust and some other interests I have around guns and gang violence in my home town of Wolverhampton.
What would be your advice to partially sighted up and coming athletes?
If it was easy, everybody would be doing it, so enjoy being different, that 1 in a million. Take your body and mind to new places, sport really is just the most incredible experience.
You play for West Brom's visually impaired football team and have secured the golden boot for the past two seasons. Did the break from the game re-energise you?
Yes, absolutely, I feel I'm playing better now than I was 5 years ago. I don't think some of the younger players were expecting me to put in the kind of performances I have. I guess I wanted to prove to myself and them that I still had it at this level.
Are you full time with West Brom? What is the situation for gaining funding for disabled athletes that aren't full time athletes?
No, West Brom isn't a full-time set up, the team train together twice a week. I have to arrange extra training for myself separately which can be a bit of a headache at times. We are the only nation in the top 6 who aren't full-time but we have to make the most of what we have, we are still incredibly fortunate. I have received a Sports Aid grant and I also work part-time. Thankfully, I don't have anybody depending on me financially.
Do you feel that athletics for people with physical disabilities is being taken more seriously these days? Are you pleased with the groundswell of interest in Team GB's Paralympians or are there still inequalities that need working on?
There will always be inequality, but I see our job as showcasing what disabled athletes can do and inspiring the next generation that the struggle is worthwhile.
What do you hope for in terms of legacy from the London 2012 Paralympic Games?
I had probably done more hours of sport at 18 than most people do in their lifetime. That's just how it was when we were kids. We have shown with the sell out crowds we regularly get at stadiums year on year that we love watching sport but I'm yet to be convinced that this translates to participation. I tell my mates it's so much more fun scoring a goal than cheering when someone else does it but it falls on deaf ears mostly. The blind community in particular are renowned for leading sedentary lives and have some of the most depressing statistics in terms of health. I hope it's like some inert object that might take an awful amount of effort to set in motion but once we do it will have its own momentum.
Who do you rate as the best player in your Team GB squad?
Robin Williams, my room mate. He is very raw, but he could end up as one of the best blind footballers of his generation. He is desperate to play, train and learn about the game; we have to put the reigns on him sometimes before he combusts. I admire that desire in him, it is infectious.
And finally, if you could meet any Olympian or Paralympian, past or present, who would it be?
Usain Bolt, he was a stone's throw away from me when the Jamaican team were training here in Birmingham before the Olympic Games. My family originates from Jamaica and I'm very proud of my roots. I just want to tell him ‘thanks for putting little Jamaica on the map for the right reasons and doing it with style too’.