One of the elder statesmen of the British Paralympics team, the 45-year-old talks about his plans for this month and beyond
Richard Whitehead had planned to step away from competitive athletics after Tokyo 2020 but, another year older and wiser, he knows his place in the GB team for this summer’s rescheduled Paralympic Games is worth more than just a contribution to the medal tally.
That said, his performance credentials are nevertheless impressive. A T42 200m world record-holder (23.01) and Paralympic gold medallist in London 2012 and Rio 2016, he has also won a host of world and European titles.
Not only that, but off the track he’s an experienced, talented endurance athlete and former marathon world record-holder in his class, with a best of 2:42:54 from the 2010 Chicago Marathon.
Whitehead may be reaching the twilight years of his track career, but his role within the team, coupled with his performance potential and indefatigable spirit, make Tokyo an enticing prospect in spite of – perhaps even because of – its challenging backdrop.
“For me it’s about building relationships with athletes so they can trust me and talk about some of the things that are maybe making them anxious going into the Games,” he says. “It’s nice knowing that I’m able to reassure them and to offer them a bit of advice and support. I can also talk to them about how to raise their performance at Games time.”
Brought up in the village of Lowdham near Nottingham, Whitehead is a double knee amputee. With his parents’ encouragement he developed a passion for sport at an early age and began swimming when he was four years old.
An aspiring marathon runner but talented across a range of events, his desire to compete on the world stage and push boundaries led to him being selected for the 2006 Winter Paralympic Games in Turin in ice sledge hockey. Although the team didn’t win, he learned a lot, especially about the importance of surrounding himself with the best possible team.
Those lessons were integral to his success at the 2012 Paralympics in London. While the marathon was naturally his preferred event, there was no 26.2-mile option for Whitehead’s classification. He was forced to turn his attention to sprinting – under the guidance of a new coach – to give himself the best possible opportunity to compete.
“I’ve had decisions that haven’t gone my way, but I’ve used them as learning experiences,” says the 45-year-old.
“Liz and Martin Yelling [former GB marathon runner Liz Yelling who coached Whitehead prior to his move to sprinting and her husband Martin] had a massive impact on my running career and gave me the tools to move from marathon running to be dynamic enough to make it onto the 2012 team.
“When I first looked at working with Keith [current coach Keith Antoine] I felt like he could add value to me as a person, but we could also challenge each other, which is important. Keith’s skillset is vast and amazing and we’re still finding new areas to push athletically now.
“He’s a real trailblazer within athletics and his experience around how to develop young athletes, how to promote performance, as well as how to develop athletes in the later stages of their careers, is invaluable.”
Stephen Hawking famously said that “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change”, and Whitehead is a case in point.
In addition to his transition from endurance events to sprinting, he was also moved from the T42 classification to a newly-created T61 category in 2018 by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) as part of a number of changes which came off the back of questions over whether the system was fair or robust.
Whitehead was critical of the move at the time – and still has his concerns.
“In some areas I think the IPC has really lost its way in how to promote sport,” he says. “I went from T42 to T61 and, as a result, it has reduced the numbers of athletes in the classification. There needs to be clarity on why they’re making changes.
“With Ntando [South Africa’s Ntando Mahlangu, the Rio 200m silver medallist behind Whitehead] and me being moved out of our class, it hasn’t moved forward. If you have athletes that are competitive and keep pushing each other then you keep moving that class or that time forward, but because we’ve been taken out of that event it’s had an impact on the sport. It’s frustrating, but at some point you just have to think f*ck it. You either swim down the river or you get out.”
A popular and respected figure both within and outside of the sport, Whitehead’s muscle-flexing victory pose has become something of a trademark, widely recognised as a show of defiance and associated with his belief that anything is possible.
That sentiment will continue post-Tokyo, where his energy and focus will move to other projects including his recently-launched charity, the Richard Whitehead Foundation, as well as his young family, although it’s entirely possible he will also continue to compete.
“The core values and ethos of the Foundation are about having an impact on the disability community but also educating the community around them,” explains Whitehead. “We want to get people more active and involved in sport, and to help identify and remove barriers so they can reach their full potential.”
While the Foundation was ready to launch in the media frenzy that followed London 2012, Whitehead held back so he could gain more experience within the charitable sector. Since then, he has worked with the humanitarian charity One Family in Syria and Jordan, in addition to a range of charities in the UK.
Ultimately he wants to utilise his own platform to enrich other people’s lives, whether it’s in the charity sector, through media, or in a performance-focused role within sport.
As an experienced member of the British team, Whitehead is already playing his part in supporting the development of younger athletes, but he would like to take on a more official performance role in the future.
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“I’d want a role that would excite and challenge me,” says the man says the man who also hosts a podcast, Track and Ball, with Manchester City and England footballer Ellen White. “I’m not sure it would be in athletics initially, but I’d have to be on the track, or in the pool, or on the road where I’m really having an impact and making a difference.”
Whitehead is focused and motivated, but not exclusively by medals. Like his contribution to the team, success is more than a statistic.
“I think athletics and sport in general is so focused on gold medals we’re losing the real reason we got into the sport, and that’s the enjoyment and the satisfaction of taking part,” he says. “I believe strongly in the power of sport as a great unifier and leveller. It has the ability to unite people and to create joy, whether you are a participant or spectator, and its benefits across both physical and mental health shouldn’t be underestimated.
“I’ve had so many great memories across my athletics career and I’m proud of my performances and being able to share them. It’s special isn’t it, when you’ve put in all the work and you’re able to deliver those performances?
“I always say to young athletes who are coming through that it’s not all about gold medals, but it’s about creating memories that you can share with your team. Records can always be broken, but they can never take away those races and those memories.”
» This feature first appeared in the August issue of AW magazine which you can buy here