EXCLUSIVE: You have to be quite scary, give evil stares and tell them to get out of my way, says… the Weirwolf of London!
23:01 GMT, 10 December 2012
The man known as the 'Animal' of wheelchair racing, who won four gold medals at the Paralympic Games in London, is sitting in a cafe in Richmond Park, south-west London, sipping a coffee.
David Weir is quiet, humble and softly spoken, smiling tiredly as he talks about his 10-week-old daughter, Tillia Grace London. He still seems overawed by the scale of his achievements and how his life has changed since that glorious summer.
But when the conversation turns to sport — and, specifically, competition — Weir is transformed. His blue eyes become piercing and intense as he explains, with passion verging on venom, what it means to him to race in a British vest and the ruthlessness it takes to succeed.
Animal passion: David Weir wins gold in the T54 800 metres at the London 2012 Paralympics
It was a striking change that was noticeable during the Games, too, as this polite, mild-mannered man executed four tactically perfect finals in nine days.
Weir won the T54 800 metres, 1500m, 5,000m and marathon and now has a tattoo of the Greek goddess of victory, Nike, to match the insignia on the four gold medals which he removes carefully from their black velvet cases. Appropriately, the six-time London Marathon winner also has another tattoo on his chest which means ‘winner’ in Japanese.
‘You have to be quite scary,’ says Weir, ‘because if you’re not, people will box you in. So you give them some evil stares and tell them to “**** off and get out of my way”. They’re going to move. I wouldn’t move, but some people will.
‘On the track I just switch on to being a racer and winning. It takes anything to win. I wouldn’t say I would cause accidents but you have to be ruthless.
‘I do certain things on the warm-up
track that might unsettle the guys’ minds. I will wait until they’ve
gone past me and then start my warm-up lap, pushing at a good speed and
just sitting behind them. Then I go past them and look like I’m at ease.
Just to show them. When I was sprinting, my starts weren’t great and,
because you would be allowed one false start without being disqualified,
sometimes I used to false-start on purpose. Then I knew I would get
away as good as everyone else.’
Proud patriot: Weir celebrates marathon victory (left) and was awarded the Freedom of City of London (right)
There are two distinct sides to ‘The Weirwolf’. After the Games the 33-year-old, an aspiring DJ, spent five days in Ibiza indulging his love of house music, yet he arranges our interview for 9am so he can spend the day with his family.
He was awarded the freedom of the City of London last week but still lives in ‘a two-bedroomed terrace’ on the ‘same council estate’ in Wallington, south-west London, where he grew up.
Weir was so painfully shy when he rediscovered athletics in 2002 that he took months to pluck up the courage to ring his coach, Jenny Archer, because he ‘didn’t want to bother anyone’. Archer, who worked with Wimbledon FC’s ‘Crazy Gang’ in the 1980s, has subsequently helped him become the greatest wheelchair racer of all by training with cyclists in Richmond Park.
His drive and toughness surface again when we discuss the BBC Sports Personality of the Year on Sunday evening, for which Weir has been nominated along with fellow Paralympians Sarah Storey and Ellie Simmonds. Weir says he does not normally attend because a Paralympic athlete has not been included on the shortlist since the then Tanni (now Baroness) Grey-Thompson in 2000. She came third but was unable to accept her award because there was no ramp to the stage.
So should there be a separate award to recognise the achievements of Paralympics GB ‘No, never,’ Weir says. ‘We want to compete against the best. All right, we probably won’t win it, but we want to compete.
Hometown hero: Weir still lives in his two-bedroomed house in Wallington despite his extraordinary success
‘I am just in awe of being in the top 12 with these great athletes, but I don’t think it should ever be separate because then you’re segregating it again and we don’t want that.
‘Sports Personality is about sport. We want to be branded as athletes. Speak to any Paralympian and they’ll tell you the same — and if they didn’t…’ His voice trails off and he takes a deep breath. God help anyone who dares to disagree with Weir in this mood.
‘I would hate to see it separated,’ he continues. ‘You’re a sports person and that’s what it is: sports personality. It doesn’t matter about colour, race, women, disabled — it’s all about sport and that’s all that matters.’
The quality of the sport, after all, was the most memorable thing about the 2012 Paralympics, the ‘perfect Games’ that Weir describes as being ‘like a storybook’.
‘It just feels like I’ve read a story on an athlete’s life,’ he adds.
The positive experience Weir had in London is even more moving when you consider his first taste of the Paralympics in Atlanta 16 years ago.
It was, as he puts it, ‘shocking’. The Athletes’ Village, the facilities, the crowds were all ‘very disappointing’. America did not — and still does not, to a large extent — ‘get’ the Paralympic movement, leaving a 17-year-old Weir thinking: ‘What’s the point’
Path to glory: Weir trains in Richmond Park with pro cyclists and credits beetroot juice for his success
‘I did nothing after Atlanta,’ he
explains. ‘No training. I couldn’t get a job, couldn’t do anything. I
struggled. I had left school at 16 and was on the dole, doing nothing.
‘Then I saw the Games in Sydney on TV four years later and that broke my heart a little bit. I thought maybe I would have been there, winning a medal. I thought, “What have I done” I just wanted to represent my country. I felt like I let my country down and a lot of other people down. I had missed the World Championships in ’98. I just didn’t turn up. I didn’t do enough training so I didn’t deserve to be there and I told them (the British team) that.
‘So when they did ask me to come back on the squad I felt like I was paying it back. I felt very proud after that.’
Weir’s pride in competing for his country shines through. He is not thinking about defending his titles in Rio in 2016 yet, but the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow is a real desire.
His willingness to discuss his patriotism is not sickly, but heartfelt — and fairly unusual for athletes in an individual sport who, in their blinkered pursuit of success, can appear selfish. Weir desperately wanted to finish London 2012 by winning his fourth gold in the marathon on the Mall, ‘with Buckingham Palace and all those British flags’ behind him.
Golden boy: Weir shows off his medals
‘I was very conscious I was competing in a British vest,’ he says. ‘I saw all those British flags and people jumping up and down and just thought, “No way am I going to let anyone past me”.
‘I think the British public gets Paralympic sport and I think it was the first time (at a Games) we didn’t get treated as disabled. It was, “We’re going to watch David Weir, or Hannah Cockroft, or Jonnie Peacock”. It wasn’t because they’re disabled.’
Quite the opposite. Watching Weir in the distinctive red helmet Archer has spirited away for safe-keeping was a distinctly enabling experience. He was imperious and apparently unstoppable for that nine-day period, powered only, as Boris Johnson pointed out, by beetroot juice.
Weir drinks ‘litres of it’ — mixed with apple juice — three days before a race and then had a concentrated shot of the red stuff during the marathon. He seems a little miffed, however, that the Mayor of London decided to broadcast his ‘secret’ to the ‘whole world’ during the Team GB parade.
‘It’s a bit stronger than coffee,’ he says, laughing now. ‘It’ll give you a stamina shot all day.
‘I wonder if Boris went home and tried it.’