DAY 1 – SHOW ME THE TICKET
So, there I was in my holding cell - sorry, I mean my hotel room. I was staring at the ceiling in the pitch black. The light switch didn't work and neither did the air conditioner. To make matters even worse, the window was jammed shut preventing me from opening it in the hope that the light breeze from the Adriatic Sea would provide some type of cooling effect. The thumping of the music from the night club behind was drilling a hole in my brain and the traffic noise reminded me of long nights bunkered in a one-star backpacking hostel in Cairo in the late eighties.
It was 3.00 am and as the sweat rolled down my face and my fatigued body rocked to the house music, I realised that this was not a time to be feeling sorry for myself; the world was full of people less fortunate than I (not that I could think of anyone in particular but I'm certain that there would be someone somewhere). The misery gave me time to think. It had been an incredible day.
I had left Newquay much earlier and my van was loaded with Physiotherapist Lucy Barrel and Portreath competitors Charlie Haynes and Charlotte (my mum packed my bag which is why it’s so heavy) Hewitt. We drove up to the Barnstaple junction on the M5 to pick up the Devon GBR crew consisting of Liam Ward, Summer Whiteley and Lily Nicholls.
From there it was up to the Membury Services on the M4 where the Welsh crew had left their luggage for us to take to Heathrow whilst they headed to Gatwick with six 10’6” race boards and an earlier EasyJet flight to Bologna.
We then headed to Terminal 5 at Heathrow for our BA flight also to Bologna.
Waiting for us at Heathrow was the Newcastle based GBR athletes. The first was James Harvey Purvis. I wasn’t sure why he used his full name on introduction; I quickly wondered if his last name was Harvey-Purvis, or maybe he just liked his middle name. I made a mental note to ask him about that. Then I remembered that Lee Harvey Oswald did the same thing, and that was fine. Well, fine with everyone other than JFK I suppose, but each to their own I say.
The last time I introduced myself using all my names was in court, but that’s a story for another day.
JHP was/is a rather a large unit of humanity and manages to swim 50 metres carrying the heavy plastic orange thing with no arms quicker than most of us can just swim 50 metres. JHP was a key figure in this campaign. Also, part of the northern mix was Aiden McGuire; fin swimmer, good kid and the Captain of this GBR team. Built like a toothpick with the wood shaved off and with his shirt buttons done all the way up as far as possible, the kid is eternally pumped and ready. The final part of the northern group was pool super coach Amy Wilkinson.
The GBR team comprised Australian, Welsh and Newcastle accents, which effectively guaranteed that no one would have a clue what anyone was saying at any one time. T5 at Heathrow was unusually quiet and as a result, it only took forever to check-in. Usually, it takes forever and ever. With our bags, fins, backpacks, massage bench etc. checked in and no one suffering any long-term damage from moving Charlotte’s bag, all seemed scaringly (is that a word?) quiet. I then received a call from Lloydy who was now on the ground in Bologna.
'Woody', he said. 'They have lost three of the boards, and the other three are in a storage room’. Now, I can understand losing bags. I mean airlines handle loads of them and many look the same but a surfboard that measures ten foot six inches long and fifty-five centimetres wide?
Surely this was not an easy thing to lose. Does a Travelling Circus lose elephants? Does the equestrian crew lose their horses?
Well, at least we had three of them, so when we arrived at Bologna Airport, the plan was to grab the three boards from storage, get them on the bus and head to the hotel. It was already very late and I was keen to get moving. The Airport info desk chick sent me to security, who sent me to his boss, who referred me to the police, who called airport operations, who then texted the KEY GUY.
The KEY GUY arrived 20 minutes later dressed like he was the greatest problem solver in history. In full battle fatigues, he was ready for action. He had the key (and every other key) and he had the power to make my life exceedingly difficult.
He did. 'I need the ticket' he said, in broken Italian with a hint of English to which I replied in broken English with no hint of Italian, ‘there is no ticket mate just give me the boards please’. When he asked the question 'how do I know they are yours' I semi-freaked. ‘Mate’, I said. ‘When was the last time you saw anything like those?’
The boards were behind a glass wall that the KEY GUY, and only the KEY GUY, had access to.
'Never seen anything like them before', he said.
'So, do you not think that a man with GBR on his shirt claiming ownership of some items also with GBR on them may not in some way, point to a form of ownership’? The KEY GUY paused - it was a long pause, and let me explain that this was not an easy conversation and at times I felt like I was trying to explain algebra to my cat - but he looked at me intensely and said very slowly 'Show me the ticket'. After a three hour battle, I got the boards but only when the boss of the KEY GUY devised a solution that involved me providing passport details, full name and address of my family and my families family and their closest relations and their best friends.
Whatever fool gave the KEY GUY not only actual employment but also the key to every door in the airport needed to be strung up in the main square.
The KEY GUY was defeated but he parted with the words ‘If they are not your items, I will find you'. ‘Sure, big fella,’ I said ‘come and get me! And by the way, I'll be back tomorrow for the other three, and you know what, I ain't got a ticket!’
DAY 2 - CEREAL BOWLS AND STRUT HQ The nightmare was horrendous; there I was, in an airport security office, being bashed by a crazy guy in full battle fatigues brandishing a large baggage ticket. All I could hear was the constant jangling of keys. Waking suddenly at 7.00 am I stumbled down to the beach after just three hours of poor-quality sleep. I felt that exercise and a run along the beach followed by a swim in the Adriatic Sea would be just what was required. Riccione is northern Italy's party central during July and August and pensioner central during September. The beach stretches as far as the eye can see in both directions. If you keep running north, you will eventually drop into Venice's Grand Canal. Come Sunday this beach would be jammed, as Europe's finest youth Lifesavers do battle for the crown as champions of Europe. But first, we had the small matter of an evening SERC (Simulated Emergency Response Competition) and a full day of pool competition awaited us.
The venue for the pool competition was spectacular. A four-pool complex featuring both indoor and outdoor 50-metre pools, two diving pools including 10m diving towers and a warm-up / warm-down pool. The outdoor pool was 'strut HQ' music pumping from the speakers as the Italian public stroke out the laps.
The boys were very well groomed and tanned and the girls are, well, very well-groomed and tanned. Carne Brea Leisure Centre this was not. Our days were busy and productive with breakfast early followed by SERC training.
All the team was involved in this and Charlie Haynes made a great unconscious patient. I was determined to win a major SERC title before my GBR time ended. This was an event of procedure, priority and structure. This event was a three-minute box tick that was there for the taking. We had a two-hour pool session each day, but this was not for fitness but more for perfecting relay changes etc. The pool session was followed by lunch and a compulsory team resting period.
This sounds simple but with the likes of Haynes, Ward and Lewis in the same room it became nothing more than a total stupidfest with zero relaxation.
Late afternoon was again SERC training and a late beach session. We ate again at 7.30 pm followed by a team meeting and then bed. I managed to avert an explosive situation at breakfast the next morning when Charlotte raised an issue that had potentially global, political and cultural ramifications.
'Woody’, she said.
'My Weetabix doesn't fit in my cereal bowl'
Looking down I could see she was 100% correct, at least 1mm of the Weetabix was balanced on either side of the bowl. Is this what my life has evolved into, I thought. We both stood and stared at the lone figure of a solitary Weetabix positioned across the rim of the bowl. 'Why don't you break it in half’? I asked.
'I don't know’, she replied. 'I have never had to do that before'.
And it is as simple as that; who was I to change something that meant so much, for so long. 'Excuse me, waiter, can I get a larger bowl over here?’ DAY 3 - SERC CHOCOLATE AND THE ENGLISH SPEAKING IRISH Awesome bronze medal in the SERC competition that night, just seventeen points off Germany's gold medal. This was just what was required from the team of Aidan McGuire, Emma Henderson, Ash Lewis and James Harvey Purvis. We spoke long and hard to these four about the responsibility of laying a platform for this competition and they were magnificent. Germany was one of only two teams out of 16 who located a submerged dummy in the far corner of the pool and the crowd of 47 went bananas. The communication and structure of the GBR team was a credit to pool coach Amy Wilkinson on only two days of training. I believe it safe to assume the majority of the girls in the GBR team that year were not likely to study Rocket Science at Oxford. Whilst still reeling from Charlotte’s dilemma with the oversize Weetabix at breakfast, we were then treated to Summer commenting during the Irish team's SERC performance that 'The Irish speak good English, don't they?'.
I made another mental note to write a letter to the Devon Dept. of Education and request that Geography be a mandatory part of the Curriculum for the future. Just for the record, I love the way the Italian hotel rooms provide a foot washer next to the loo! My hotel Manager and I didn't get along, and I wasn’t sure what his problem was. I could understand that him asking me to put on footwear in the foyer - for the 30th time in two days, would be annoying - that's fine. Having to continually request that I put a shirt on in the foyer – I also get. But let's face it when the temperature gets to 40 degrees, you don't always have a shirt with you - especially as the air conditioning, like everything else in this dump, didn’t work.
The elderly lady who tripped over my backpack in the foyer was, apparently, fine and would be discharged from hospital in a day or two - so that's sorted.
I also thought it a bit over the top when he asked for 30 euros for the lamp I smashed when I brought one of the 10'6" race boards into the hotel. I mean, didn't he realise the dramas I’d had just getting the bloody thing there in the first place!
The following day didn’t start off too well either; I thought I might have to resuscitate him after he caught me behind the counter making a double espresso on 'his' machine. To be honest he wouldn't have even known if I hadn't dropped the tray of cups on the floor.
The full pool program started with James Harvey Purvis defending his European crown in the 50 manikin carry. We spoke the previous night before bed about taking our competition performance to another level and setting personal targets beyond our previous expectations. We spoke about wearing the letters GBR on the shirt and about representing all members of SLSGB and RLSS UK with pride and, above all, not letting yourself down. The platform has been now laid and only two things remained: 1. To turn our belief into reality 2. To sneak back to the 'holding cell' without the hotel manager seeing me!
Day 4, 5 GBR LA, LA, LA I started to pen this story on the bus journey from Riccione to Bologna and completed it back in the UK. I was desperate to write about day 5 but not done with day 4 so let's cut to the chase. The European Youth Lifesaving Championships ended late Sunday with Team GBR recording the following: Two gold medals Five silver medals Four bronze medals European youth champions - beach 3rd overall men's 5th overall women's The Sunday of the recent senior European championships in the Netherlands was, I thought, going to be filed away in the wood brain as my all-time greatest day in sport - incredibly, Riccione on Sunday surpassed it! Amidst the drenching humidity of the last gasp of the Italian summer, Team GBR finished these championships with an unbelievable Rescue Tube bronze medal with pool swimmers JHP and team captain Aidan McGuire dragging Liam from 6th to third in the longest drag in history. It was THE perfect finish and the run symbolised everything we had spoken about over the duration of the competition, with regards to effort and commitment. So let’s rewind to Saturday and the pool competition: Prior to this trip I had met, from memory, James Harvey Purvis only once before. Obviously, I had heard ‘of’ him and ‘about’ him and was naturally excited when he opted for the chance to defend his European 50m manikin carry title rather than travel to Australia to compete in the Commonwealth Championships.
James is everything a team needs; his best is the best. He gives his competitors respect, but that's it. He wants to rip their heart from their chest, and he loves performing on the big stage.
Setting a new European record in the heats was incredible. He qualified #1 by 1.5 secs and it placed him in the slightly unenviable position of having the pressure of NOT losing rather than winning. History would show him being turned over by an Italian who also took his new European record. He was shattered but let no one down - his performance was epic, with many of the parents (and coaches) very emotional at the quality of his performance. He finished the pool comp with a PB in the 100 tow and 50 free (medley relay). Everyone chipped in great performances in the pool and our talks about doing the simple things well resulted in near-perfect races. The one item we required was depth in events but team captain Aidan McGuire, Lily Nichols with six PB's and Emma Henderson were all awesome for us. We finished the pool competition with silver and bronze medals but more importantly 117 points in the bag. We had five A finals and were in all B finals but one. It was an awesome performance and gave us the opportunity to achieve special things on the Sunday. Which we did. Both the heats of the men's and women's board events were dominated by the French, Belgium and Spanish. The speed over the first 200 metres was astonishing and it required a change of strategy to give us a chance. The plan was to let them (the enemy) lead, we were going to be patient, to wash ride as far into the race as possible and try to get over them in the final 150 which was a technical long bunny hop and wade finish. We believed this would benefit us - and this is how it played out. In the men’s board Charlie ground his way to the front as they headed for home - we were going crazy but as they got closer, we could see a GBR cap on his wash, it wasn't Ash Lewis as he was to the left in a group battling for third. No, it was Liam, how he got to that position was incredible as he was 9th or 10th early. They were clear and going to go one and two. 50 metres from the line Liam came off the Haynes wash (if you can?) and began to come around. I quickly caught sight of Liam's dad who was fighting the huge crowd just to be able to witness his son’s greatest moment in sport. The wade was on and, quite simply, Liam had more. I was behind so couldn't see his face, but I hope one day to see the image because it was surely disbelief at what he had achieved. Charlie lay motionless on the sand from the effort and Ash Lewis won a battle with the rest of them for 5th. This was only race number one of day two. The women's board race was as epic as the men's and it proved that a young kid from Devon had all the tools to be a player on the global stage. The three GBR competitors on the women's board race qualified for the final with both Summer and Charlotte winning their heats. Kirsten had a slightly harder road but just got it in the end. It was critical to our points tally that we had three GBR competitors in every final. Like the men's, the women's race was so fast in the first 250 metres. We adopted the same race structure; be patient, stay on the wash as best we could and make a move (if we could!) when the race headed for home. The start was electric, Charlotte and Kerstin were both positioned OK but Summer, noticeably, was caught out and seemingly struggling in the wash at the back of the field. As we predicted, the field initially strung out, came together slightly at the cans, and as they headed for home, we could see a GBR cap on the right, moving around, and to the front. It was Summer, no way, it was - she had paddled through and around the whole of Europe and now led by a board length. Charlotte and Kerstin were battling for third but Summer with a young Irish girl on her wash was heading for gold. I was (and the entire GBR support squad) screaming at her to begin the wade but there was slight hesitation at the depth. The Irish girl jumped, and the sprint was on. Summer’s silver was incredible, could've easily been gold, but the time will come. Charlotte and Kerstin were 8th and 5th respectively. The Run Swim Run event was so difficult with a soft sand run and long wade. I liked our chances and Lily was nervous. It played out that Lily was in front as they headed home and she began the long wade in front. The crowd was massive and as I sprinted along the course that wove its way to the finish, yelling for her to keep going - I was so desperate for her to win from this position but the French girl had more in the final few metres to become European champion - team GBR was ecstatic but it could've been more. Summer and Charlotte were both top ten in another great battle.
By the time the men lined up, Liam (according to him) was unbeatable, and I couldn't doubt him. He was swimming great and his run speed was special. The tactics were simple, stay on the feet of the guys in front and try to win it in the wade/run. To be honest, I was focused on Charlie and he hit the front as the wade began. I never saw Ash or Liam and as I positioned myself down the run course. I waited to see what cap appeared around the corner first. I completely expected it to be Charlie, but it was Liam, and he was flying, and in total control.
His second European title in the bag in ten minutes. Charlie finished fourth and again lay prone on the sand completely spent. Little did we know that in two years, Hurricane Charlie Haynes would reap total havoc at the European Youth Championships in Spain. In war, I would expect that you need to have complete faith that the man beside you will fight to the end. Ash Lewis is that man and I would love the opportunity to sing the anthem for him, or with him in the future because he deserves an honour like that. Need to wrap this up but let me say that the GBR youth team was incredible on and off the course and this was one of the great trips. Apologies for the zero humour in this blog - think I've run out of lines but let me say that: GB Captain Aidan McGuire, James Harvey Purvis, Summer Whitley, Emma Henderson, Ashley Lewis Kerstin Watts, Lily Nichols, Liam Ward, Charlotte Hewitt, Charlie Haynes, Amy Wilkinson (pool coach) Lloyd Rosewell (beach coach), Lucy Barrel (Physio), all did Great Britain proud and it was a privilege for me to be part of a team with all of them. Special mention to Lily Nichols: pre-competition I spoke (endlessly) about being tough, and smart, and not giving in and about using a platform like these championships to go to another level both personally and competitively. After each beach event, Lily was basically assisted to the Physio bench - a couple of times I thought that the comp was done for her. I left the decision to her and Lucy but in the end, I had to make the final decision. As gutsy performances go, this was one of the best, and for me, it cemented for eternity what representing your country is all about. Woody