The Paralympic Games 2016: The on air team
Clare is one of Britain's leading broadcasters, having won the BAFTA Special Award and RTS Presenter of the Year Award for her expert coverage of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Clare has worked in radio since she left university in 1994, and has been presenting sports on television since becoming the face of the BBC’s racing output in 1998. Since then, she has worked on five Olympic Games, four Paralympics and three Winter Olympics, and has presented racing for the BBC and Channel 4.
Clare has been part of BAFTA Award-winning programmes, has been named RTS Sports Presenter of the Year, Sports Presenter of the Year at the TRIC Awards, Racing Journalist of the Year, awarded the special achievement award at the Women in Film and Television awards for her work on the Olympics and Paralympics and been praised for, “perfect presentation” by the judges of the Broadcast Awards. Clare has also been honoured for her presenting with awards from Attitude Magazine, Red Magazine, Tatler and the Horserace Writers Association.
Ade is no stranger to UK viewers having fronted the BAFTA winning daily live prime time coverage of Channel 4’s 2012 Paralympic programming alongside Clare Balding. He also played an integral role behind the scenes in the channel’s planning for the Games.
Having survived polio as a youngster, Ade has gone on to compete as a wheelchair basketball player on an international level and has a wealth of TV presenting experience across a variety of genres including current affairs, travel and entertainment shows. Ade’s sporting presenting credits include reporting for The Clare Balding Show on BT, fronting four series of That Paralympic Show, British Basketball – Game On, Eindhoven Swimming Championships for Channel 4; interviewing big name stars at the O2 for NBA Europe Live, as well as at The All-Star Game in New Orleans. He travelled to the Beijing Paralympics for the BBC in 2008 to commentate on the wheelchair basketball and covered the Basketball Final for the Paralympic World Cup (BBC2) for four consecutive years. Ade has represented Great Britain at the Olympics in Athens 2004 (Bronze) and Sydney 2000 plus competing in The European (Silver) and World Championships (Gold).
Rio 2016 is almost upon us. What’s your role going to be?
I’m going to be one of the anchor presenters and I’ll be presenting the daytime show with Arthur, Sophie and JJ.
Have you worked much with Arthur before?
We’ve not worked together a lot. We’ve done some training together, but we’ve only really done one show. It’ll be interesting – it’ll be a lot different from working with Clare back in 2012, and I imagine it’ll be different for Arthur, who worked with Georgie back in 2012. It should be fun!
You’ve got a Paralympics medal of your own. Where is it?
It’s on the wall in my flat, in a case with the vest that I wore when I won that medal. And it’s got my World Championships medal in there as well.
Do you think having taken part in the Paralympics gives you a useful insight into what the athletes are going through?
I think so, yeah. I’ve been there, I’ve competed in finals, captained the Paralympic team, been to the opening ceremony, been to the Paralympic village, understood the whole experience of selection, know what it’s like to face disappointment, to lose in big finals, and to win in big finals. I’ll be able to watch them and empathise with what they’re going through. It’s not easy, it’s a really tough year, Paralympic year, and it’s really difficult to strike a balance between being excited about competing in the greatest show on earth but also staying clinical and knowing that you’ve got a job to do. You need to find a balance between having fun and doing the job that you went there to do in the first place.
You competed in 2004, but then you were back in the midst of everything in 2012. Did part of you yearn to be out there competing?
I love competing, I always want to compete. I don’t think it would have taken 2012 to get me to yearn to compete. But the reality of it is you can’t go on forever. And with Paralympic sports, you can’t get to the end of it and then think that you’ve made enough money that you don’t have to work again. I took a very pragmatic view when I was in my late 20s and early 30s that I had to find a career for after sport. So, to be honest, in 2012 I was happy to be working but still be part of it all. A lot of people retire and have nothing more to do with sport, and have to look in from the outside. That would be even more frustrating. But yeah, as an athlete, competing is in our blood. And for me, it was even more acute, because the games were in Stratford, which is where I’m from. I could see my mum’s house from the Olympic Park. It was where I used to train, it was my stomping ground. And had I competed, it would have been the first time most friends and family would have been able to see me compete. So yeah, in that way I was sad. It happened eight years too late for me.
You’ve tried out a lot of the Paralympic sports, for That Paralympic Show. Which did you find the hardest to get to grips with?
I enjoyed them all, but I suppose the one I was worst at was rowing, and that’s because the co-ordination in my left hand isn’t that good, because of the polio. So I was kind of going round in circles and scaring the ducks. And when we did the discus, my first throw, I nearly took the cameraman’s head off. It flew straight out of my hand and went straight at him, and he threw the camera on the floor and ducked down. It could have ended really badly. Really badly.
Among the team presenting this year is Sophie Morgan. Presumably, you guys know each other from filming Beyond Boundaries in Nicaragua. Have you caught up with her about that?
Yeah, I know her, but we’ve not had a chance to catch up yet. We’re both so busy preparing for the Games, but all credit to her, she’s done really, really well to progress and to get to this stage. She must be buzzing, to suddenly be presenting one of the biggest sporting events in the world, and going to Brazil to do it. I’m really, really pleased for her, and proud of her that she stuck at it. I think she’ll do an amazing job.
And hopefully it’ll be a bit more comfortable than your trip across Nicaragua.
Yeah, that was interesting. It was a bit of a baptism of fire for Sophie, considering she’d only been in a wheelchair for 18 months. Most people, even if they’re able-bodied, would find it difficult to do what we did in Nicaragua. And most disabled people would find it difficult. But when you throw on top of that the fact that you’ve only been in a wheelchair for 18 months and you’re coming to terms with that, and you’re only 18 years old as well… I told her she was bonkers for doing it. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I think it did make her a stronger person. I’m not sure she would have said that at the time, she probably would have come out with a few more expletives.
What would be your advice to Sophie and those who will be doing live presenting for the first time?
The main thing is to enjoy it. You can get so wrapped up in it all and before you know it, it’s all over, and you’re wondering what happened. So ‘d encourage them to absorb their moments – when you see a world record being broken, and you interview athletes – this is the greatest moment of any athlete’s life, and to be able to share that with them is an absolute privilege. For me, it was wonderful to compete in the games, it was a dream come true and something had worked all my life to do. It was a special, special moment that I’ll never forget. So to have been able to compete in it, and also now to meet athletes and share in those special moments is such a privilege, and sometimes you just have to sit back and say “Wow, I’ve just interviewed the new T42 100m Paralympic champion,” or “the S8 Breaststroke Champion” at a moment that’s so special in their lives. So they should enjoy it.
Were you nervous, when the lights went up and you first went live in 2012?
The adrenaline was absolutely flowing, and the biggest thing that I was scared of was that as soon as we went live, I’d open my mouth and nothing would come out, or my voice would be really high-pitched. I still get that even today, the worry that I’ll be so nervous I’ll come out with a completely different voice. But I think my experience as an athlete helps, you learn to control your nerves.
So which is more nerve-wracking, the feeling of going live for the first time, or taking two free throws in the last few seconds to win your semi-final against the US in 2004?
Actually, probably TV is still more nerve-wracking than sport, because I’ve done sport all my life. It’s second nature to me. The moment when I took those free throws, I knew in my head that I‘d taken those shots in practise hundreds of thousands of times. It’s what I trained and prepared to do all of my life. TV is still fairly new to me, so the nerves are worse. But once you get going it’s fine. When you’ve cracked your first joke, or gone to your first ad break, you think “Yep, this is cool.” But it’s the bit before, when you’re counting down, and you’ve got camera people and production crew rushing around, that’s when the nerves start kicking in.
What events are you looking forward to?
Obviously the basketball. The men’s event is going to be really tight. The USA are the team to beat, Australia have pedigree, and GB will be there or thereabouts. They’re going to be in the dance. I expect them at least to get a bronze, and once you get to the semi-final anything can happen. I think it’ll be tough for the women, if they get a bronze it’ll be amazing. And then I’m really looking forward to the track and field. It’s sad that [US sprinter] Richard Browne isn’t going to be able to compete because of injury. The showdown between him and Jonnie Peacock in the T44 100m would have been spectacular, and they haven’t raced for a long time. You want the best athletes to be at the Paralympics. Of course I want Jonnie to win, I want all the British athletes to win, but you want them to do that by beating the best in the world. But we’ve got so many great athletes in the track and field, we’ve got Sophie Hahn, Maria Lyle, all of these new youngsters coming through. And then you’ve got David Weir, and this is going to be his last Paralympics, and he wants to go out with a bang, while his long-time rivals will be craving his titles. And I’m looking forward to Para-Triathlon. It’s a new sport, I’m looking forward to seeing how that works out. I’m a sport fanatic, so for me this is like Christmas come early.
How do you think we should be looking to do in the medals table?
If we get a top three finish that would be incredible. It’s going to be tough to beat the Chinese, the Brazilians will do well, USA and the Russians will be strong.
Do you think the Paralympics, and Channel 4’s coverage, proved to be a game changer regarding attitudes in this country?
Yes. It put the Paralympics on the map. I’ve been involved in Paralympics all my life, so part of me thinks “Yeah, the Paralympics was around before Channel 4.” But in terms of a mass audience, in terms of profile, in terms of the general public knowing who the Paralympians are, that’s what Channel 4’s coverage did. I wanted the legacy of the coverage to be that you would be able to go up to someone in the street in 2013 or 2014 and ask a member of the public to be able to name three Paralympians, and they’d be able to. I think most people now could name Ellie Simmonds, Jonnie Peacock and David Weir. That wasn’t true before 2012.
As a Royal Marine serving with both Lima Company 42 Commando and 6 Assault Squadron, Arthur was an active and extremely fit individual. He served in Sierra Leone aboard HMS Albion and was specially trained as a signaller in sophisticated military communications and data transfer. However a severe car crash in 2007 resulted in Arthur being paralysed from the waist down.
In 2009 having spent time training with friend and world record holder Micky Bushell, Arthur entered the Birmingham wheelchair marathon and won. He then spent four months in 2011 training with the GB cycling development squad alongside friend and Beijing wheelchair athlete Brian Aldis.
While searching for new challenges Arthur went back to his childhood dream; he had always wanted to be a pilot and started to set his sights on gaining a pilot’s licence. While researching he came across a charity based in Hampshire then called Aerobility. Before long Arthur had taken his first trial lesson and was hooked. He subsequently went on to gain his private pilot’s licence and a class one medical from the civil aviation authority.
Arthur was one of the winners of the national talent search for presenters for the 2012 Paralympic Games. He received rave reviews for his presentation of the London Games. In the summer of 2013 Arthur made his first breakthrough as a factual presenter on Channel 4 using his knowledge and passion for military history as a reporter for the widely acclaimed two part series D-Day As It Happened. Arthur followed this up with a 60 minute authored documentary, The Plane That Saved Britain. The film centred on Arthur’s love for the unheralded World War II aeroplane The De havilland Mosquito. Arthur was subsequently named by Bafta as a, ‘break through Brit,’ and nominated for a Grierson award for best documentary presenter.
2015 saw the broadcast of Arthur’s first series of Flying to the Ends of the Earth, in which Arthur flew to some of the world’s smallest and most dangerous landing strips to find out why people want to live at the ends of the earth, and discover how tiny planes are opening up the planet’s most remote and most beautiful wildernesses. This year the second series aired in which Arthur flew to Siberia, The South Pacific Islands and the Peruvian jungle.
Can you explain a little bit about what happened to you in 2007, and the nature of your injuries?
I had a car crash on my way back to camp, with the Marines, and I broke my back just above my belly button. So I’m paralysed, it means I’m a wheelchair user for the rest of my days.
What was the recovery period like? What were the hardest aspects of adjusting to your new reality?
To be honest, physically I repaired quite quickly. I was out of bed after three months. To me, it was the psychological side of things. I had anger problems – to be honest, To probably still suffer from anger and some psychological issues to this day. I don’t think I’ll ever completely come to terms with it – I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that doesn’t frustrate the hell out of me.
You were a big part of Channel 4’s coverage in 2012. What was that experience like for you?
It was phenomenal. It was a hell of an opportunity, and the channel took a huge risk in taking me on. They placed a massive amount of faith in me, which I felt the need to reciprocate to the best of my abilities. But it was amazing. We were part of a pretty small team that was responsible for, I really believe, helping to change the country’s attitudes, and raising the awareness of Paralympic sport in all of its greatness.
What were the defining moments of the games, for you?
After I made my physical recovery, I started training with a guy called Mickey Bushell, and I trained with him for over a year. And I had an afternoon off, about two-thirds of the way through the coverage, and Mickey was due to go in the T53 100m sprint. And I managed to nip out of the studios just after finishing, sprint over to the stadium, and watch him win the gold in a Paralympic record time. That was the highlight for me. If I’d competed, that would have been my category, and Mickey was a good friend of mine. That was great!
When you were training with him, you actually got to a very high level, for example winning the Birmingham Marathon. Were you never tempted to pursue athletics on a professional basis?
Yeah, I was. When Channel 4 offered the chance to present, I had to make a decision about whether to compete in the games or help broadcast them. It was a hard decision, but I thought that for the longevity of my career, and the chance to work with Channel 4, that would be the right route to go down. I think this is where my true strengths lie. In truth, in competition, compared to some of the guys on the track, I don’t think I’d have come anywhere near them.
Do you think your experience racing gives you an insight when you’re telling the stories from the Paralympics?
Yeah, definitely. Joe Bloggs, who has no idea about disability, just like I didn’t before my accident, will have no idea that a normal day chair is different from a racing chair. But now I’ve got the experience and knowledge of how it all works, I can definitely add a lot of insight and knowledge for the viewer, and help them understand the intricacies of how to all comes together, and help to put into perspective the times and the performances that the athletes do on the day.
You’ve mentioned the emotional and psychological effects of your accident. Do you think the experience of presenting in 2012 helped you personally?
Yeah, massively. I think, for me, I’ve always been hugely goal driven. I’ve always had targets, even as a teenager, regarding what I wanted to do, and it never faltered. I’ve always had my sights set on what I wanted to do next. Having the purpose in life of having a role to fulfil is hugely important to me. I was so worried about being a liability to everyone that knew me. I wanted to be able to sdtand on my own two feet and hopefully, god-willing, look after a family of my own. I just wanted a normal life, and thankfully, working for Channel 4 allows me to do that. I’m married now, I’ve got a house, I pay the bills, and it means I’m fulfilling my place, and that, psychologically for me, is huge. And 2012 was the beginning, the start of it all, my baptism.
Were you nervous, the first time you went live?
Yeah! I still am, I always am.
It doesn’t get easier?
No! It’s the most nerve-wracking thing on Planet earth. We’ve got two months until the games, and I’m terrified. But I think that’s a really good thing. I’ve always pushed myself to the edge – flying, working with the marines, riding motorcycles. I’ve just finished my open water diving qualification. And I do all these things because they test you and they push you out of your comfort zone. And when you are pushed out of your comfort zone, you perform at your best. So as long as you have techniques to control your anxiety, it pays dividends. But yeah, it’s bloody scary stuff.
What will you say to the guys doing it for the first time this year?
I think the most important piece of information that we were given by the training team last time was all about preparation. Make sure you do your research, make sure you know your stuff, go fully armed, because it’s a multi-sport platform, and in some cases you’ve got a 30-second race, and then you’re back to the studio for five minutes to analyse it. And it could be a real wildcard who you weren’t expecting to win. So you have to do your preparation, you’ve got to have notes on everyone, you’ve got to have all the information you could possibly need at your fingertips. So you have to do your research. And then I’d also say you need to make sure you’re prepared physically. Make sure you eat good solid meals, make sure you’ve got the energy in you. As a marine, I knew you needed the calories to burn physically, but mental exertion and worry is as much of a drain. We were doing five or six hour shifts in the Games, so you had to eat and drink properly. The minute you lose energy, you may not notice it, but everybody in the gallery and everyone who’s watching can see it.
Obviously doing your research is hugely important,. But how do you manage to stay on top of it all?
I went to the 2012 games with an iPad, and I’d written an application myself that had dropdown tabs for every sport, inside that you’d have every known athlete, everyone with an interesting story, what was historically significant, and I had information on all of them. I also had a massive ring-binder.
What’s your role going to be this time around?
I’m presenting the afternoon show with Ade. I think we’re o between 1pm and 4pm.
What events are you particularly looking forward to?
I’m really excited about the para-triathlon. There’s a guy going in that called Joe Townsend who’s a former Marine, and I kind of watched him. He came through a Help the Heroes package initially, and tried the sport out, and he’s just embraced it with both hands, and has gone on to be incredibly competent at it, pulling out amazing performances on the world stage. He’s won a couple of golds at international competition. It’s such an exciting sport. I’ve done the Crystal Palace triathlon myself. It’s really hard. I think the public will really embrace it – of course this is its debut at the games.
What do you think it means, to have the Paralympics receiving such prominent coverage on Channel 4?
I think it’s hugely important. Paralympians have such hugely demanding schedules, they’re training six or seven days-a-week. On top of that they have to manage their disabilities as well, which can be incredibly hard. Before 2012, I don’t think justice was done to these people who work so incredibly hard. They weren’t getting the recognition they deserved. But also, the more people see other people’s disabilities, the more it helps normalise disability itself. Exposure to something makes you understand it better. It means people will be more accepting, and I think this is all helping to achieve that.
Aside from the sports, what are you looking forward to about Rio?
The city itself. I went to South America earlier this year for a series I’ve been working on, and I loved it. And I’ve heard that Rio is so vibrant, it’s so alive. I’m really looking forward to discovering that.
LCpl JohnJames Chalmers, “JJ”, is a former Royal Marine Commando who has served on operations in Afghanistan. A qualified teacher, he joined the Royal Marines Reserve in 2005 whilst at University and transferred to regular service in 2010. He was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 where he served on the frontline in Helmand Province. His team were in close liaison with the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police Force as well as rebuilding relationships with civilian communities. He was wounded by an Improvised Explosive Device an "IED" whilst on foot patrol~ in a blast that claimed the lives of two of his friends.
JJ ensured years of specialist rehabilitation to make a strong enough recovery to compete in the Invictus Games in 2015. He captained the Trike Cycling team, a team made up of Recumbent and Hand Cyclists~ which brought home eight medals. He also won a Gold and Bronze for Recumbent Cycling and also as a Bronze in the 4x100m track.
JJ has gone on to present The Anniversary Games, coverage of the IPC in Doha and National Paralympic Day all for Channel 4. 2016 saw JJ return to The Invictus Games in the role of an Ambassador telling his story at the opening ceremony plus reporting and punditry for the BBC. JJ is a Patron for Help For Heroes and an Ambassador for The Invictus Games. He travels the country giving inspirational talks and motivational workshops to schools and businesses.
You were a Royal Marine commando in Afghanistan when you suffered life-changing injuries in 2011 whilst serving in Afghanistan. Can you explain what happened to you?
I was two-and-a-half months into my tour. We were clearing a suspected bomb-making factory, so we were in a compound in a built-up area. What I remember is that I was standing, completely normally, talking to a friend, going about my daily business, and then a split-second later I was on my back, in the worst pain I had ever experienced, and I was confused as to what had just happened. What had happened was that one of my friends had stepped onto a pressure plate that had activated an IED. That went off, and all the crap that comes flying off it, all the bricks and the dirt and stuff, it all came my way, and it just bludgeoned me. Every part of my body had sustained some sort of damage. My legs were torn open, my face was crushed, my neck was broken, my arms were pretty well torn off. I was patched back up by my friends there and then. The helicopter was with us in about 25 minutes, I was on an operating table in Camp Bastion hospital within an hour, I was back in the UK within 48 hours. I then spent a week in a coma, and nine weeks in hospital altogether, just getting put back together. I didn’t lose any body parts except a couple of fingers, but it meant that everything that the surgeons had managed to save needed fixing. So that’s why my recovery has taken a long time. So that was five years ago.
Have you had to re-learn how to use your body?
Yeah, everything, really. At the point when I got released from hospital, I was pretty much still dependent on everybody for everything. There was a time in hospital when I was just a head in a bed, but even when I got out, I needed people to dress me, to feed me, to do my day-to-day stuff. I had a new body, effectively, but I didn’t know how to use it. So I spent a year in Headley Court, the military’s rehabilitation centre, a month on, a month off, and they just taught me to use my body and build up my strength again. I had to learn how to cook, clean, out my clothes on, drive a car, all of that. Even now, though, I need help with some things. Put it this way, if it wasn’t for my wife, it would take me forever to get up in the morning and do this and that. And I need to wear slip-on shoes, that sort of thing. So you don’t live the old life you used to have, you live a new one, you’ll never go back to things as they were. I’ve been going through surgery ever since. Last January was my last surgery. But it probably took me the best part of two or three years before I felt like I was beginning to move forward in my life.
Were there some pretty bleak moments in all of that?
I was incredibly lucky in that I didn’t have too many massive rumbles. I don’t even think that I’ve had a whole bad day. But I’ve had plenty of bad moments in it, of course. Hospital in the early days was horrendous. I’d never been in hospital, never had a stitch, never broken a bone. All of a sudden I’m in bed getting fed through tubes, in more agony than you can ever, ever imagine. It was terrible. But you can’t lie in bed feeling sorry for yourself. And at Headley Court there are guys there who are two or three years ahead of you, so you can see how much progress you can make. And about a year later, the Paralympics were on, and that showed me that I could do anything. It really came at the right time. And two weeks after being blown up, I learned that two of my friends had been killed in the blast that had got me. They didn’t get the choice of whether to lie in bed feeling sorry for themselves, so why should I get the choice? You just get better, and grab every opportunity you can.
One of the things you threw yourself into was the Invictus Games. What was that experience like?
I discovered recumbent cycling at the Warrior Games Trials in America, having tried a load of others that I was crap at. Like sitting volleyball – what do you know, a guy with two bashed-up hands is not going to be very good at volleyball! But recumbent cycling was perfectly adapted to my disability. That made me realise how much I’d been missing exercise. And then, literally, as I discovered cycling, Prince Harry launched the Invictus Games. So I worked my way into the team over six months, thrashing myself every day for six months.
How did it feel to win your medals there?
I had no idea how I’d do. But to get a medal feels amazing. To wear a British uniform again was unreal. The greatest feeling was to be able to stand there and get a medal with my teammates. Being part of a team is so valuable to me. I have that working with Sophie as well. My job is to look after her, and her job is to look after me. And if we do that, we’ll never let each other slip.
What do you think the main differences are between the Invictus Games and the Paralympics?
The thing that’s amazing about Invictus is that there are elite athletes there. There’s Dave Henson, who’ll probably go to Rio. There’s Mickey Yule, who’s going to Rio. But there are also guys that have never fired an arrow until a few months before. And so it’s about celebrating that as much as celebrating the elite level. You don’t get that at the Paralympics, because it’s all about the elite level.
Will there be a little part of you thinking “What if…?” when you see people competing in Rio?
No. You have to really dedicate yourself to do something like that, and I don’t want a Paralympic medal that much. What I do want is to be part of the Channel 4 presenting team. So my achievement is going to be getting there, and being on the side lines, not the start line. I know, in my heart of hearts, I could do the training regime, but I probably don’t have the talent, and I don’t want it enough. I like drinking beer too much.
You’re on a pretty hardcore training regime yourself at the moment, being trained up as a presenter. How’s that going?
Well, you find out you’re not as good as you think you are! I’d never done TV before, so I’m learning everything. I’ve talked a lot of nonsense before, but not to a camera. It’s become a strangely familiar environment to be in very quickly. But getting to work with Sophie is brilliant. I first met her in February, when we wer5e doing some screen testing. And I quickly knew that my dream job would be to do some presenting, but even better than that would be presenting with Sophie. We just clicked. But the training is really intense. And I sometimes find it difficult to be myself. I keep thinking “I’m on TV – better be Alan Partridge!” But when you can strip that away and be yourself, it’s suddenly so much better.
As well as learning all the technical/presenting stuff, are you having to familiarise yourself with all the sports and athletes you’ll be covering?
Yeah, there’s tonnes of learning. Learning for the Olympics is bad enough, but at the IPC European Championships this year there were 14 100m finals. And then you’ve got to learn the categories, and the multi-sports. It’s a vast amount of learning, and you’ve got to be up on all of it. You don’t have to be an expert on all of it – that’s why you’ve got experts in the studio – but you need to have a very broad range of knowledge.
What events are you particularly looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to seeing how some of my military athlete friends get on. My biggest one is to see my mate Dave Henson running in the T42 200m. That’s everything to me. I saw him win silver at the European Championships, it was incredible. I can’t wait to see him compete. I know how hard he’s worked and how much he wants it. I know how much just going there means to him. I’m definitely looking forward to wheelchair rugby. It’s such a cool sport. It’s so hardcore, but it’s also really tactical. Para-triathlon looks exciting. I’ve got a friend who’s doing that, and it’s cool to see a new sport at the games. I do a bit of triathlon - it’s a hell of a sport. In some ways that’s the toughest of the tough. To be able to do three sports at that level is no mean feat, especially with a disability.
What do you think 2012 achieved, in terms of public perception?
It broke the taboo of disability. Of course we’ve still got work to do on that, but people didn’t discuss disability. We were very British about it. We came on leaps and bounds, and the legacy is a new perception of disability. And the legacy is kids with disabilities realising they can do sports, and new sports clubs being set up, and we’re seeing this wave of talent coming through now. That’s exciting. I didn’t dream of doing these sorts of sports four or five years ago. Six years ago I wasn’t even disabled. But 2012 just inspired me to really do stuff, to be part of this awesome movement.
What do you think it means, to have the Paralympics receiving such prominent coverage on Channel 4?
If the Olympics is going to be on a free-to-air, main channel, then the Paralympics has to be as well. I’ll be completely honest, the Olympics of 2012 were bloody brilliant, but as soon as I saw the Paralympics I felt “This is so much better!” It’s because not only do you have people running 200m unbelievably fast, but they’re actually doing it with no legs. It’s boring to watch someone with legs run 200m after you’ve seen that. So ‘Thanks for the warm-up’ wasn’t wrong.
You’re going to become a father in July. How’s that going to fit in with your hectic work schedule?
Oh God, it’s going to be mental. Right now, my life is incredible and insane, and do much is happening to me, like going to Rio and stuff, but none of it compares to becoming a dad. It’s so unbelievably exciting. My wife is so supportive of me, of us. All my triumphs in my life since getting blown up are our triumphs. She’s been there every step of the way. Getting a job as a Paralympics presenter in Rio is because my wife kicked my ass into doing it. She’s so on board, but clearly we have no idea what’s about to happen to us. The baby is due six weeks before I go to Rio, so it’s not ideal. But I’m so glad that my kid is being born into the world I now inhabit, since I was blown up. I love being around disability. My kid’s just going to grow up thinking it’s normal.
RJ Mitte rose to fame after starring as the character Walter White Jr in the US hit series Breaking Bad. As an actor he has sought Hollywood parts where his disability could serve to educate the public about coping with disabilities. Like his Breaking Bad character, Mitte has cerebral palsy and is a passionate campaigner for disability charities.
A keen American football player as a teenager, he is a huge sports and Paralympics fan. Mitte will be based in Rio and will provide comment on each day’s action and the big stories. He will front a number of features and reports, getting behind the scenes and offering his unique take on the Games as well as making appearances on The Last Leg.
Mitte is a celebrity ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy and is the Screen Actors Guild’s spokesperson for actors with disabilities. He also volunteers for I AM PWD (Inclusion in the Arts & Media of People with Disabilities), which aims to increase the number of performers with disabilities. He tours schools, giving talks about his experiences, encouraging disabled students to build up the mental resistance that he believes is essential to their self-esteem. Last year he has added modelling to his list of skills, taking to the catwalk for Vivienne Westwood’s show in Milan.
You’ve got a really successful acting career in the US. Why did you want to travel to another country to go and present the Paralympics coverage?
How many people in the world get this opportunity? How many people in my industry, who are in the position that I am, get this opportunity? When Channel 4 came to me with this idea, I was ecstatic. I’m a big sports fan. I love the fight, the struggle, the strife, and I really think that’s something that the Paralympics really have. I look at this industry as one big entity – acting is no different from modelling, which is no different from journalism and broadcasting and reporting and news and radio and all of that. I look at the entertainment industry as one big puzzle, and I want to learn and grow and develop skills in as many areas as possible. We have a tendency to say “I do flooring, I don’t do roofing. I don’t do dry wall. I only do one thing.” I want to learn to do them all. I want to learn to be able to be multi-faceted in this industry. Maybe one area of your work is slow, but that’s okay, you go and do another thing.
A lot of actors are uncomfortable being themselves in front of the camera, they prefer to take refuge in another character. Are you quite happy to be yourself on screen?
It’s hard! I’ve been learning how not to act. It’s learning how to present yourself in an honest and true way, still being you. But when it comes to acting, I’m not necessarily taking refuge in my character, I look at it as my character taking refuge in me. I take my experiences, what I’ve learned in my life, different experiences, different accents, people and places, I take that, and I incorporate that into a character. And for the Paralympics, it’s not that different – I still draw on my experiences, only here there is no script. I create the script, and I have more entity, and I’m showing what’s happening.
What will your role be in the coverage?
I am not entirely sure! I know I’ll be reporting out at the games, but I’ll be in the studio as well. I’ll be in the studio with Clare, and also on The Last Leg. Wherever they tell me they need me, that is where I’ll be.
You’re like a superhero.
Put the beacon in the sky and I will come! That’s exactly the premise.
Are you a fan of the games themselves? Did you watch much in 2012?
The 2012 Paralympics weren’t promoted that well in the States, there was very minimal coverage. Most of it was online, and even then, we weren’t where we are now with the media online, and how vast that is. I watched a lot more of the 04 and 08 games. I was more invested in them, because in 2012 I was much busier in other avenues. So yes, I did see them, but not as much as I would have liked. I’ve been catching up with a lot of it since then, particularly watching those people who are re-competing in the 2016 games. So I feel; like I’ve now caught up with my 2012 Paralympics, but I’ve still got a lot to learn. I’m learning all the classifications; I’m going over everyone’s names – not just the British athletes, but all the teams. I’m getting a grasp on the athletes’ history. I’m so excited to be doing it all. I really feel like Channel 4 tells it how it is. They’re not afraid to show the truth. I’m very lucky to be a part of that.
Are there any particular events you’re looking forward to seeing this year?
I like wheelchair basketball. I’ve played it before, it’s really fun. I can actually play it better than I can play regular basketball. The judo with sight-impaired athletes sounds really interesting, I love the idea of not having sight but still being able to use your other senses, feeling the other person push and pull, and knowing what movements going to come before it even happens. And you’ve also got the sight-impaired soccer, which is so insane. And the Triple Jump as well, those guys run at full speed until they get the signal to jump. The athletes have to have faith in their partners. It’s such a deep-rooted faith, the trust and belief between an athlete and his partner is inspiring. People don’t have that much faith in each other anymore, and we need that. I’ve also found a new love for wheelchair fencing. I like fencing in general, but when you’re stationary and it’s all done with rocks and leans, it’s good. They’re so fast! The blocking and parrying, it’s amazing. I’m looking forward to all of the sports. I’m going to try to get to as many of them as possible.
Have you done much live work before?
I have done a few live gigs, but not like this. I’ve done a few different broadcasting shows. I did a live show here in the UK going through the newspapers on a news channel, and it went very well. I didn’t say anything too bad! But it is nerve-wracking when you’re live.
Do you thrive off the nerves, or would you rather not have them?
Everyone has nerves. I think when I feel nervous, when something’s a little scary, it means I’m doing something right. It’s good to feel afraid. It means you’re learning something, or challenging yourself. It’s important to feel fear, but you mustn’t let it diminish what you’re doing.
The Paralympic Games is a couple of weeks of brilliant sporting action and great narrative, but it’s also something more than that. It’s an opportunity to change perceptions of disability. Is that important to you?
Yeah, it’s extremely important to me. I’ve been working on that for the last 12 years, to try to change perception of disability in film and television. That’s why I’m a part of this. It’s changing the perception of people with disabilities around the world. Channel 4 has the ability to change perceptions. But I love the way they do it as well – it’s not all family-friendly and “everyone gets a gold star”. It shows the Paralympics in an honest and truthful way. It shows growth, transformation, and the normality of having a disability. Everyone in the world has a disability. To me it’s not just a physical or mental or intellectual impairment, or whatever people perceive disability as. To me, a disability is a personal challenge to who you are and what you are. It’s something you have to learn to adapt to and evolve from. Without my disability, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. Without these athletes’ disabilities, they wouldn’t be at the Paralympics, life would have taken a different path. But they were given a gift. We need to perceive it as that.
Sophie, was paralysed from the chest down in a car crash aged eighteen. After leaving hospital, whilst adapting to life as a wheelchair user, she joined the Fine Art Degree at Goldsmiths Art College, London. During her degree a second career opportunity arose, as she was asked to participate in a ground breaking expedition across Nicaragua (Beyond Boundaries BBC 2004) and since then Sophie has gone on to establish a diverse and successful portfolio career; spanning across various creative industries.
Sophie is an award-winning campaigner, celebrated (Glamour Magazine & Cosmopolitans Ultimate Woman Awards) not only for her educational work within road safety (‘Licence to Kill’ BBC 2008) but also raising awareness of the access and attitudinal barriers facing people with disabilities. She regularly reports on disability issues and current affairs for Channel 4, Sky and the BBC and has fronted two critically acclaimed BBC Documentaries, License to Kill (BBC 2010) and The World’s Worst Place to be Disabled? (BBC 2015).
According to your bio, you’re an award-winning campaigner, a TV presenter, a director of three companies, an artist and a portraitist. Can you not just pick one thing and stick to it?
Apparently not, no! I just do everything that I’m able to. I think that’s why I’m knackered all the time!
Your life changed when you were 18, soon after you got your A level results. Can you tell me what happened?
It was actually the day I got my results. I was up in Scotland, and after we collected the results there was a big birthday party/celebration party, and after that, we were all heading back to an after party. I decided to drive, and I was sober, but everyone else was pretty pissed in the car, singing and dancing and looking back on it, it was a dangerous environment. I lost control of the car and crashed. I broke a number of bones all over my body, but obviously the worst was that my spine got damaged. So I was paralysed. That was when I’d just turned 18, so just as I was officially becoming a grown-up.
Presumably you had to re-learn a lot of everyday skills. What was that process like?
It wasn’t the cliché of waking up in hospital and someone telling me I was never going to walk again. What kind of happened was, because of the extent of the injuries on my face, I was very focussed on the pain and the discomfort. My jaw was broken, nose crushed, skull cracked and even my eye had fallen out – everything was really damaged. I was so focused on the pain I couldn’t think about anything else. As I slowly recovered, I gradually gained awareness of the full extent of what had happened. When I got to the point of rehabilitation, I was actually really focussed on what I could do, and the learning everything again became a mission. It wasn’t “Oh this is really sad, I can only use a chair now.” It was “Right, i can use a chair, what can the chair make me do?” So looking back on it, my attitude was quite determined and focussed. I was fixated on getting out of hospital and getting back into the world again. I’d just left school - I had a lot to do! Being in hospital was not part of the plan. But yes, I had to learn everything again, from getting dressed to getting into the chair to driving a car. It was a mammoth task, but a very satisfying one, because the more I learned the more I realised I’d be alright.
What was the hardest aspect of coming to terms with your new reality?
Learning to use a wheelchair. Getting used to going around and negotiating life in a wheelchair was hard at first. There are lots of places you can’t go, people look at you a bit differently, there’s a whole stigma attached to wheelchairs. The attitudinal and access barriers that you face being in a chair mean it’s a whole new world. That was the really hard thing, I think. I got quite used to being paralysed; it was the stuff that comes with it, like the chair, that made it harder.
Quite soon after that, in 2004, you took part in the BBC two programme Beyond Boundaries. What was that experience like?
It was maybe six months later. I look back at it now and think “What the hell was I doing?” but at the time it was so important to me understanding who I was and come to terms with everything. At the time, I thought it was going to really challenge stereotypes, and the way people thought about disability, and it did, to some extent. But obviously, if you take a bunch of disabled people and stick them in the jungle, they’re going to be very disabled. And for me it meant coming face to face with loads of stuff I couldn’t do. Watching it back, it felt like it was mostly people having a tough time and crying. But all in all, it was an amazing experience.
Was that the launch pad for your regular appearances on TV?
I guess it kind of was. I actually finished that and went to art school in London, but I had all sorts of dramas, I had a skin problem due to a pressure sore, and had to go on bed rest which meant lying on my for two years. It was a nightmare. So all plans were out the window at that point. And then, at the end of it, I got a call about Britain’s Missing Top Model, a show for BBC Three. And that was where things changed I guess. They said they were looking for disabled girls, and again I thought “This is really cool. It’s going to change how people think about young disabled women, beauty ideals, all that sort of thing.” So I got involved with it, and off the back of it, that’s when other things started happening. These amazing opportunities kept cropping up.
How come you’re going to be on our screens this summer? How did you end up getting the job?
I played a very very small part in the coverage of the games in 2012, and at the end of it, I was so blown away by how amazing the coverage was, and how well Channel 4 had done everything, and I thought “Wow, I really want to be a part of the next one.” So I sent an email to Sunset + Vine, saying that if there was any chance of doing something next time around, please let me know, I’d love to be part of it. And then I promptly forgot about it. And then two years later, I got a phone call asking me if I wanted to audition to be part of the team for 2016. I went in and did some training and some screen testing, and here we are! It so exciting!
What will your role be at the Games?
I’m going to be presenting the afternoon slot from 4pm to 7pm, with the amazing JJ Chalmers. We’ll be doing three hours of live TV every day throughout the games! I can’t believe it really!
Will this be the first time you’ve done live presenting?
Yes. For both of us. So we are in the deep end.
Do you think your experience in the industry helps, or are you starting from the same place as people like JJ?
I’d say we’re both starting fresh. The stuff I’ve done is largely opinion pieces, which is me chatting, which is quite easy to do. Of course it helps having been in front of a camera, having done that with reality TV and then also as a documentary presenter. But this is totally and utterly new, the whole thing: The autocue, the talkback, the whole set-up of a studio, being the person in charge, the compere who is calling the shots. But working with JJ is the best thing ever. We’re having so much fun. He’s just the best.
How much training are you getting? Is it a steep learning curve?
It is the steepest learning curve I’ve ever been on. Not only do we need to know everything about the job itself and how to do what we’re doing, but also I need to know all about the Paralympics. And the Paralympics is complicated! And huge. Learning about all of the athletes, and their back stories, is like learning another language. I feel like I’m doing another A-level. But it’s so much fun.
What events are you particularly looking forward to?
The big track events are amazing to watch. I love watching David Weir, there’s just something about him. I think because he’s in a wheelchair as well. He’s extraordinary. I like wheelchair tennis a lot. To be honest, and I know this is a boring answer, I’m just looking forward to all of it!
What do you think it means, to have the Paralympics receiving such prominent coverage on Channel 4?
I think it is the definitive game-changer. I’ve always thought that disability needs to be represented better on television, and I think Channel 4 has nailed it. What they did with 2012, and the Superhuman campaign, to what they’re going to do now, is amazing, Having so much coverage dedicated to disabled sport, and having disabled presenters, it changes attitudes. It takes times for that legacy to become tangible and impactful for disabled people. It’s not like the Paralympics happen and suddenly I can get on every tube line. There’s still a lot to be done. But the attitudinal shift is massive.
You’re a prominent disabled rights campaigner, and a patron of Scope. You’ve worked in this sort of area a lot. Was 2012 the biggest leap forwards you’ve seen?
I’d say the coverage of it really did mean that, yes. It brought disabled sport and disability into the mainstream. I think the coverage of London was unprecedented. I’ve been disabled for 13 years now, and I’ve never felt so integrated as I did when the games were on – the way people would treat me and speak to me – suddenly there was a shift in perspective.
Aside from the sports, what are you looking forward to about Rio?
Just doing our job! It’s going to be so much fun. Our trainer says it’s the best fun you can have with your clothes on. And I know what he means! It’s the best job ever. But I’m also excited about going to Rio. I’ve never been to South America, so it’s going to be really fun!