Hodge aiming to get back in the fast lane
There are some interviews when you really have to strain to get some reluctant sporting character to say anything even vaguely interesting or unanticipated.
Marcel Hodge, with his easy-going attitude and willingness to talk, is very different.
The Ascot-born athlete has overcome Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Asperger’s Syndrome to make his mark in the T20 (learning disabilities) category of track and field.
“I was never really fond of team sports, I couldn’t play football to save my life, so running was just an easy decision for me”
However, the 24-year-old’s career has been stop-start so far, ranging from becoming the fastest T20 sprinter of all time in the UK over 100m and 60m to defeat by female athlete Louise Bloor in a 200m indoor race in Manchester in 2016.
But first, back to the beginning, and Hodge’s decision – or rather his mum’s – that he should take up running as at eight-year-old at Slough Junior Athletics Club
“In all honesty, in the beginning it was just a way for my mum to get me out of the house,” he admits. “I have ADHD, so I was hyperactive as a child, running around everywhere and swinging on the chandeliers – not literally…
“But at the same time, I loved sitting around watching Cartoon Network and Fox Kids while eating snacks. I knew I was always quick but I was useless at every other sport.
“I was never really fond of team sports, I couldn’t play football to save my life, so running was just an easy decision for me.”
“Not really represented Great Britain”
Hodge speaks with great maturity as he reflects on being classified as a T20 athlete in 2012, opening the door for him to compete for Great Britain’s learning disability athletics team due to his promising times.
“Ha ha, well, I won’t say my times were amazing,” he laughs. “I for one was not impressed. I think people knew I was capable of much faster times. Running the 100m in 11.1 seconds and running 22.6 in the 200m in 2012, is nothing to brag about.
“It’s sort of controversial. Ever since I was 15 years old, I wanted to compete at international mainstream level [non-disability] such as the World Juniors and the European Junior Championships.
“I felt you get more respect and appreciation, hitting those sort of levels. It made me feel okay but not Tony-the-Tiger great.”
Then there was the cost factor, with learning disability athletes effectively expected to pay their own way.
“The whole squad had to fund themselves,” he explains.
“It was about £80 for my kit and about £500 to compete at the INAS World indoor championships in Manchester and in the same year, I competed at the INAS European Uutdoor Athletics Championships in Gavle, Sweden.
“We had to fork out a £250 deposit plus £850 on top of that, so that’s £1,100 in total we had to pay to represent our country.
It might as well have been called a Thomas Cook all-inclusive holiday package to Sweden! Utter joke. It’s the same every competition.
“So I feel that personally, I haven’t properly represented Great Britain as in simple terms: if you can’t afford it, you can’t be on the team. And that’s not fair on anyone.”
Hodge has, however, continued to strive to be the best in his sport, but he’s still smarting over his loss to Louise Bloor over 200m in March.
It came in an open competition where runners were seeded by time, and Team GB’s Bloor was looking for a fast run as she chased qualification for the World Indoor Championships.
“Getting beaten by her was hard,” Hodge recalls. “She wasn’t just any girl, though. She’s competed at World and Olympic level and is coached by Tony Minichiello, Jessica Ennis-Hill’s coach.
“I’m not making excuses, but running an indoor 200m is very different to running an outdoor 200m. The last time I ran an indoor 200m was back in 2012 and I’d had no practice at running an indoor since then.
“I also had a cold, but honestly I was just slow. I was still in my winter phase with no proper speed work in me.
“I thought I would break the world T20 200m indoor record of 22.17 seconds, which isn’t that quick by mainstream standards, or even destroy my old indoor 200m personal best of 23.09. Instead I got 23.86. I felt humiliated and embarrassed.”
For any aspiring athlete with a disability, the main objective is to compete in the Paralympics.
But after missing out on going to Rio this summer, Hodge insists he is focused on competing at future Games.
“I was training fine for the Paralympics but the 400m was not my natural event,” insists the sprinter.
“Everyone said I would be good at 400m, but boy were they wrong”
“I only took it up so I could go to Rio for my category as they haven’t yet added in the 100m and 200m. I did try long jump but I couldn’t jump to save my life, and I don’t compete in long distances, so my last and only choice was to do the 400m.
“I didn’t like the event from day one. I couldn’t even jog 400m when I started athletics. My mum had to run with me and she was pregnant at the time!
“People at British Athletics were telling me to take it up because of my 200m times, and they said I could make the top four in the T20 world rankings if I did a full 400m winter training programme.
“I was naive enough to believe them. Everyone said I would be good at 400m, but boy were they wrong. Despite that knockback, I want to compete in five Paralympics and I believe I can still be 40-plus years old and still hold my own as long as I stay on top of everything.”
Team GB won 64 Paralympic gold medals in Rio, their highest total since 1988, however Hodge was disappointed by the lack of support from the general public and the TV coverage.
“One thing I despise is adverts. Why put the Olympics on the BBC where it’s uninterrupted coverage and the Paralympics on Channel 4? It’s unfair. Paralympic stars do not get the same coverage as able athletes because they have a disability, it’s as simple as that.”
The highs and lows Hodge has experienced make him ideal as an ambassador for the UK Sports Association’s My Sport, My Voice project, and he says it’s important to give opportunities to young athletes with learning disabilities.
“I want to make a difference,” he says.
“Learning disability athletes don’t get half the recognition as other disabled athletes and it’s my duty to change that.
“The governing bodies are doing a lot right now. However, it’s about adding more events to our category for the 2020 Paralympics, so athletes such as myself have the chance to show what we can produce.”
Hodge’s career has not progressed in the way he’d hoped, but he is optimistic about the future.
“To be honest, I just want to be competitive again,” he says.
“I want to go back to the level I know that I was capable of, when I was 18-years-old. I may aim to break the T20 60m world record which currently stands at 7.01 in 2017, or I hope to become the world outdoor champion over the 100m and 200m, if I can afford it and if we have a team.
“I want to continue to progress and put my name into T20 sprinting history because at the end of the day I aspire to be myself, I am my own inspiration.
“Learning about yourself is limitless, there is always something new you discover about yourself.”