Representing your country at any major sporting event is bound to generate nerves, but for Team GB wheelchair racer Ben Rowlings the 2016 Paralympics took that to another level.
“Rio was one of the scariest experiences ever,” he told me. “To go to my first [Paralympic] games, with all the expectations and hype around it, was a really weird feeling.
“If I’m honest, was overwhelming, waiting under the stadium and hearing the crowd erupting from the race before was scary and something I really wasn’t ready for.”
Rowlings competed in the T34 class 100m and 800m events, but sadly wasn’t able to add to the three bronze medals he won at this year’s IPC Athletics European Championships in Grosetto, Italy.
Nonetheless, the 20-year-old from Shropshire was overwhelmed by the warm acclaim received by Team GB’s Olympians and Paralympians on their return home.
“The reception I’ve had since I’ve got back from Rio has been overwhelming, I never thought it would have the impact it has,” he said.
“You get to do some amazing things like going on the pitch at Wembley at half-time during rugby matches.
“I didn’t care who had beaten me, I had medalled at my first major championships for my country”
Then, on the flip-side, you have kids coming up to you telling you that you’ve inspired them to get into sport or try something new, and that hits home and makes everything worthwhile.”
Rowlings, who has cerebral palsy, was once one of those kids, waiting to be inspired to find a sport he could excel in.
Initially, he thought it might be swimming, but a severe allergic reaction to chlorine left him sneezing every time he went into the pool.
This led him to try wheelchair racing, and the switch paid off.
Coached by Job King at the Coventry Godiva Harriers club since 2011, he showed consistency in 100m, 200m and 800m, moving up the world rankings and competing at meets in Dubai and Switzerland.
As the hard work continued, Rowlings made it into the Team GB lottery-funded World Class Performance Programme in 2014 and raced at that year’s IPC European Championships in Swansea, coming third in the T34 800m final..
“It was a race that could do so much and define my season,” he recalled. ” I can’t remember much, other than the gun sounding and going out hard, the quickest I have ever pushed.
“The rest of the race is a blur, all I know is I crossed the line having won bronze and that it was the best feeling ever. I didn’t care who had beaten me, I had medalled at my first major championships for my country.”
Rowling is currently training hard, and looking to build on the experience he gained in Rio this summer as he aims for more medals.
“There are days when my body just aches and you just don’t want to move, but you have to just get up and go”
“At the moment I’m in my off-season so I’m doing lots of miles, anywhere between 15-20 a day, with lots of hours in the gym on top.
“As we get into the season, the mileage will come down as we get ready to sharpen up for the the major events, but I’ll be training 2-3 times a day six days a week all year round.
“Day in day out it’s just time management trying to manage training 2-3 times a day, working part-time and recovery is tough.
“There are days when my body just aches and you just don’t want to move, but you have to just get up and go.”
London, then Tokyo
With the experience of Rio 2016 now under his belt, Rowling is setting his sights on next year’s IPC World Athletics Championships in London.
“I’m just taking it one season at a time, so in 2017 we have the Worlds in London and that will be huge, racing in front of a home crowd.
“But looking forward I want to make the squad for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, and once I’m there perform better than I did in Rio.
“I have a massive point to prove because I didn’t race as well as I know I could have in Brazil.”