The Interview: British Paralympian Swimmer Giles Long

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Over a pint and a study of pub taxidermy, Giles Long tells LS Sport’s Lucy Holden about world records, rock bottom and making a splash at the Paralympics.

I’m lost in King’s Cross and have to stop to ask a rotund Eastender with a limp fag dangling from their jaw where the King Charles I is. A dirty-looking pint fizzes in their clasped hand. ‘That’s the pub where all the actors go ain’t it?’ she slurs through tobacco lined teeth.

In fact I’m going to meet Giles Long MBE, retired British Paralympic swimmer, in a Dickensian, oak-panelled pub down the road. A fire blazes. Pearl Jam scream. Long is at the bar with a pint of Guinness. Simon Callow is nowhere to be seen.

Along with three Paralympic gold medals, two silvers and two bronzes, Long’s swimming career is dotted with accolades. He broke the world record for the 100m Butterfly at Sydney’s Paralympic Games in 2000, has been decorated with another 13 medals from the International Paralympic Committee’s World and European Championships, and has recently been awarded an honorary doctorate for the invention of his Paralympic classification programme LEXI and his contribution to London’s 2012 Paralympic Games. He’s also got a degree from Leeds University, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

Still, Long doesn’t think swimming is particularly glamorous – too many four-in-the-morning November trips to the pool. Didn’t the success of Michael Phelps, Chad Le Clos, Ellie Simmonds, do anything for the status of professional swimmers this summer? “Well, Michael Phelps is a great swimmer but I wouldn’t say he was very cool. It’s more the experience of the sport than the image. I’ve been incredibly lucky with swimming: I’ve travelled the world and met some amazing people.”

Best place he’s ever swam? “In terms of location: America. We had this swim-meet in Phoenix, outside, it was night-time, warm, there was a barbecue on the go, huge cactuses surrounding the pool, it’s a completely different thing over there. The sunset in the desert is unbelievable; it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Another time the European Championships were in Germany and with true efficiency they’d mounted a beer tent onto the side of the fire escape so you could jump straight out of the pool into the bar. Everyone was standing around in towels with pints in their hands. You just have some mad experiences.”

So drinking isn’t as taboo in professional swimming as it is in other sports? Long concedes that the end-of-season meets are more relaxed than the World Champs, but does think swimmers are pretty heavy drinkers in general. “There’s just something about water sports that means there’s a lot of booze involved. Rowers drink a lot, sailors drink a lot; swimmers have a certain demeanour, some of them practically inhale alcohol.”

We pause. In the process of moving a chair from another table the barman has dropped the weight of it on a rather camp foot. The man it is connected to squeals in high-pitched agony, clutching his leg in pain. We agree he’s probably an actor and take another sip of our drinks.

I wonder whether swimmers, more than other athletes, find it difficult to judge how the race is going while they are in the water. Can they tell how they’ve done when they finish the race? “You can’t see anything but refracted light through your goggles usually, and so you are only ever aware of how close the swimmers either side of you are. But you always know when you’ve got a good time. It feels like an easy race; like you weren’t trying too hard because you were working with the water. If you’re forcing your way through the water you’ll never get your best time.”

“Winning is hugely important because it secures sponsorship, and massively helps your career, so when you hit the end of the pool and look up at the board that’s what you’re thinking about. When it goes the opposite way and you lose you don’t just think about having yourself to blame, you think about all the people you will have to answer to. When I first started having success, there was just no money in it at all; most people were essentially cheating the benefit system. You can have success without money, but with it comes responsibility, and responsibility is always a drag. Sport teaches you from a very young age what disappointment is. It teaches you how to pick yourself up and not throw in the towel – if you’ll excuse the cliché.”

Long’s swimming career started a little differently from others’. His dreams of going to the Olympics were crushed when he was 13 and a school bully held him in the air and dropped him onto the ground from head-height. The unique break of Long’s arm, very close to the shoulder joint, meant that it had to be pinned, but x-rays brought back alarming results. “It looked like someone had got a can of deodorant and sprayed the top of the x-ray, there was this white mist around it; it was really weird.” Junior doctors tried to mentally prepare Long for tests at another hospital in London; he had a form of bone cancer that had been knocked further through his arm by the insertion of the pins in his shoulder.

“I became aware that something really wasn’t right. No one cares what you think when you’re 13, no one ever says they’ve got bad news for you; you go to school, you mess around. All of a sudden everyone was listening and everyone was asking these questions of the most severe gravity – genuine life-saving decisions about therapy and operations. You don’t realise what the consequences of your decisions will be when you’re that young. I felt like it was happening to someone else.” Long didn’t know what to think anymore, people kept telling him that this bully had effectively saved his life by breaking his arm, if the cancer hadn’t been found he would have died. Who was he supposed to be angry with?

Still, after chemotherapy and with a full prosthetic replacing the humorous bone in his right arm, Long returned to able-bodied swimming, swimming with only his left arm and being “thrashed” by his opponents, but swimming nonetheless. But less than two years later the cancer returned and this time Long looked death even closer in the eye. The infection had grown around the prosthesis and he underwent chemotherapy for a second time.

“You know the saying that it’s better to have always been poor than to have been rich and lost it? It was like that. When you go through chemo the first time you don’t know what’s coming, but the second time you see the whole mountain ahead of you, and it’s huge. Chemotherapy is essentially just poison, the cancer’s going to die off quicker than you are so they keep poisoning you until it has gone. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life was spend six weeks in isolation during the therapy, people could only see me if they were dressed in full-on chemical warfare suits.”

What was going through Long’s head as he lay in desolate confinement? Real, heavy hearted sadness at the unfairness of it all. “You kind of think ‘Why me? I’m a nice guy, I don’t smoke, I do a lot of sport.’ You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. But you also get a really concentrated introspection because you’re on your bottom dollar and your whole life is dancing in the hands of the doctors. You have this time to question who you want to be, what you want to do. I started to realise what my personal values were over and above other things, and I wanted to be happy.”

Long decided that happiness was people: having people around you, getting married, seeing friends, being loved, unsuprising really for someone who had seen the depths of loneliness. He realised he could do whatever he wanted if he was determined enough. “It wasn’t like a vision, but when you hit absolute rock bottom there’s only one direction to look – everything can only get better.”

Long’s main concern was that the Paralympics would never act as a substitute for his childhood Olympic dream. Why? “Because I hadn’t heard of it. Everyone who competes at the Olympics has probably dreamt of going since they were very young, but probably only half of the people that compete at the Paralympics will have had the dream from a young age because the other half will have acquired their disabilities later on. It would be strange if you were able-bodied and aspired to compete in the Paralympics because it would imply that you also wanted to acquire a disability – which can easily be arranged, but then this interview might take quite a dark turn.” His laughter is loud, easy, infectious. I kindly decline to have my legs broken by a shady geezer round the back.

“When I went to my first ever Paralympic training weekend I hadn’t even thought about the fact that I had a disability and I walked into a room of 70 Paralympic athletes. If you think about the last time you saw a person with a visible disability you might have seen one, you might have seen two, but you would not have seen 70, and that’s when it first occurred to me that I had a disability. That moment shocked me because I was carrying with me all of those preconceptions about what disability meant. But I realised that, like with ‘normal’ people, I liked about a third of the people I met, wasn’t fussed about a third and actively disliked a third. I realised that disability didn’t make the slightest bit of difference, and that was quite a journey.”

It perhaps seems to Long now like one of those twisted paths of fate that determines the rest of what you go on to achieve; without his experiences with cancer, disability and Paralympic sport, LEXI’s invention would have been impossible. LEXI, the explanatory image programme that flashed on screen during London’s Paralympic coverage, is all about simplicity and readability; designed so that someone without any medical knowledge can understand the classifications of Paralympic sport. The expert nature of the invention flipped Long into the position of director, animator, producer and script writer, and he loved it. Given a team to order around, he turned, I imagine, into the Gordon Ramsay of the Paralympic coverage team. Long considers: “Well, I prefer to think of myself as a young Delia really.”

Still, he jokes, he feels like a fraud. “I’m actually married to a doctor – a real one – and I feel like I’ve short-circuited the whole thing. But LEXI was just a massive success really. I had the idea about 10 years ago because I realised that people were watching the Paralympics on a very superficial level, almost on a kind of novelty level; they thought it was quite cool but they didn’t understand it and that was stopping the celebration of success and the criticism of failure. That held Paralympic sport at a kind of maximum level of appreciation. The confusion was frustrating because as athletes we’d spend the whole time trying to explain how our sport worked.”

He looks around us at a disappointing array of thespians. ‘The thing about LEXI is that even people in this pub don’t think the same way about disability now as they did in March, before the London games. It changed the way that millions of people think.”

Three rounds later, I’ve missed my train and am jumping half-cut over the barriers at Paddington train station. Long certainly wasn’t lying when he said swimmers can drink.

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