2 July, 2012Issue 19.6InterviewsSport

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An Interview with Nikki Emerson

Paul Sweeten


Nikki Emerson


Nikki Emerson is a T53 wheelchair racer who competes in the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, and marathon. In 2008 Nikki was driving back home from Oxford, where she was studying neuroscience and psychology, when she had a near-fatal car crash. Nikki spent ten weeks at Stoke Mandeville National Spinal Injuries Centre undergoing intensive physiotherapy and hydrotherapy. She was told she’d never walk again and had to adapt to life in a wheelchair. During this time in the hospital she watched the Beijing Paralympics and was inspired to take up Paralympic sport. Nikki now competes internationally and is passionate about promoting sport among disabled people, both for fitness and as a pathway to international achievement.

Paul Sweeten corresponded with Nikki by email.

Could you talk a little about your introduction to wheelchair racing? Was it something you felt you had a natural talent for right from the beginning?

I first saw wheelchair racing on TV during the Beijing Paralympics while I was in the hospital after breaking my back, and thought the speeds the girls went looked amazing. I emailed the British Wheelchair Racing Association and asked if I could give it a try. I didn’t like it at first as I didn’t want to do a sport that involved a wheelchair, so I chose to row for six months on the GB squad and then gave wheelchair racing another try. Ian Thompson and Tanni Grey-Thompson came to coach at a British Paralympic Association fast-track camp I’d been invited to, and Ian took me out on the roads around Loughborough Uni for three hours. This time around I loved the feeling of speeding down hills with my face so close to the ground (as it is in a racing wheelchair). A week later Ian invited me to watch the 2009 Silverstone half marathon, and when I got there he jokingly asked if I wanted to take part (after one training session in a racing wheelchair!). I jumped at the chance and went on to win the women’s race in a time fast enough to qualify for the elite race in the London Marathon six weeks later. I completed the marathon (in last place), and by the time I got to the end I’d caught the wheelchair racing bug. There’s nothing like the experience of the London Marathon with hundreds of thousands of people cheering you along to make you want to race!

When you were watching the Games in 2008 Chantal Petitclerc was dominating the T54 races. Was her achievement in the sport something which inspired you?

I actually didn’t really notice Chantal when I watched Beijing. Of course now I know she was an incredible athlete, but really I was cheering on the GB athletes (not that I really knew who any of them were—there wasn’t the publicity surrounding the Paralympic team before Beijing). The only wheelchair race I saw was the women’s 5000m, in which she didn’t race. I recently met Chantal for the first time when she came to Switzerland as one of our team mentors and she seemed really nice. I really admire David Weir as he’s medalled at major championships in every distance, which is a very hard thing to do as a T54 man—it’s the most competitive class in Paralympic athletics. Helene Raynsford is probably my biggest inspiration though. She won the women’s arms only rowing class in Beijing (my classification) and taught me so much when we rowed together both about living like an elite athlete and about getting used to life in a wheelchair. She trained harder than anyone I’ve ever met, and despite rowing injuries causing her to have to have her spine totally pinned so she can’t do elite level Paralympic sport anymore, she’s one of the nicest and most generous people you could ever meet. She’s still one of my closest friends and the first person I go to about anything sports related.

I was going to ask whether you’re finding Paralympic preparation more stressful than you found your Oxford finals. Did you find the former to be more physically demanding than you anticipated—including, as it did, the more intense exam schedule—and the latter more of a psychological challenge? Do you think that one prepared you for the other?

To be honest the psychological side of Paralympic prep makes the stress of Oxford finals seem like a holiday on the beach! Maybe because I was fitting racing in around my finals, I didn’t find them as stressful as other people did. Somehow the prospect of racing against the international athletes I saw on TV in Beijing two hours after I finished my last final made actually having to do that final seem like a minor inconvenience rather than anything to get nervous about. Throughout finals I felt fine and was training twice a day around studying and once a day when I had an exam, but then when I got to the Grand Prix after writing my last exam (still in my subfusc with hair full of glitter and champagne!) and started to race, I felt totally drained and finally realised why people say Oxford finals are so tough. I must have slept 12 hours that night and even the next day found it hard to race. Paralympic prep is very psychologically demanding. What I hadn’t expected though is that most of the pressure I feel isn’t about performing at the Games or even at qualifiers; although that is a big part, it’s about letting down my family, friends, and sponsors if I’m not selected. I’m worrying more about the result rather than how to get there, so that’s why I’ve been seeing a sports psych.

Your website mentions Dr Steve Peters’ trifurcation of the brain into “the Human, the Chimp and the Computer”. What’s the idea behind that, and is it relevant to how you’re approaching your preparation?

Dr Peter’s model is very oversimplified, so as a psych graduate I’m not dwelling too much on the actual model itself as it’s pretty inaccurate. I’m just taking the methods of thinking he promotes and trying to apply those to my life. For example there is the idea that you can control rash thinking if you realise that as a human you can either choose to give in to emotional thinking (which he refers to as input from your inner chimp) or you can employ human logic to live a more stable life without being adversely affected by external stimuli. It’s not something I’m particularly using to help my athletics, although the section on coping with failure might come in useful come July 9th!

There has been lots of controversy around athletes like Oscar Pistorius, the “blade runner” who’s coming close to being the first Paralympian to qualify for an Olympic running event. Are the distinctions between the Olympic and Paralympic Games something which is affecting wheelchair racing?

The issue around Oscar is becoming more and more heated. He has been losing races to other Paralympic runners in the shorter sprints, including Fouri (SA) and Singleton (USA), so that begs the question, why should Oscar get to run in the Olympics and not those guys? Of course he is the only one to have achieved Olympic qualifying times as he specialises in the 400m, but it still doesn’t sit well with a lot of Paralympic athletes as he is effectively saying “I’m too good to run against you” when he is no better than many other Paralympians. As a result a campaign has started to get wheelchair racing into the Olympics and open the sport to able-bodied people for a 1500m race in the Olympic Games. Quite who would take this up I don’t know, but if it did happen, I’d be worried it would have a horrible effect on the standard of Paralympic wheelchair racing as everyone would focus on the 1500m to try and race at the Olympics. And the best athletes who would have raced the Olympics would not be able to peak again for the Paralympics right after, making it essentially a “B” final. It’s difficult to argue with what Oscar is trying to do, especially as Natalie Du Toit (SA) was allowed to race the Olympic and Paralympic swimming in Beijing, but personally I don’t agree with it. Regardless of his start being compromised by his legs, it seems as though he would have an advantage over 400m compared to runners with “normal” legs as he does not suffer from lactic acid build-up. As a 400m athlete myself I can vouch for how much of a difference that would make! So the real question, and one that I feel would be a good way to frame the whole “Oscar” discussion is this: “Should the Olympic and Paralympic Games be combined?” If this happened the able-bodied Olympic athletes would effectively be given a class number just like in the Paralympics. Let’s call the track runners class T0. A disabled athlete could then opt to race as a T0 against traditional Olympians, or they could race in their disability class. In the Paralympics athletes can opt to race in a less disabled class if their class doesn’t contest a particular distance; for example, I am a T53 but to race marathon I have to race as a T54 alongside less disabled athletes. I would bet that if this happened, and there are discussions going on to facilitate the combination of the two events (which will almost certainly never happen), Oscar wouldn’t be trying to race as a T0, he’d stay in his class for a medal.

Another controversial factor in the Paralympic Games is “classification cheating”. The use of illegal performance enhancing products is much lower in the Paralympics than the Olympics, but that doesn’t mean the athletes don’t cheat. Classification is a very flawed system, in that any athlete could cheat by appearing to have a greater disability in order to be given a classification which would allow them to race against more disabled athletes.

Surely that would make living with any successes very difficult. One often hears people saying that the point of the Games is for athletes to challenge their bodies to their limits. Is this what the Paralympics means to you?

To me racing in the Paralympics is about testing myself and seeing what I can do when I push my body to its limit. It’s also about the pride of representing my country on a world stage. I push myself every day in training, so all racing is an extension of that. But to race the Paralympics in Great Britain kit would be the ultimate honour for me.

Paul Sweeten graduated in 2010 with an MSt in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.