Experience: I went to multiple Paralympic Games but retired just before 2016. James Roberts, aged 3o speaks out about his sporting career and disability.
“It blew my mind to see how many people turned out to support all of us Paralympic athletes – it meant the world.” I never truly thought I would ever have been an elite Paralympian. Growing up it never crossed my mind. However, my life, lead me to be the man I am today – This is my story.
My name is James Roberts. I was born with a congenital disability called femoral dysplasia and a floating hip of the left leg as well as scoliosis of the spine. Dysplasia is caused when the joint has not formed properly, it can cause pain but in many cases, it can be painless, like mine. The condition tends to cause people to walk with a limp. This is caused by weak muscles, limited flexibility of the hip joint, or bone deformity.
Even though I knew I had this condition, I never really saw myself as having a disability but obviously, there are challenges. I would try a hand at everything I could when I was younger such as swimming, rowing and volleyball. The reasons in which enabled me to try my hand at everything is the fact that I adapted to using a prosthetic leg over the years. However, because of my very supportive family and friends it wasn’t that difficult for me growing up. I learned how to deal with daily life challenges. For instance, I loved to do the normal kid activities like playing in the park, but I adapted my own techniques of using the monkey bars – it might have taken me a day or two, but I got there in the end. I never let my disability stop me.
Originally from Belgium, I moved across to the UK when I was just 19 years old. I moved because I was selected as a part of the British Swimming Disabled Potential Squad at the time. Also, Swansea had an amazing performance Centre, so my family decided it was best to reside in Prestatyn, North Wales.
My inspiration came from mainly having a fairly sporty family background. My family has competed at county level in a number of different sports over the years. I grew up on an international Military base called NATO in SHAPE, back in Belgium, I was brought up around multiple nationalities and their passions for their respective sports. This I think rubbed off on me in some way. Being also half American, sport is hugely popular over there so I guess it runs in the veins.
Taking part in swimming was great for me as it allowed me to achieve goals and have a competitive edge, I held both the SB8 200m breaststroke and 50m breaststroke national records. These for me were a great motivation and helped me set the bar for my competitive personality.
After being dropped from the GB swimming programme because I wasn’t improving to the standard I should have been progressing. It also allowed me to go on to do a university course. In 2006, I moved on to rowing. The transition happened fairly quickly as I made my first senior international competition that summer at the 2006 World Championships in Dorney Lake. I came 6th overall but that was a good finish for me and I am proud. Over the next few years, I carried on competing in the sport. I made the final at my very first Paralympic Games in Beijing, it was a dream come true. I didn’t win, I came 5th but that didn’t matter – I was so humbled just to get there. This was a highlight of my sporting success as it was the height of my career.
I made another transition of sports, on this occasion because of a classification change, this time to sitting volleyball. From 2010 until 2012, I amassed 56 caps for Great Britain. My first international was a surprise selection to compete at the 2010 World Championships in Edmund, Oklahoma, USA. I was lucky enough that my time with the squad, to have competed for Great Britain at my only European Championships in my repertoire as well as a Continental and Intercontinental Cup.
My career concluded at the London 2012 Paralympics were the GB sitting volleyball squad lost in the quarterfinal to eventual silver medalist Iran. It was an honour to represent team GB. Even though I retired after 2012, I feel like it was the right time for me to do so as injuries were starting to catch up with me. Also, I mentally didn’t want to put my body through the rigours of training day in day out. This is the time when athletes should stop when that happens as they either lose the love for the sport or mentally they don’t want to put the necessary effort in that is required to compete at that level. I do believe I was still fit enough to compete and probably would have done well at 2016 Tokyo Games but I knew I could use my knowledge and experiences to help others, instead.
Life after retiring as an elite athlete hasn’t stopped my love for sport. I still participate in a local league in basketball and wheelchair rugby. I now coach people in fitness and nutrition and enjoy it incredibly. I have my own podcast where I speak to some fantastic professionals within the industry. For instance, I did a podcast on the 29 September 2016 with a posture corrective exercise specialist Jeremy McCann. My career hasn’t stopped. It’s just beginning. Training and helping others is so important to me. Everyone has a different background and needs some guidance. I want to inspire others to show if you want something and train hard enough you can achieve. That is cliché but it’s so true. The advice I would give to others is just try everything.