Man of the Moment: Jamie Stead MBE
Normanton Paralympian Jamie Stead talks gold medals, determination, ambitions of legacy and how representation matters in impairment sport
Jamie has spent his life training to become a professional athlete, adapting to his cerebral palsy in a refusal to let himself be ‘wrapped up in cotton wool.’ Now he is presented with a new privilege, representing the achievements impaired people can make through their determination – a 2022 New Year’s honour.
‘I’d gone out with my girlfriend and just come back home when my mum said, “Oh, you’ve got some post. I’ve put it on your bed,”’ Jamie recalls. ‘It had ‘Your Majesty’s Service’ on it and I had no idea what it could be. I opened it to, “You’ve been nominated for an MBE, if you wish to accept…” and I was in this total shock. You don’t really expect it if you’re not a big celebrity, I was blown away.’ Jamie was overjoyed by the recognition of his sporting achievement, but what matters to him most is what the nomination represents for people like him, growing up in similar circumstances.
‘Going into Tokyo we had a mantra – we wanted to create a legacy and we wanted to inspire those with disabilities (or able-bodied people that may be struggling with their own battles) to show that anything is achievable.’
Shocked as he may be, this is a title Jamie has worked tirelessly for – overcoming his impairment from a young age with grace. When reflecting on his early athletic career, Jamie speaks openly about how far he’s come. ‘When I made my sporting debut in Canada back in 2014 I was only 18 years old, I was a skinny little kid and the youngest on the team (funnily enough, I’m still the youngest now!). So in terms of maturity and understanding the game – I went in as a boy, but being around other people, countries and influences, it made me mature a lot quicker and physically the commitment made me a lot stronger. I went in with all these limitations, but through wheelchair rugby and training I’ve become more able –I found more ways to adapt around my disability.’
Jamie has had dreams of being a sportsman ever since he was a young lad, huddled around the TV religiously watching Manchester United play (yes, he’s aware that it’s blasphemous for a Yorkshireman – he can’t help it) and from then on, he knew he wouldn’t let a wheelchair stop him from trying.
‘I watched the Paralympics, and seeing all these people like me playing against each other and not letting the disabilities get in the way – it inspired me even more – and made me say, “well, I can do this. I can still be an athlete like I always wanted to be, but just in a different sort of way”. I saw that I could be just as strong and as competitive and as successful as anyone.’
Representation matters. It’s the difference between an impaired child thinking that they’re disabled and that same child being shown that they’re just as able but in a different way. This is something Jamie has always fought for, but managed to experience first hand at the games in 2020.
‘Disability sport is an eyeopener for anyone with an impairment. You go to the Paralympic games and there’s always someone more challenged,’ he says. ‘You see people eating food using knives and forks with their feet. It makes you think, “if they can do that, then I can get over my struggle”, and, “they’re still managing life and daily tasks, so why can’t I?”. No matter the challenge, if you’re willing to work at it you can adapt. There’s always an alternative way of doing what you want to achieve.’
Jamie hates the stereotypes of weakness and delicacy often thrown at those with physical impairments. Wheelchair rugby is a sport that demonstrates just how tough impaired people can be.
‘A lot of times, when you have an impairment, you get people saying “Ooo, be careful around them” and people move out of your way. At school you’re not allowed to join in with stuff because of your disability. Wheelchair rugby is different – it’s full contact. Everyone wants to win. It’s aggressive and physical. That’s the biggest appeal to me. Even though you’re disabled it proves that you can still be physical. You’re still strong, you have all the same expectations as ‘normal’ rugby players,’ Jamie laughs. ‘You see people going “Oh you can’t have disabled people knocking each other out of their wheel chairs and hitting each other!” We say, “yeah you can!”. We’re just as normal as anyone else – I love that element of it.’
Jamie has overcome odds both physical and financial, going into the Paralympics without funding after failing to gain a medal place at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. He’s grateful to have regained help through UK Lottery, RGK and UK Sport since his win.
‘When we lost our funding it was so hard. There were so many times when I felt like quitting. It caused me mental problems. It creates anxiety, there’s this pressure of doing the same amount of hours and the same commitment as a normal athlete, but you’re unpaid. The bills don’t stop, you can’t do a job and be an elite athlete. If it weren’t for help from my parents then I’d be in a much worse situation,’ Jamie continues. ‘Support from my family and my girlfriend helped me realise the dream. I thought about quitting, but I had to say to myself, “No Jamie, you’ve come this far. You can’t quit. You’re so close now.”’
Thankfully he didn’t give up. Jamie realised his potential alongside his much-loved team Leicester Tigers and Team GB, and is looking forward to proving his mettle yet again when the UK hosts the European Wheelchair Rugby Championships in Cardiff in 2023. Regarded as one of the best wheelchair rugby players in the world and showing no signs of slowing down, Jamie Stead MBE is someone who represents the capability humans have to do great things regardless of circumstance.
‘I just always wanted to leave behind a legacy for future athletes. I just want people to know that even if they’re going through tough times, they can still achieve their dream.’
If you want to read more about Jamie Stead’s career, head to gbwr.org.uk