David Weir has had a fantastic year, winning four gold medals at the Paralympic Games and several awards as a result, including the Paralympic Sportsman of the Year prize last week from the nation’s sportswriters.
But the south Londoner will need all the support he can get from Croydon and Sutton if he is to win the BBC’s vote for Sports Personality of the Year this Sunday.
The wheelchair racer from Wallington is the first Paralympic man ever to make it on to the shortlist for the BBC’s annual prize – a real sign of how he and the rest of the Paralympics captured the imagination of the nation during the Games in the summer.
“Thanks for the wicked messages on #BBCSPOTY such a honour to be in the top 12 another step forward for Paralympic sport,” Weir said via Twitter when the shortlist was announced.
And yet Weir nearly quit sport when in his teens because of the lack of support and interest in the Paralympics.
After a youth sport career competing for Sutton at the London Youth Games and seven times winning the wheelchair race at the London Mini Marathon, the boy from the Roundshaw estate was 17 when he competed at his first Games, the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta.
“When I got there it wasn’t what I had expected,” Weir said. “I could count about five people in the crowd at times. It disheartened me a little bit because I had missed my teenage years of growing up and being with my friends to compete at a Paralympics.
“I fell out of love with the sport and when I got back I just didn’t want to do it any more.”
But after watching Tanni Grey-Thompson speed to four golds in the Sydney Paralympics in 2000, Weir realised how much he had to offer and sought out Jenny Archer, a coach he had known from the age of eight and who had since helped to train Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang.
At the London Paralympics this summer, Archer’s guidance helped Weir match Grey-Thompson’s four-gold haul, as he was cheered to T54 category victories over 800, 1,500 and 5,000 metres inside the packed stadium as well as to glory out on the roads in the marathon.
Despite his successes on the track, Weir was doubly determined to overcome fatigue to win the final race of the Paralympics to ensure that people would remember him.
But he had already captured the public’s imagination, with spectators donning “Weir-wolf” masks in the stadium and howling with delight even for victories in his heats.
Weir was immortalised because the Post Office designed a stamp commemorating each British athlete who won Olympic and Paralympic gold medal. And there are now four golden post boxes, one for each gold medal: one on Woodcote Road, one on Mollison Square, one in Foresters Drive and the one to mark the marathon gold on Mollison Drive.
Curious locals have become protective of these mail box memorials to Weir’s deeds: if someone approaches looking to chip off some of the golden paint, a glare from passers-by or shoppers are enough to protect Weir’s post box.
Sutton Arena has also been renamed in his honour – the Carshalton leisure complex will be known as the David Weir Arena. The 33-year-old faces a tough challenge to match Grey- Thompson’s achievement of finishing third in the BBC ballot, which she did in 2000, because of the glittering array of victories by the likes of Bradley Wiggins, Andy Murray, Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis in what is widely recognised as the greatest year in British sport.
Wiggins is the favourite, while bookmakers have Weir at 12/1.
Wiggins, pedalling to Tour de France victory, and tennis ace Murray, who won the US Open, both won other events on top of Games gold. Weir’s supporters for the SPOTY gong can point to similar success away from the Games, as he won the London Marathon in 2012 for the sixth time, having won his first in 2002.
While Roundshaw has been regenerated since he grew up there, Weir said recently: “I still have the same friends and they’re blown away by what’s happened to me. They know how committed I’ve been all my life.”
Weir will need those friends, and friends of friends in their thousands, to commit to at least one phone call or internet vote to overturn the odds and win the main award on Sunday night.
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- Paralympian Weir’s London freedom (bbc.co.uk)
- Have attitudes to disability changed? (bbc.co.uk)
- Man of the People: Paralympic hero David Weir joins our judging panel for inspirational awards (mirror.co.uk)