David Smith and Stephen McGuire are aiming to triumph at the Rio Paralympics in 2016. The sport of boccia shows how application and talent can take disabled people into elite sporting competition.
Because David got into boccia at a very young age, he’s already something of a veteran.
I know you’re currently at a boccia camp; can you tell me a bit more about it please?
It’s a squad camp; so basically we get together about once a month for a week and it’s like a review. You meet the physios and the coaches and they check up on you to make sure that you’re doing everything that they want you to do. It’s all about refinements: improving skills and updating equipment and that sort of stuff.
How did you get involved in the sport?
I’ve been playing for around 20 years. I started playing at primary school. I went to a specialist school for people with disabilities and at that time they were pretty hot regarding anything sporty. It was a good place to be and boccia was one of the sports that we played. We had access to people that understood the game and pretty good coaching as well and in that environment I was able to progress to competitions.
When I was 14 I qualified for the British team and then a couple of weeks later I went up to Scotland for the British Championships and won it. I was due to go to Athens but I was too young which was just a bit unfortunate. After Athens a lot of them (bocia squad members) retired – they probably saw me coming! Then I just seemed to be picking up medals left, right and centre and going up the rankings.
Why is it important for people with physical disabilities to be able to compete in sport?
I don’t think it’s any more important than it is for anybody else. I think sport is proven to give anybody a sense of teamwork and a competitive drive, getting the ‘inner caveman’ out, dealing with emotions and all of that stuff. I don’t think it’s any more important (for disabled people) but I would say that if able-bodied people can have it, then why can’t we?
Do you feel a sense of duty to show what disabled people can do in sport?
I think it’s important for people to know what’s out there and I know I was very lucky. I was in an environment where disability wasn’t seen as a disability, because everybody was disabled, so it was normal. We were encouraged to push ourselves to see what we could achieve. There are a lot of people that will tell you that you can’t do anything – and you’re always better off ignoring them.
What inspires you to carry on when things aren’t going too well?
I don’t tend to give up easily so when things aren’t going well it just gives me an extra reason to try to find a way. I’m an engineer at heart so I like finding solutions. So when things don’t go right I enjoy the challenge. I’ll find a way; I always find a way, even when my back’s against the wall, even in boccia. I’m renowned for never giving in and digging out a shot where nobody else can. That’s how I play really…
Who inspires you?
I’ve got quite a weird view on this. I don’t really have any heroes. I see them as peers; I don’t see anybody as better than me so I don’t have any particular inspirations. I admire people like Douglas Bader for wanting to carry on flying and doing what he did even after he lost his legs. I admire him for his sheer arrogance in that really. I quite like that about him and I like his will to never be beaten.
In that sense, do you also regard yourself as arrogant?
No I see myself as highly confident. There’s a fine line. Arrogance is when you don’t care about what other people think and I’m definitely not that sort of person. I care about the people around me and actually boccia’s quite a team sport and there really is no place for arrogance.
How are preparations for Rio going?
It’s not that close. We’ve got a few competitions on the way yet. Having done two (Paralympic Games) before, I know there’s quite a long way to go for me before I’m there and I’m not worried about time. I’m on schedule.
McGuire was selected for the ParalympicsGB boccia squad for the London 2012 Paralympic Games. He remains one of the top players in the world.
What keeps you interested and inspires you to continue in elite sport after having played the game for 11 years?
I’m not quite finished with what I want to achieve yet. I’ve been incredibly lucky and privileged. I’ve won European and World medals but I’ve not quite got the Paralympic medal and that’s the one that’s missing so that keeps me going every day.
Is it important to showcase what physically disabled people can do?
I think so. The Paralympics is a showcase. It’s probably not the biggest in terms of boccia competitions, because that would be the World Championships but it’s the most prestigious. Everybody has a goal to get there and show what they can do and it’s the one with most publicity and coverage. That’s the main platform to show what disabled athletes and people involved in parasports can do.
What keeps you going in those tough situations?
My condition is muscular dystrophy which means that I fatigue a lot and I’m prone to injury so I could be just doing normal routine stuff and something goes ‘ping’ or whatever. It’s not any fault of my own, it’s just the nature of my condition and me having a bad day etc. We do have bad days but we’ve got a great team around us and they do help to look after us really well.
I look at it as: you may have hurt your arm but there are other parts of your body and you can still go to the gym. In the back of my mind is the thought that my rivals are still training. That’s my motivation. They’ll be a day up on me, or a week or a month. That’s the way I see it.
What do you to say to other disabled people that say ‘I can’t do sport’?
I’ve come across this but my advice would bet to contact your local authority and ask what disability clubs are around. It may be that you just want to do sport recreationally. You don’t really know until you ask and you get out there.
I understand people that have a ‘can’t do attitude’ because when I was growing up a lot of physios and doctors wanted to protect you. That’s their job but there is ample opportunity out there and you don’t really know until you contact these authorities, especially disability sports groups like Scottish Disability Sports or Boccia England. You’ll surprise yourself.
Who inspires you?
To be honest, it’s my brother. My brother also has muscular dystrophy and his is slightly worse than mine and he probably has more bad days than me but you wouldn’t know it. The fight and the drive are there and he’s my biggest inspiration. If he wants to get something he’ll get it.
Is the competition between you a source of inspiration?
Pete is a boccia player as well but he’s no longer in the squad. We’re brothers so we’ve always been competitive and I think that’s helped us along the way.
How are preparations for Rio coming along?
Well we’ve just qualified to compete, so it’s great. We’ve got the slots (in the British team) and so my preparation right now is just about doing all I can to get one of those spaces. Before then we’ve got the World Championships in Beijing. That’ll be a good test of where everybody’s at and where all of our competitors are at. We’ve got a few things coming up but the main thing is that we’re there and we’ve qualified. We’re just doing a technical phase to sharpen up on all of the intricate little details.