Episode 36 - David SmithBoccia lookin' at? A paralympian talks us through his fascinating story as we're making conversations about independence count!
David Smith MBE, Boccia Paralympian
Making Conversations about Independence Count!
David Smith is a wheelchair inspiration, MBE and world champion at Boccia.
What’s Boccia? Good question! Wendy had exactly the same one!
The activity was put on the map by David’s unyielding training and attitude towards a sport he loves.
As a result, he’s ready to forgive anyone who has to Google it!
In this episode we are going on a journey together to see the world through ‘Smithy‘s eyes.
During this conversation, David explains how he doesn’t let his disability hold him back and how he can even beat a London taxi…
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Full Episode Transcript
Making Conversations Count – Episode Thirty-Six
Wendy Harris & David Smith, Boccia Paralympian
June 24th 2021
00:03:33: Hogwarts and St Trinians
00:04:51: How it grew
00:09:20: No problem travelling
00:11:01: Opposite ends of the train
00:12:52: David’s pivotal conversation
00:15:16: Different mindsets
00:17:29: Tokyo Paralympics
00:18:30: Final conversation
Wendy Harris: Making conversations about independence count. What’s new Wendy Woo? We found out that the show is in the top 10% of global podcasts, now that has got to be down to the fantastic guests, you our listeners and the fabulous reviews that we get online. Please do make sure that you click that link to leave us a review, because I love giving you shoutouts.
In this episode, we’re joined by David Smith, MBE, a young man who has never known his life any differently. He’s a gold medallist Paralympian in boccia. I had to ask him what is boccia? Of course, then he goes on and tells us all about it in this episode. He’s an incredible young man who has really overcome lots of challenges but he has a different perspective on things than maybe we would. So, listen on because this is a real treat of a conversation from a different viewpoint.
Now, the first thing that we have to clear up, I think, is explain what is boccia; I have to admit, I had to google it.
David Smith: Boccia is a ball type game for people with severe disabilities, so, if you imagine like pétanque or bocce from France, very similar to that, played on a hard floor indoors, with fairly soft leather balls on a badminton court sized area and in terms of how the balls are propelled, it doesn’t really matter; it’s as accessible as it possibly can be for obvious reasons.
We have four different classes, so we have BC1, 2, 3 and 4, so I am a BC1, which is someone which has severe cerebral palsy or a similar type of disability. It means that I can throw the ball but I’m unable to reach to the floor and pick up balls myself and I don’t have particularly good core or balance, so I use an electric wheelchair to get around, so I have a significant impairment but not enough that means I can’t throw.
BC2 is slightly more able, so they might sometimes be in a manual wheelchair instead, a better core, a bit more strength, but similar disabilities so in terms of cerebral palsy or similar. And then BC3 are those which use ramps, so a bit like the shoots that you get in tenpin bowling.
Wendy Harris: The rails, yeah, that sort of thing, yeah.
David Smith: A bit more complicated than that; ours cost about £2,500.
Wendy Harris: I can imagine.
David Smith: Yeah, the principle is the same and they use them to propel the ball down and to throw the ball, as it were, with an assistant lining the ramp up for them obviously, and all under their instruction. Then BC4 are basically a mix of BC1 and 2 but don’t have cerebral type disabilities, so it could be an acquired disability or muscular dystrophy or spinal injury or any sort really. So, we pretty much cover for all eventualities within our sport. Yeah, we are the most severely disabled athletes in the Paralympics, so without boccia there wouldn’t be an outlet for us to compete in.
Wendy Harris: What got you into the sport, David, I’m intrigued?
David Smith: So, I played when I was very young, so I actually started playing when I was about six or seven, but I was pretty hopeless because I threw sideways. I was under the impression at the time that was a good idea due to going to junior sports events in Stoke Mandeville and doing athletics type stuff; chucking things as far as possible like cricket balls for example. However, boccia being a target game and not a throw it as far as you can game, it didn’t make sense; and eventually when I was about 10 or 11, I realised that I could actually throw forwards and pointing at the target was a lot better at being accurate.
Wendy Harris: It was skill versus strength then, it’s playing to your strengths in terms of using the target?
David Smith: Yeah. Then once I realised that I could point and shoot, I then moved schools and sport was a really big part of the school life. Our school was a bit like St Trinians crossed with Hogwarts.
Wendy Harris: Sounds brilliant!
David Smith: But for people with disabilities, so we used to rock up to sports events in a massive coach with people with massive wheelchairs, we’d bully everybody else on the sports field. We’d pick up all the medals, we’d go back in our coaches, they’re all going into their rubbish little minibuses and we’d look down on them and wave at them as we went home.
Wendy Harris: Are you sure it wasn’t magic like Hogwarts and a little bit of bullying like Trinians? It sounds fun!
David Smith: There’s definitely no magic involved, but there was a lot of competitiveness. We tended to win what we took part in, and it wasn’t just boccia, it was all sorts of different sports: athletics, other Paralympics sort of sports within our remit. Eventually, I got quite good just through luck more than anything else, I was training regularly at Treloar’s, and I was playing against good opposition all the time and playing with good opposition all the time, and then we would go to competitions, and we’d go to regional championships; and again, Treloar’s would clean up and then we’d all go up to Sheffield to the nationals.
While the swimmers would go and do their swimming stuff, we would go and do our boccia stuff, all from the same coach, all in the same venue. The swimmers went straight down the corridor and we went right into the sports hall, yeah, and then come home and then at the end of the day, we’d come back with all these people that had either qualified for the British or got to quarter finals or whatever. Qualifying for the British was quite rare at that point in our group, because obviously that was national championships, so I actually managed to do it in Year 9.
I was the only one to do it and so my coach or my person that was running the boccia at the time, basically borrowed a minibus from the back of the school grounds. I say “borrowed”; there was no forms to fill in at that point you just nicked it basically, shoved me in the back, got the headmaster, involved, because they were good mates and shared the driving. We took a volunteer who was working at Treloar’s because she lived in Birmingham back at the same time, because it had all made sense. So, we dropped her off in Birmingham and we’d carry on to Scotland to a lovely place called Easter House, which was not so lovely, and we got lost, found our way, and I ended up winning the British Championships; no idea how, just beat the UK captain at the time who was going to Athens the year later. I think he retired after that.
Wendy Harris: Did it seem like a bit of dream, because it was all happening — well it shouldn’t have been happening.
David Smith: To be fair, I was just so young that I was loving it.
Wendy Harris: Were you 14, 15?
David Smith: 14 at the time. And when I came back having won the British Championships, that was my election campaign for the Head Boy for the next year, but I wasn’t the only one. We had a sprinter, called Ben Rushgrove, who also went to the Beijing Paralympics, who was the year above me, and he had just been selected for GB talent. We had hockey players who were really good, we had swimmers who were going to galas all over the country, so I was by no means the only — me winning the British Championships in boccia, I mean it was a big deal and obviously I was — I won the Head Boy thing for it, but actually it wasn’t as surprising as maybe it could have been.
If I look back at it now and think, “Wow that’s crazy”, I mean obviously that led to the pathway to the rest of my career, but it was weirdly normal at Treloar’s, it was just like, “Yeah, okay. Yeah, well done, good boy, carry on. Don’t get ahead of yourself, don’t get arrogant, win the next one”, kind of thing.
Wendy Harris: Did you have to ever beat any of your friends?
David Smith: Going back to Treloar’s and it was like going back to normal. You win the British Championships in a weekend in Scotland; you come back to Treloar’s and you’re back doing your GCSEs and then you’re taking part in hockey tournaments, and then the teacher’s telling you off for cheating in boccia because you got ahead of yourself and you didn’t read the rules properly and you threw two balls at once, which was against the rules at that point, and so I ended up losing that game.
I was brought back down to earth quite quickly, it wasn’t sitting on it. Then I was doing head boy stuff and so I was meeting governors and all that sort of stuff, and I was starting to shake hands with the bigwigs and going to these sorts of different events, so that sort of got me a bit more experience of communicating with people under high pressure situations and stuff. So yeah, again, winning the British was just part of it. It was just one of those things that we did, which was kind of weird but it was a crazy environment.
Wendy Harris: I’m guessing Beijing, that was 2008 was it, David?
David Smith: Yeah, five years later I was going to the Paralympics and basically after the British, everything became a whirlwind. I was selected for England camps, going to friendly internationals. I wasn’t on my own, there were other Treloar people that had been selected for the England Squad at that point, so we all went in that journey together. One of my best mates was my roommate whenever we went on these trips, and we trained together as well at Treloar’s, so again I was around successful people. It was never, “Myself and I”, like I said, there was another friend of mine was training for the Beijing Paralympics at the same time as I was, so obviously different sport, but again it was weirdly normal.
Wendy Harris: You’ve got so many other challenges as well, haven’t you, just in terms of wheelchair access, travelling, getting to and from.
David Smith: Yeah.
Wendy Harris: It’s got to be a military mission to get you anywhere, but I guess you’ve travelled the world with what you’ve done.
David Smith: Yeah, I’ve been all over the place and we do it so often, it’s just normal; and I was brought up in Treloar’s where anything was not a problem. We were expected to plan. They’d let us go — when I was 16, 17, they’d let me go to London on my own. They’d let me jump on a train, go to London. I went to see a friend who lived in Leicester and I would get the train to London, then drive my chair across London to King’s Cross, because I could do it faster than the taxis could get me across London.
Wendy Harris: I thought you were going to say that you’d memorised the A to Z for London or something then. You could side-line as a taxi driver.
David Smith: No, obviously when you’re driving a chair you can as the crow flies more or less, so I went across Charing Cross bridge and then obviously through Charing Cross Station and then straight up, straight to King’s Cross, then it was only about a mile or so and my chair did 7.5 miles an hour, so I could do it in about 18.5 minutes through London, which was faster than the taxis, which meant I could catch the earlier connection train.
I remember ringing up the railways assistance guys to book someone to get me on the train at the other end and them saying, “Do you want this train?” I’m like, “No, I’ll get the one before”. “How will you do that?” I said, “Well, I’ll go between the stations quickly”. “No, but there’s no way of getting there”. “Trust me, I’ll be there”.
Wendy Harris: There’s no stopping you is there, David. There’s really no stopping you.
David Smith: Yeah, so then I was travelling up with my mate to Sheffield for a boccia camp, obviously again leaving from Alton; Alton’s a really awkward place because of the trains. I’d have to get a train to Woking and back, so I’d actually end up getting some guys from Treloar’s on the bus to drop me off in Basingstoke so I wouldn’t have to do the dog leg, then I’d be up with my mate, who used to be at Treloar’s, he went to Southampton University, so we’d meet up in Basingstoke and then we’d go up together on the train, totally on our own.
Two disabled guys on the opposite ends of the train, because that’s how the train system works, and you’d hope that you didn’t have to transfer in Birmingham, because he wasn’t very good at the whole travel thing. So, I’d have to manage him and myself. I’d be, “Right, Ali get off. Now we get off. Are you awake? Yeah, get off”. He’s like, “There’s no one there”, “Put your feet in the door”, “Oh right, cool”. “Are your feet in the door? Can the door close?” “No”. “Excellent, they’ll come to you don’t worry”.
Wendy Harris: Not to cause another injury or anything.
David Smith: No, the doors have sensors on them so if you put the foot in the door, they won’t — they can’t close.
Wendy Harris: Yeah.
David Smith: Then the train driver gets annoyed and eventually tells someone to get us off.
Wendy Harris: This is what’s wonderful about talking to you really, David, is that you see the world through your own eyes and everything is normal to you. Yet, what you’re describing is allowing me, an able-bodied person, and the listeners really, to see it through your eyes and it’s a completely different world. We wouldn’t have to think half as hard as you have to, and yet you just embrace that as like just another adventure. It’s brilliant.
David Smith: Yeah, it’s all good. I’m a good problem-solver, so it’s kind of what I do.
Wendy Harris: Fair play to you, applause in the audience from my camp.
I ask everybody that comes on the show to think about one conversation that creates a pivotal moment for them; usually leads to something remarkable happening or a good realisation for something. Now, I never know what any of my guests bring along. David, are you ready to share your pivotal moment with us?
David Smith: Mine’s quite hard I think, because I can’t really pinpoint one pivotal moment. As you probably know with my life, I’ve probably given you a snippet of it, it just seems everything is sort of like little steppingstones each leading to a new adventure. I think probably there have been so many different conversations I’ve had over the years, I think in terms of independence I had a really good conversation with someone. When I was at Treloar’s again —
Wendy Harris: Shout out for Treloar’s.
David Smith: Yeah, no coincidence. One of the house managers, a guy called Ian Scott, really wise guy, he was so calm. He was calmness personified, even though he was the manager and he had to tell people off, he just oozed respect. Some people you just respect, and he was just one of those people that you didn’t even have to know the guy and you’d respect him.
He said to me one day, because we were talking about independence and living independently and whatever, and he said to me, “Dave”, because I’d said something stupid like, “Surely to be independent, you have to do everything yourself?” He said, “What about if you do everything yourself and it takes you four hours to get dressed and you then miss your work appointment and you end up doing nothing for the rest of the day; how independent is that? Whereas, if you’d have asked someone to help you, you’d have done it in 20 minutes, you’d be up, you’d be going to work, you’d be earning a living, you’d be coming home. Who is the more independent person? The person that can ask for help, get it done and then move onto the next thing; or the person that struggles to try and do it themselves”.
Wendy Harris: Ian is a very wise man.
David Smith: Yeah.
Wendy Harris: What did you say to him then, Dave?
David Smith: I didn’t say anything, he stumped me. You either bow in his reverence or you just go… but that kind of stuck with me, those sorts of philosophies of being really pragmatic in your approach to life.
Wendy Harris: Independence doesn’t mean that you have to be alone.
David Smith: That’s probably the one that stuck with me. There’s many different sorts of conversations I’ve had, I’ve probably had a couple since lockdown to be fair as well, sort of bringing out different mindsets. The thing I’m learning lately is that my way isn’t necessarily the best way for everybody. Everybody is different, everybody has their own unique assets to bring to the table. Because my way works for me, doesn’t mean it will work for everybody and that’s okay.
As long as people embrace their own skills and maximise what they’ve got, all I can ask for is they do the work — because I’m a team captain in the boccia squad, so I’m trying to lead my team obviously to pick up a medal in Tokyo and I’ve got to bring them with me. Obviously, being a successful player there’s a lot – it is almost inferred that they should do everything you’re doing because you’re the successful one, but actually in my mind I’m thinking, “Well actually no, because they’re not me”.
Wendy Harris: Yes, you need to learn from everybody else.
David Smith: Actually, they need to learn from themselves what works for them. I just point them, I’m just a signpost. I can share my story, I can say, “Look, I’ve been down that path, it’s a ditch”.
Wendy Harris: Yeah, mind the hedge.
David Smith: Yeah, but equally I can say, “Look, that’s the destination. This is how I got to that destination, but there are other routes you can take”.
Wendy Harris: It’s embracing everybody’s uniqueness really, isn’t it? The journey is going to be different for everybody. Getting from A to Z may sound the same for everybody, but it’s all those letters from B to Y in between, isn’t it, that’s going to make it a different story?
David Smith: That’s kind of what I’ve been learning over lockdown is being able to — and probably that’s been the benefit for lockdown for me, is being able to just take a step back and go, “Yeah, I don’t have all the answers, and that’s okay and I don’t need all the answers”.
Wendy Harris: It comes back to what you were saying about your conversation with Ian though really, isn’t it, is that independence is about being able to ask for help and for advice and for support?
David Smith: Yeah!
Wendy Harris: Dave, for somebody so young, you are very wise.
David Smith: I’ve been surrounded by good people; it helps.
Wendy Harris: It does make a massive difference, doesn’t it? You’re busy training now for Tokyo, which has been delayed this year?
David Smith: Yeah, it was supposed to be last year and they’re moving to this summer, so it’s not a massive deal. It means that Paris is going to be a bit closer, but it should be good. Touch wood, everything’s going ahead as normal. Obviously there’s going to be different restrictions and different protocols based on COVID and stuff which is fine, but the actual games itself are going ahead, as far as we know. We just train for that and I’m in the best place I’ve been in terms of mentally and physically, even though I’ve had lockdown and not been training for over a year and not had the competition for over a year, so I think the time off has actually done me a favour; so yeah, it’s interesting. Not many people can spend a year off and be stronger than they were when they left, but I think I’ve managed to do that, so that’s pretty cool.
Wendy Harris: Sometimes it’s important to take that step back, it does actually strengthen you doesn’t it? It helps those roots grow stronger as well than constantly being busy and being on the move. Well, Dave, I wish you all the best in Tokyo. Do let me know how you get on, won’t you, and I will share with all the listeners after the event. If anybody wants to pick up the conversation with you after listening to your story today, where’s the best place for them to find you?
David Smith: I’ve got a YouTube channel, so I do that quite a lot in terms of updates on my story and stuff, but probably the best place to catch me is probably Instagram in terms of you can see me put a live every day sort of posting and stuff. You’re welcome to grab me so I’m @Smithy2389 on Instagram; feel free to follow me and I’ll keep everybody up to date with what’s going on.
Wendy Harris: Brilliant, Dave. I’ll make sure that the details go in the show notes, so that it’s easy for everybody to find you. It’s been wonderful to have you on, thank you so much for sharing that insight into boccia, into independence and I wish you all the best in Tokyo, thank you ever so much, Dave. We’ll see you again soon.
For the listeners, make sure you hit up the channel www.makingconversationscount.studio/podcast, all the platforms are there, hit the button so you don’t miss an episode; we’ve got some fabulous guests joining us.
Preparations are underway for the Japanese Paralympians to go and fight for their medals again this year. I know David is busy with his training and we’re going to be rooting for you all the way and wish you all the luck in the world on that boccia pitch. David is it a pitch? You’ll have to tell us how you get on.
In the meantime if you want to take up a read for your summer break, do check out my Making Conversations Count bestselling book. The link’s in all the comments and you’ll find out how to improve your conversations. Happy to always grab a chinwag and those powerup sessions are going really well. Until next time, thanks for listening.
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